“Tatara Samurai”, written and directed by Yoshinari Nishikori, takes an interesting approach to the samurai genre by telling the story not of a samurai, but of a man whose profession is to be the village Murage, in charge of producing the steel. Through various twists of fate, he is led on a journey of discovery about what true strength means.

Tatara Samurai is screening at the 19th Japan Film Fest Hamburg

The small village of Tatara is renowned for its steel production. The Murage is a respected position, the one who oversees production of this precious metal. The protagonist Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) is due to inherit his father’s title of Murage, but longs instead to leave the village and become a samurai. When a trader named Yohei (Masahiko Tsugawa) comes to the village with news of Oda Nobunaga’s army and the recent invention of the guns that are said to revolutionise war, Gosuke decides to leave his heritage and become a soldier. His childhood friend, Shinnosuke, who was raised to become a samurai, tries to warn him from this path.

Writer and director Yoshinari Nishikori has created a spectacular film with many lingering shots of landcapes, sunsets or the village bringing a sense of respect to the natural world that underpins the themes of the story. Both the sets and the costumes show an attention to period detail that really takes you back in time. It is interesting to see everyday tasks, washing clothes in the river, making food, and in particular the steel and sword production that plays a pivotal role in the plot. Everything looks realistic and the supporting cast do an incredible job of bringing the past to life.

The film is conservative with its direction style, which plays to its advantage as an historical epic. The action scenes are shot to highlight the well-choreographed fights and skill of the performances, without any quick cuts, close-ups, or other editing tricks to distract the viewer. Likewise, the dramatic scenes are given enough room to breathe and the audience is allowed to think over the  meaning of what is happening. The piano and violin score are matched perfectly to the films moments of tension, excitement and melancholy. Along with the beautiful cinematography, the music makes the film immensely enjoyable to watch. The story focuses on a small village during the historical period of Oda Nobunaga, and in doing so allows us to delve into what this period meant for everyday people. While many films show the life of lords and samurai, this lets the audience experience the war from another perspective and also gives viewers the opportunity to consider the themes of war, violence, heritage and destiny more carefully.

Sho Aoyagi gives a moving performance as Gosuke, a man who is torn between tradition and doing what he feels is right. He is naive, passionate, and often confused about which road to take, and the audience can feel his various changes of heart throughout the film. Akira does a sterling job as Shinnosuke, born to a noble life and fulfilling his destiny dutifully especially in his swordsmanship. Masahiko Tsugawa plays the trader Yohei with an entertaining charisma, though he is a conflicted character, torn between financial gain and steering a path through a dangerous historical period.

The film has an unusual message for a samurai movie in that it gives us a true reflection of the horrors of war. One of the characters explains that death really is the end and this is something that is made clear later. Death and war are not celebrated or glorified, they are shown to be a tragedy and the end of a human life. The film asks the audience to celebrate life including the simple every day things that are taken for granted and to protect these. It also doesn’t present a clear cut hero and villain narrative, instead focusing on the seemingly ineradicable problem of violence itself. In fact, Gosuke’s journey is one of realising that the samurai spirit he is seeking may not necessarily be about fighting. An exceptionally well made historical drama with great action and a thought-provoking message.

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