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Tajomaru – Avenging Blade (2009,Japan)

25/09/2011

Director: Hiroyuki Nakano       Starring: Shun Oguri, Yuki Shibamoto, Kei Tanaka

Tajomaru, in case you didn’t know, is the famous forest bandit from Rashomon and the man whose trial forms the basis of that story of different perspectives as each of the witnesses at the trial recount a different version of events. Tajomaru – The Avenging Blade, as you might imagine, owes rather a lot to Rashomon, riffing on it’s themes and concepts within a period Samurai piece that has been made in a somewhat contemporary style.

Naomitsu Hatakeyama (Shun Oguri) is the younger brother of the next in line to the office of Deputy to the Shogun. As a child, he saves a young thief , Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka), from punishment. Sakuramara becomes like a brother to them. When the time comes for Naomitsu’s brother to become Deputy, Sakuramaru (who has gained the favour of the Shogun) betrays the family in order to become Deputy himself. Whilst on the run, Naomitsu has a chance encounter with Tajomaru (a mischievous performance by Hiroki Matsukata that steals the film) and subsequently becomes a bandit himself. When he learns of Sakuramara’s plot he must make a difficult choice – keep the freedom that a life of banditry has given him or return to the strictures of court life to reclaim the title that is rightfully his?

As far as Samurai films go, this is no 13 Assassins. Tonally, it is all over the place drifting from serious drama to action movie to comedy with little regard for how the scenes sit together. There is an anachronistic score which sometimes works (a sword fight being scored with faintly industrial electronic music seems to work) but mostly fails to impress, especially the pop punk nonsense that accompanies the bandit’s antics when they are out on the rob. This is hardly as cringeworthy as the utterly out of place and somewhat bizarre ‘bandit rap’ (I kid you not) which they may well have gotten away with in a film that had declared itself to be overtly comic but here really jars when it’s dropped in between the deadly serious betrayal/vengeance/lost love drama.

To be honest I quite liked the more light hearted moments of the film. I think I would have preferred if it had kept this tone throughout as it fails to fully deliver on the harder elements, although how much of that is due to the fact it can’t make up its mind what sort of film it wants to be I can’t be sure. Action wise, the fight scenes are competent, falling short of spectacular but definitely satisfactory. Naomitsu’s duel with Tajomaru is particularly good as is the scene where his bandit brother’s kick off with Sakuramaru’s henchmen. By and large it’s low impact, bloodless stuff that for some reason made me think of the seminal seventies Japanese TV series Monkey.

The Rashomon references come back into play with the attempts at complexity between the characters as they judge each other’s motivations without being in possession of all the facts but to be honest the flashbacks and narrative strands that reveal the truth to Naomitsu feel like a heavy handed affectation in an effort to continue the association with that (far superior) story rather than a convincing element of this one. Once again the film suffers for a lack of clear vision, not sure whether it wants to be big, dumb and full of fun or some kind of clever comment on the nature of honesty and betrayal, failing to fulfill either remit in the process.

Despite all this I did actually enjoy Tajomaru. As a piece of disposable entertainment you could do a lot worse and there’s just enough substance here to make it worth your time. If you have the choice though I would suggest watching Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon or, if only for the sake of novelty, the actually rather good and I think largely unknown 1964 Wild West remake The Outrage (starring Edward G Robinson, Paul Newman and William Shatner no less) as either will prove more stimulating than Tajomaru.

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