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Samurai action films have been enjoying a definite resurgence in Japanese cinema of late, with countless directors and hip young stars trying their hand at breathing new life into the time honoured form. “Tajomaru: Avenging Blade” is a prime example of this trend, being a revisioning of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s enduring short story ‘In the Grove’, famously adapted for the screen as “Rashomon” by the legendary Kurosawa back in 1950. The film was directed by Nakano Hiroyuki (“Stereo Future”, “Have a Nice Day”) and stars popular heartthrob Oguri Shun (“Sukiyaki Western Django”, “Crows Zero”) in the titular lead role, with support from Shibamoto Yuki “(Bandage”), Kyosuke Yabe (“Samurai Zombie”), Tanaka Kei (“Suicide Club”, “Killer Virgin Road”) and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (“Ip Man”). The 2009 release was a success, and with anime and manga adaptations in the pipeline, it now arrives on region 2 DVD through Manga Entertainment, coming with a respectable haul of extras including a making of documentary and the usual clutch of trailers.
Set in Japan during the late Muromachi period, the film’s new take on the source material is to flesh out the character of the bandit Tajomaru. It kicks off with brothers Naomitsu and Nobutsuna Hatakeyama (Oguri Shun and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) trying to figure out which of them will inherit the family title of steward to the Shogun, and which will marry joint childhood sweetheart Ako (Shibamoto Yuki). After her father dies, the choice is made for them, when as well as choosing the elder Nobutsuna for the steward role, the Shogun also stipulates that he must marry Ako. Matters are complicated by the scheming Sakuramaru (Tanaka Kei), an adopted friend of the brothers, who turns them against each other, and Naomitsu flees with Ako. While Sakuramaru attempts to dispose of Nobutsuna to further his own ambitions, the younger brother encounters the bandit Tajomaru in the forest, who ravishes poor Ako before she manages to escape. Naomitsu kills the villain, and despairing at his lot in life decides to take on his identity. However, his past soon catches up with him and when he heads back to the family home he finds a most unpleasant surprise awaiting him.
Though it may sound a little convoluted, “Tajomaru: Avenging Blade” makes for surprisingly engaging and involving viewing, thanks in part to the obvious strength of the original text, and in part to some well paced story telling from director Nakano Hiroyuki. Wisely, the film doesn’t really try to emulate Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and by focusing on the bandit character it just about manages to find its own identity, not only compared to the original, but to the myriad of other similarly themed efforts of recent years. Whilst the revelations and character shifts that are paced throughout are likely to be familiar to many viewers, they are still effective, and the film holds the interest all the way through to the end despite a running time of over two hours. The script itself is generally well-judged, and though some of the supporting characters, Naomitsu’s bandit gang in particular, are a touch silly and one dimensional, the main protagonists and their relationships are more than enough to add a little depth and emotion. On this score it certainly helps that the acting is of a decent standard, and although Oguri Shun has the unenviable job of stepping into a role made famous by Mifune Toshiro, he acquits himself well, as does Shibamoto Yuki.
Unsurprisingly, the film does make quite a few concessions to appealing to a wider and more modern audience, though thankfully none of these are too grating, aside from a pretty odd choice of musical score, which features some dance and even semi-rap tracks. Though initially this doesn’t sit too well with the film’s more serious aims, it comes to fit the mood reasonably well, and after a while kind of fades into the background. The film doesn’t overdo the swordplay or add in too much unnecessary action, with Nakano Hiroyuki managing to neatly blend in a few set pieces and to break up some of the longer stretches of dialogue. All of this combines well to keep the film moving along, and means that it ticks most of the blockbuster movie boxes without sacrificing too much in the way of substance.
Along with some impressive production values, this gives “Tajomaru: Avenging Blade” a real air of quality, and helps it to stand out from the crowd, not only as a creditable new take on “Rashomon” but also in its own right. Though there’s nothing particularly new here, as a modern samurai film it’s well executed and entertaining, and despite an offbeat soundtrack should still be enjoyed even by purists.
Hiroyuki Nakano (director) / Ryûnosuke Akutagawa (based upon the novel), Shinichi Ichikawa (screenplay)
CAST: Shun Oguri … Naomitsu Hatakeyama
Yuki Shibamoto … Ako
Kei Tanaka … Sakuramaru
Kyôsuke Yabe … Michikane
Hiroyuki Ikeuchi … Nobutsuna Hatakeyama
Hirotarô Honda … Hidetaka Kuriyama
Hiroki Matsukata … Tajomaru