“Those who are able to visually scrutinize the (…) detailed historical narrative space will (…) enjoy the narrative’s atmosphere and appreciate the pacifistic message about tradition and craftsmanship that this atmospheric narrative formulates.”
Despite having made nine full-length feature films, Yoshinari Nishikori still remains a rather unknown director internationally. Without a doubt his latest narrative Tatara Samurai, a movie about traditions that seemingly capitalizes on the western need for more jidai-geki, has changed that.
The respect for traditions that Yoshinari Nishikori expresses with his latest narrative is already present in his two previous narratives Konshin (2013) and Wasao (2011) – two narratives that are more oriented towards Japanese audiences. In Konshin Nishikori highlighted the traditional sumo game that is held to celebrate the moving of Mizuwakasu’s shrine, while in Wasao some traditions, like the Nebutsu Festival, are used to show how the relationship between the main character and the Akita dog evolves. Nevertheless Tatara Samurai is different, as Nishikori, born and raised in Izumo, may have delivered his most personal project to date (General-note 1).
Tatara Samurai will be screened at Japan-Filmfest Hamburg, which is held between 23 and 27 Mai. The full program will be released later.
One day, a group of bandits attack Tatara village, a rural village famous for its steelworks and craftsmanship of swords. While samurai come to the rescue of the townsmen, Kosuke’s mother, while trying to escape with her young son Gosuke, is nevertheless killed.
Several years later, Gosuke (Shô Aoyagi) is poised to become the next murage, i.e. the black-smiting grand-master and the only person who knows ‘Tatara’, the ultimate secret to make steel, and to follow in his father’s footsteps (narra-note 1). As the quality of the steel depends on the state of being of the Murage, it is of essential importance that the successor has a strong kokoro.
At one point, the cargo of Hejiro (Kosuke Toyohara), who is also the swordsmanship trained of the village, is attacked by bandits. In his attempt to defend himself and the cargo, he is killed. Gosuke then decides, as he wants to be able to defend the town and the villagers, to become a samurai and leave his hometown and beautiful fiance Okuni (Anna Ishii).
Tatara Samurai seems to tell the subjective path of Gosuke and his search of becoming to protect the village he holds dear. In this search, the first answer he finds is to become a samurai – an answer of violence. But confronted with the death and destruction, i.e. the Real, that reins on the battlefield and the dishonorable acts that warfare supports, Gosuke is confronted with the subjective impossibility to realize his heroic fantasy. Furthermore, this Real uncovers the unbridgeable gap between the rural life – Gosuke’s hometown – and the war of Oda Nobunaga that is changing the face of Japan.
But while this confrontation is important to Gosuke’s subjective path, this confrontation remains rather undeveloped in the narrative. As the confrontation with the Real is glanced over, the spectator is not really able to feel the impact of the Real on Gosuke’s subjective path. This may have been a big problem if Tatara Samurai was a subject-focused narrative, but this glancing-over ultimately reveals that Gosuke’s subjective path, is not the main focus of the narrative. Gosuke’s narrative merely acts as a vehicle to explore something more important – something that concerns the narrative space as such (Acting-note 1). It is thus not so much the identification with Gosuke’s path to realize the subject he wants to be that engages the spectator but, through his subjective journey, the sympathy one gets for the village and the tradition and craftsmanship that it represents.
The main focus of the narrative is nothing other than the village or, more concrete, the tradition that this village represents. And it is by this focus that Gosuke’s subjective search is able to find its satisfying end and, by way of a very pacifistic act, underline the where true strength and true power lies – giving meaning to what a strong kokoro really means.
The cinematography of Tatara Samurai, as beautifully shot by Akira Sako, is dynamic and characterized by a tendency for fluent but often subtle movement. Fixed shots are nevertheless present and mainly applied to underline facial expressions, expressions of emotion, and to give weight to vocal expressions or conversations. This fixation works well to emphasize certain narrative nodes and brings, for instance, the subjective importance of Gosuke’s choice to leave his hometown – and the reactions of Okuni and Shinnosuke Amago (Akira) to this decision – sensibly to the fore (Cine-note 1).
While fluent moving shots are used to frame the well-crafted sword-fighting action, shaky moving shots often slip into the cinematographical mix. These shifts to shakiness aim to underline the subjective disarray of a given situation – in the opening sequence for instance the defenseless villagers are in subjective disarray – but without losing focus on the way of the sword (cine-note 1).
Besides highlighting the natural beauty of Japan, the leisurely exploration of the narrative space aims – and this is the true focus of the narrative – to provide a respectful and detailed exploration of 16th century rural life and its traditions (cine-note 2, cine-note 3). While many aspects of this rural life, e.g. the interactions between villagers and the daily chores, are only framed in the background, it is nevertheless obvious that the leisurely pace of the narrative is exploited by Yoshinari Nishikori to paint a historically detailed narrative space. This painting truly enables one to experience how a rural village, exteriors as well as interiors, would have looked like, how the ritualistic process of steel-making went, how this process is linked with Shinto – Japan’s traditional vitalistic belief-system, how traditions (e.g. Kagura, …) are used, and how women had to traditionally position themselves within the functioning of the village-society.
The atmosphere of the historically accurate space is enriched by a thoughtful approach to ambient sound – revealing the importance of nature for the functioning of the village – and by the effective application of non-oppressive music, that does not fail to make some moments truly mesmerizing.
For those who expect Tatara Samurai to be a heroic samurai tale, riddled with truly thrilling action, it might be disappointing to learn that the narrative never aimed to deliver such kind of narrative. The aspect of samurai is but a mere means to get to the heart (kokoro) of the narrative, i.e. Tatara or, more concretely put, the tradition of steelmaking as such. And while Tatara Samurai is never able to touch the spectator that deeply with Gosuke’s narrative, those who are able to visually scrutinize the extremely detailed historical narrative space will surely enjoy the narrative’s atmosphere and appreciate the pacifistic message about tradition and craftsmanship that this atmospheric narrative formulates.
General-note 1: It is also interesting to read the following interview with Yoshinari Nishikôri and Akira Sako to understand the effort they did to recreate a 16th century village: https://www.fdtimes.com/2016/08/09/tatara-samurai-film-on-film/
Narra-note 1: It is important to know that the narrative is based on an existing tradition of steel making. The signifier Tamahagane refers to the steel made in this tradition. This tradition uses iron sand (satetsu) and a Tatara – the clay bathtub-like furnace. The person who oversees this process and decides the ratio of the parts is called the Murage.
Cine-note 1: Another example of the use of shakiness is to be found in the training scene. The time before striking one’s sword – the time to decide how to approach one’s opponent – and the clashing of swords – the actual execution of one’s approach – are framed with the same subtle composed movement as mentioned before, while the impact of the sword (on the body) – the resolution of the fight and the moment of subjective disarray – is empowered by a quick shift to shakiness.
Cine-note 2: Fixation is sometimes used to introduce characters that are or will become important to Gosuke. Isolated fixed shots show the beauty of the world – the vistas – or focus on one aspect of a given event, e.g. there are fixed shots in the framing of the steel-making process, fixed shots in certain action scenes, … etc. Fixed shots are manly used to frame scenes that play out in interiors.
Cine-note 3: In most cases, wide-shots and very wide-shots are used to frame the beauty of the Japan’s scenery.
Acting-note 1: Shô Aoyagi is decent in his role as Gosuke. Furthermore, the supporting cast all deliver performances that support the believability of the narrative space.