Tajomaru – Avenging Blade (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Manga Entertainment) Running time: 126 minutes
In the late Muromachi period, the two young sons of the Shogun’s deputy, Nobutsuna and Naomitsu Hatakeyama take pity on a young orphan boy caught stealing food and take him in as their servant, naming him Sakuramaru. When they reach adulthood, the father of the brothers’ childhood friend and mutual love interest Lady Ako (Yuki Shibamoto) dies and a decree is issued that Ako must marry the next deputy. As the eldest son Nobutsuna (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) will inherit that position, thus this befalls on him, fully aware that Ako is in love with younger brother Naomitsu (Shun Oguri). Also aware of his elder brother’s feelings for Ako, Naomitsu takes Ako and flees with her to the mountains, where fate is about to deal them a very life changing blow. Meanwhile, Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka), now a retainer to the deputy, puts a plan into action to gain the power he always wished he had.
Based on the short story Yabu no Naka by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the name Tajomaru may sound familiar to keen eyed film fans – for it is the name of the bandit from legendary tale of Rashomon, famously portrayed by the mighty Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa’s classic film of 1950. Based on the above plot summary one may be wandering how this feral thug fits into the picture. Despite being a pivotal character in the plot, Tajomaru effectively only appears briefly in the film – at first. Confused? Then I shall elaborate.
The fleeing couple of Naomitsu and Ako encounter the bandit Tajomaru (Hiroki Matsukata) in the forests of the mountains and naturally a fight ensues. Despite his impressive sword skills Naomitsu is knocked unconscious leaving Ako to fend for herself. When Naomitsu comes to he sees that Tajomaru has apparently defiled Ako and refuses to stay with Naomitsu, ordering Tajomaru to kill him before joining the bandit. Using the subsequent fight as a distraction, Ako makes a run for it. Naomitsu defeats Tajomaru and, according to the tradition, must now take the name of the great bandit as well as his powerful sword. Feeling he has nothing left without Ako, Naomitsu adopts this new persona, and along with a group of petty bandits he encounters deeper in the forest, he is now the feared bandit Tajomaru.
Got that? Because it’s about to get even more complex. Upon hearing the news that his brother Nobutsuna is dead, leaving the Shogun (Kenichi Hagiwara) without a deputy, Naomitsu returns to the capital to reclaim his rightful position as the next deputy. However, when he arrives he is thrown into prison and is only recognised as Tajomaru since there is already a deputy named Naomitsu in place. To go any further would spoil the rest of the plot but suffice to say there are plenty of swerves and developments to come.
If you have a headache from reading such a convoluted summary then allow me to assuage your concerns by telling you it is far more straightforward in execution since there are many subplots and incidences that help flesh out the picture. But at just over two hours in length, this film has a slight issue with how each part is handled: quickly rushing through some key developments while drawing others out to the point of ennui. This allows the story to fall foul of the dreaded plot hole – such a the true motives for the main protagonist which is never revealed or how the group of bandits Naomitsu leads happily go from violent reprobates to moral philanthropists in the blink of an eye. No to mention other key moments which are so contrived and too convenient, they threaten to undermine the emotional drama which is at the heart of this tale.
For some this will probably be minor grievances since the film is aesthetically pleasing with some luscious shots of the Japanese countryside and the impressive set pieces and costumes. The cast largely do their best to inhabit their roles – Shun Oguri does well enough to take his character from pampered noble boy to fearless rogue and equips himself admirably during the fight scenes, then has to wrench every drop of emotion from his body during the trial scene – while the main protagonist feels that the pantomime villain route is the best way to go. But the biggest gripe to be held against this film is the god awful soundtrack. For a historical drama modern electro J-Pop or heavy rock is not the sort of musical accompaniment expects to hear. It is not just incongruent to the visuals of Feudal Japan but serves to distract the viewer from the action onscreen. In one of the lighter moment during an impromptu knees-up involving Naomitsu’s gang and some poor villagers, one of the bandits breaks out in a rap! I kid thee not!
Ultimately Tajomaru – Avenging Blade is an example of what happens when one tries to over-think something. The ambition of this project appears to be to produce an historical epic worthy of Kurosawa but instead delivered a protracted if earnest outing where less would definitely have been more. It is not without any entertainment value but it lacks finesse and suffers from maladroit handling on the production front to be considered a genuine success.
The Making Of Tajomaru
Original Japanese Trailer
Ratings – Main feature ***/5
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