A samurai pic for the post-“Jackass”/”Takeshi’s Castle” extreme-stunts generation, Japanese production “Scabbard Samurai” reps an odd blend of goofy, sometimes cruel slapstick and straight-up swords-and-honor period drama. Onetime TV comedian-turned-helmer Hitoshi Matsumoto’s third feature, about a disgraced samurai forced to make a depressed child smile or commit ritual suicide, ultimately proves frustrating as sloppy timing ruins some perfectly good gags, while the would-be tragic conclusion feels unearned. Pic cumed a less-than-heroic $6 million after its domestic release in June, but could develop a small cult following abroad like the helmer’s previous feature, “Symbol.”
Bespectacled, poker-faced Takaaki Nomi, who started out as an amateur on helmer Matsumoto’s TV show “Working Middle-Aged Men Theater,” here plays samurai Kanjuro Nomi, who, after the death of his wife, symbolically removes his sword from its scabbard and abandons his duties to go on the run with his prepubescent daughter Tae (wee scene-stealer Sea Kumada). After three assassins — femme O’Ryu the Shamisen Player (Ryo), Pakyun the Pistol Boy (Rolly), and the magnificently titled Gori Gori the Chiropractikiller (Fukkin Zen-Nosuke) — fail to slay him, Nomi falls into the hands of the Lord of the Tako Clan (Jun Kunimura), who imprisons him.
If Nomi can make the Lord’s young son smile for the first time since the kid’s mother died (from the same epidemic that killed Nomi’s wife), he can live. If he fails, he must commit seppuku, but he has 30 days to try a gag each day. Nomi starts off fastening bits of fruit to his face and snorting noodles up his nose, but his efforts escalate to ever more dangerous levels (shooting himself out of a cannon, pretending to be a human firecracker), as the kid proves to be one tough audience.
With his pug-faced features and cuddly paunch, thesp Nomi cuts an adequately comic figure even before he starts sticking things up his nose, but the pic’s efficacy will hinge on whether auds find this kind of self-injury intrinsically funny. Scenes go on just a bit too long too often, but just when the crushing grind of gags starts to get repetitive, Matsumoto picks up the pace and opts to develop Nomi’s relationship with his kindly jailors (Itsuji Itao as the more dignified one and Tokio Emoto as his splendidly gormless sidekick) and daughter Tae, who is initially disgusted with her father’s unbecoming behavior.
However, the tonal shift from cartoonish, knockabout japery to tearjerking drama in the final stretch will alienate some viewers, especially Westerners not accustomed to the more mercurial emotional weather of Japanese cinema; it doesn’t help that much depends on understanding the sacrosanct nature of Nipponese codes of honor.
Pic looks OK, with classy use of period details and ingenious Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in the later stages of Nomi’s ordeal. With a little script tinkering, “Scabbard Samurai” could provide a plausible vehicle for a remake for someone like Terry Gilliam, albeit on a bigger budget.