Souzemon is on a three year revenge quest….to avenge his samurai father’s death at the hands of a common fisherman. Getting knifed in the back by a fisherman is one step next to getting killed by a snake bite on your way to an epic battle. Unacceptable. We all know that if you carry around two samurai swords the only way out of here is via glorious battle slashing or hari-kiri. Old age? Forget it. If you can hobble around on a cane you can hobble around on your sword.
Problem is the end of the Edo age (late 18th century Japan), not many battles are taking place. “Swords are better used for cutting radishes” and revenge quests like Souzemons are seen as quaint throwbacks, akin to tournament level competitions for Nintendo64. Souzemon struggles with who he is, his quest, his feelings and emotions of which he seems to be given more than a fair share of, and his growing feelings of affection towards his neighbors, the rag-taggle inhabitants of “row houses” aka projects of the early 1900’s.
No one seems to have any money (obviously) and everyone is constantly covered in dirt. They eat whatever animals happen to be scrounging through their hood and sell their own “specialty” fertilizer. Souzemon, of a much higher class, loves them anyway. Director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at creating these little families dynamics and most of the film is the inter-dynamics of all these people living in such poverty and paper thin proximity. Souzemon much rather be teaching calligraphy, taking care of the kids and generally keeping to himself with books and a game of GO (Japanese Chess) than be out fighting. A disgrace to his clan, his love of the quiet life and introverted disposition endear him intellectually to the families in the row houses and he to them. He comes to question the entire ethos of killing for honor as his search for the man who killed his father drags on.
Koreeda , renowned for his exquisitely filmed, quiet family dramas such as Maborosi and Still Walking, again serves to create a character study instead of any type of action typically relegated to films with the word samurai in them. He’s a master tactician at creating Japanese comedic gold that can easily translate to other cultures. The Japanese love of overstating the obvious, dry humor and tendency to ridicule through tone are excellently displayed here. What is different in this case, is his desire to use much more of a staged approach, replete with slapstick. States Koreeda, “I wanted to create a big lie, meaning the opposite of the documentary-style, naturalist, contemporary films I’ve been doing…. So far I’ve tried to use naturalism to search for reality, but now I will try total fiction to search for that reality”. For sure he went the other way….and at times it felt a little like watching a samurai movie on the Lifetime television for women channel. Very light, a little sweet, easy on the eyes.