Tajomaru: Avenging Blade

Monday, 31 January 2011 09:51

Set 500 years ago in Japan’s late Muromachi period, “Tajomaru” is a familiar tale of greed, betrayal, love and honour. Society is in decline and the forces of law and order are struggling to cope. Two young brothers in a high ranking family graciously save the skin of similarly-aged thief. Little do they realise that this act of kindness will have a profound and deadly influence on their lives a decade or so later.

The elder brother, Nobutsuna, is in line to become the Shogun’s deputy, a position of real power. The younger brother, Naomitsu is content with his lot, especially as he is in love with Ako, the local Great Councillor’s daughter. Roll forwards ten years, and the Shogun puts a massive spanner in the works; he will only permit one of the brothers to become his deputy if they marry Ako and inherit her father’s wealth and status.

Tajomaru - Avenging Blade on DVDNaomitsu (Shun Oguri) is obviously fairly unhappy about this decree, and tries to convince his skeptical brother (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi – “Ip Man”) that he is only interested in marrying Ako (Yuki Shibamoto). He does not want any of the power or wealth that the Shogun is offering. Naomitsu and Ako flee the court, and that is when Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka) – the thief they saved and took under their wing years earlier – reveals he is prepared to betray them both in a dastardly bid to usurp them.

Where, you may ask, does the titular “Tajomaru” come into this tragic tale? Well, Tajomaru is an infamous bandit with a very special, virtually indestructible sword that is just as well known as the man himself. Naomitsu and Ako encounter him in a forest, and to cut a long story a little shorter, Naomitsu takes over his mantle and sword, rather like Robin Hood. He joins a band of cheeky thieves and robs from the rich to give to the poor. Needless to say, this is a temporary diversion as one day he will confront Sakuramaru and seek his revenge.

The plot has all the elements of a classic drama, and it is apparently loosely based on a couple of classic short stories by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s – tales that famous director Akira Kurosawa developed in 1950. Unfortunately there are several flaws in this interpretation that prevent the movie succeeding. Firstly, the “Avenging Blade” subtitle suggests there is far more samurai-style action than the film contains.

The fight scenes are few and far between, and when they do arrive they are typically rather uninspiring. Perhaps director Hiroyuki Nakano wanted to make the battles more realistic, with most slashes of the deadly blades resulting in fatal injuries. Today’s audiences expect quite overblown fights, and by contrast these are fairly minimalist with the exception of the final confrontation. Their brevity is all the more obvious because there are so many long, talky scenes in between them.

The second reason this film failed to grip me is that, despite running for over two hours, it never feels like the characters and their relationships have been fleshed out sufficiently for the terrible acts of betrayal to mean as much as they should.

The tone of the movie also lurches around alarmingly, from moments of sadness and fury to knockabout humour overlaid by a cheesy pop/rock soundtrack. It feels like either there were in fact two directors or just one very schizophrenic man who cannot make up his mind who his target audience is, and consequently swings violently from one style to the other, banishing any semblance of emotional gravity in the process.

Finally, whilst the costumes and scenery are colourful and occasionally delightful to behold, I could never escape the feeling that this is in fact a TV movie and not a lavish, big budget action-drama. The cast is quite small and the focus is always up close. There simply is not enough spectacle to keep the movie buoyant. Had the characters been blessed with a little more depth, this may not have been as much of a concern.

“Tajomaru” is not a disaster, is it simply disappointingly unadventurous and unpolished. As such I sadly cannot recommend it and would suggest that fans of this genre check out “Kamui – The Lone Ninja”, “Little Big Soldier” or “14 Blades” instead. Reviews of all these can be found elsewhere on this website.

The scant DVD extras on the disc include a 20-minute making of that features far too many clips and no enough behind-the-scenes content, and a couple of trailers.

“Taromaru: Avenging Blade” (2009) is out now, courtesy of Manga Entertainment. The main feature has a running time of 131 minutes approx, carries a ‘12’ certificate and the DVD retails for £15.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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