Scabbard Samurai is Hitoshi Matsumoto’s third time in the director’s chair, but the first time for him to shy away from the leading role. For both Big Man Japan (大日本人) and Symbol (シンボル) Matsumoto was not only in charge of writing and directing, but also starred in both, but baton has now been passed to Taaki Nomi, a complete unknown in the world of Japanese cinema, a man that Matsumoto met and found so hilarious, he asked him to star in his next feature film.
Anyone familiar with Matsumoto’s other work may be surprised by the subtlety at work here, and the emotions that this slapstick movie can evoke. The basic premise of the film is that an aged, swordless Samurai flees from a bounty, with his young daughter in tow. Within the first 9 minutes of the film, our weary protagonist is stabbed in the back, shot in the head and victim to some rather violent chiropractic work.
After facing death three times, he and his daughter are caught and arrested, only to find themselves in front of the fief’s Shogun, a man who has recently lost his wife and whose son has not smiled since her death. The law of the land states that every arrested criminal has thirty days to make the young mourner smile, in return, they can earn their freedom.
To begin with, our Scabbard Samurai relies on basic physical comedy, which he delivers with such deadpan stillness, that you will no doubt find yourself chuckling; but unfortunately for him, his audience doesn’t appreciate this simplicity. As the days pass by, his daughter (Sea Kumada) goes from begging her father to kill himself in an attempt to save what little dignity he has left, to energetically hosting her father’s his live events. His guards become his comedic writers, thinking of ever more elaborate ways to find a laugh, and his would-be-assassins become his biggest fans, coming to each of the performances and cheering for his success.
Although littered with slapstick comedy, the film shows the lengths comedians go through to gain just a single chuckle, with Matsumoto directly quoting some of the routines from his earlier days in the comedic duo, Down Town, which have left him prematurely frail at the tender age of 48 (his knees being so weak after operations, he is often carried downstairs whilst on television shows). Our protagonist is all but mute, with just a handful of lines throughout the entire movie, this doesn’t stop him becoming a character that you will no doubt be cheering for however.
The film is far more balanced than Matsumoto’s earlier work, with an ending that the film deserves, instead of the oddball fifteen minutes at the end of Big Man Japan. The film may be packaged as a feel-good comedy, but it is so much more and proof that Matsumoto has carved out a career as a sophisticated comedic director.