“Scabbard Samurai” – 2012 NYAFF & Japan Cuts Review

Director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s previous works, “Symbol” and “Dainipponjin” (also known as “Big Man Japan”), made a lasting impression on New York Asian Film Festival attendees.  His most recent, the 2010 feature “Scabbard Samurai” (さや侍), will likely accomplish the same feat.

An empty scabbard – or an empty sheath – is only a fraction of the humiliation that disgraced samurai Kanjuro Nomi must carry with him as he flees his clan with his young daughter, Tae, in tow.  Upon capture, he faces the possibility of having to commit seppuku (suicide by disembowelment, traditionally performed by samurai).  However, he can avoid this fate if he can make his captor’s little prince smile, something that he has not done since the death of his mother.  The catch?  He has just 30 days, and one try per day, to do it.

Predictably, Nomi’s attempts run from the simple to the absolutely ridiculous.  He maintains a downcast, stoic demeanor throughout all his performances, much to the animated consternation of Tae and the two guards assigned to oversee Nomi’s sleeping quarters.  The more they collectively scheme each attempt, the larger the crowds become to hopefully witness what all of Nomi’s predecessors could not accomplish.

It is the unspoken bond between father and daughter that gives “Scabbard Samurai” its enormous heart.  Incredibly, the role of Nomi is the only one listed to date for actor Takaaki Nomi, whose personal journey as the haggard samurai isn’t truly realized until the end.  However, he is eclipsed by Sea Tamada, the actress who had just turned 10 years old when the film made its world premiere at the 2011 Locarno International Film Festival.  Part-drillmaster and part-old soul, Tamada as the feisty Tae is the glue between all the parties involved, and whose own epiphany happens in parallel with her father’s.

“Scabbard Samurai” screens at the Japan Society on Sat., July 14, at 1 p.m. as a co-presentation by the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts. For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.