Film Review: “Tatara Samurai” (たたら侍)


The term bushido (武士道) evokes many images: a samurai, a battle, a steel curved blade, a strict code of conduct.  While all of these are aspects of bushido, the phrase is far more elusive to define. Originating in Japan to describe an unuttered and unwritten code that took liberally from Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucian ideals, bushido evolved as the country of its origins evolved, elevating it into something of a religion that stockbrokers and athletes adopt to succeed in their fields.

Yoshinari Nishikori’s new picture “Tatara Samurai” (たたら侍, 2016), reaches back several hundred years into Japan’s past. For those looking for a good gonzo violent chambara (チャンバラ) movie, Nishikori skirts around those delights in favor of a meditative drama. To be exact, “Tatara Samurai” could be more accurately described as a bushido-geki, extolling all the virtues of said code in a period drama.

The story is centered on the heir apparent to a murage, a trained blacksmith named Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) during the last few years of the Warring States period, an era when villages were easy pickings for unscrupulous gangs of wayward mercenaries. Nishikori devotes a good chunk of screen time in the film’s first half to showcasing village life, the minutiae of the everyday and more importantly the Tatara-buki, an ancient steel-making technique that Gosuke’s family is renowned for. Nishikori and his director of photography, Akira Sako, lovingly chart the entire Bessemer process.  Just as Gosuke and the characters around him obsess over the shiny metal, both Nishikori and Sako carefully frame shots with the Tatara steel like it was the One Ring.

The second and third acts revolve around Gosuke placing his trust in Yohei (Masahiko Tsugawa), a businessman with political leanings, to protect his village. Yet, as Gosuke later learns after a stint in the military, life outside his village is nasty, brutish and short, especially when wannabe shoguns treat people like pawns on a chessboard. The conflict between traditional versus modern is encompassed by the lead’s tragi-ironic mistake of completely foregoing old ways and using firearms in a vain attempt to protect his hometown.

In a story about samurai – and the process involved in giving swords their unique luster and mythic aura – it’s easy for a filmmaker to fetishize the weaponry. Nishikori, embracing bushido’s eight virtues, instead denies the viewer any opportunity to feel anything resembling appreciation for the brutality that katana (swords) or any weapon can inflict. Contemplative by design, “Tatara Samurai” does offer a few battles and one-on-one fight sequences for the action enthusiast, and the director and his collaborators take from the best when choreographing and shooting these scenes. However, every violent death is condemned and weighs heavy on the hearts of Gosuke and the villagers.

Like the best samurai pics, happy endings are hard to come by in Nishikori’s film.   The spirit of Akira Kurosawa breathes in the epic vistas, bodies strewn about on the ground like in a painting, and duels that play out not just as a physical battle but also a metaphysical confrontation of ancient and mysterious bushido against the tide of modernity.  Sadly, bushido lost, existing mainly in text and art now as an enticing ideal that many strive for but few comprehend.

“Tatara Samurai” opens in theaters across the U.S. on June 2.  For ticket information, go to