Japan Cinema Now: Tatara Samurai, an epic tale of magical sword steel
Secrets, steel and swordplay in Tatara Samurai are at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori's lavish parable with contemporary resonance
The wildly popular performers of Japan’s Exile theatrical troupe are headlined in this gorgeously lensed new jidaigeki (period film) Tatara Samurai from Yoshinari Nishikori.
The film has the look and epic sweep of the sumptuous cinematic feasts once served up by the major studios, despite its far smaller budget.
That this independent production achieves such a level of artistry has already earned it several international awards, including one for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2016 Montreal World Film Festival.
The writer-director shot it on 35mm film rather than today’s preferred digital format, allowing him to capture the magnificent scenery of Izumo, Shimane prefecture and the Sengoku-era village open set built for the production by local craftsmen, as well as the thrilling swordplay choreographed by famed stuntman Yoshio Iizuka.
Izumo is the birthplace of many vaunted Japanese traditions, including kabuki, sumo (which Nishikori celebrated in his 2013 film Konshin) and even sake.
It is also the origin of tatara steel, forged using a 1,300-year-old method that continues, under Hitachi Metals, to produce the most sought-after blades in the world today.
Hiro announced in October last year that the company was expanding into the global market with “activity bases” in Asia, Europe and the US to “create world-class entertainment” on the order of Disney and Universal Studios starting this year.
Prior to the Japanese rollout of the film on May 20, director Yoshinari Nishikori and star Naoki Kobayashi screened a sneak preview of the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, followed by a Q&A session. Kobayashi impressed by responding to questions in English.
About the film
Nestled in the mountains of ancient Izumo, is a village renowned for its tatara-buki steel-making prowess. Able to forge the purest steel known to man, the blacksmiths of Tatara have become legendary.
Their fame attracts warriors from across the land during the 16th-century Warring States period, lured by the promise of indomitable katana swords. But it also attracts the unwanted attentions of rival clans, and of merchants bent on procuring steel for the latest weaponry: firearms.
Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) has been groomed from youth to become the next murage (master blacksmith) following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
But he dreams of leaving home to become a samurai under Oda Nobunaga, and when the village comes under attack, he sees his opportunity to help protect it.
On the road, he meets the merchant Yohei (Takashi Sasano), who helps him join Oda’s army. But Gosuke proves to be no soldier, and returns home resigned to his fate.
When Yohei arrives to promote guns over blades, there is little resistance from the villagers, except for Gosuke’s childhood friend Shimpei (Naoki Kobayashi), who senses the merchant’s true motives but is branded a traitor and banished.
It isn’t until the Izumo lord, Shinnosuke (Akira), falls victim to the senseless violence that accompanied the armaments, that Gosuke begins to understand the true essence of the Bushido spirit.
Tatara village represents “a microcosm of the unresolved problems and suffering that exist across the contemporary world today,” says Nishikori.
“The secretive craftsmanship of the tatara-buki and the power-wielding ability of the swords it creates is [similar to] the issues behind global oil demand today.”
Yoshinari Nishikori: “There are almost no surviving historical records from the Sengoku era. What we see of this period in films and read in novels is basically fiction. So we based the film on the supposition that this type of thing probably happened, that the people in power were trying to get their hands on the tamahagane steel [used to forge the samurai blades]. Through the research we did for the film, we discovered that there was a lot of international trade going on, and there were a lot of foreigners visiting this area. Because it was such a rich region and there was a lot of money, Izumo had ties to the people in power, and was under the warlords’ protection.”
Nishikori: “The village is not real. It was all built for the film, except for the shrine, which is about 1,500 years old. We had a lot of help from the local carpenters in Izumo, the miyadaiku craftsmen who do a lot of restoration work on the Izumo Shrine [Japan’s oldest]. They have a specialized technique that allows them to build without using any nails.”
Naoki Kobayashi: “I wanted to use a real sword, but this is a movie, right? Of course it was an imitation. But I trained with a real sword to get the sense of being a samurai.”
Kobayashi: “Since I’m a dancer, that experience was the best way [for me] to understand the lives of the characters. I like expressing myself through dancing, without any words. Acting uses words, so it’s difficult for me. But using my body is close to acting. My character’s main scenes are fighting scenes, so expressing myself using my body was easy.”
Nishikori: “It was intentional to show as little blood as possible. We’re used to seeing blood spurting out as samurai are cut or split open. But in reality, that isn’t real. The blade is so sharp that the blood doesn’t spurt out [like that]. Before [Akira] Kurosawa started showing blood spurting, Japanese jidaigeki weren’t like that. Also, we wanted to make a film that’s accessible to children, so the whole family could go and see it.”
Writer-director Yoshinari Nishikori made his film debut in 1999 with Women’s Army Corps, about young women joining Japan’s Self Defense Force. His next film, A White Ship, (2002) took place in his home prefecture, Shimane, which was also the location of his hit 2010 film Railways, and his 2013 film Konshin.
Exile’s Naoki Kobayashi marks his film debut with Tatara Samurai, although he has been active as a dancer and actor for a decade. He has appeared in a variety of plays and musical performances on stage and TV, and is also the leader of the J-pop supergroup Sandaime J Soul Brothers.
Where it’s on:
The theatrical rollout begins on May 20 in Japan, with an Asian rollout thereafter.