A ’ronin’, famously, is a masterless samurai, but what do you call a swordless samurai? Why, you call him Scabbard Samurai, of course!
The title character in this samurai comedy is named Kanjuro Nomi, but he has almost no dialogue. His wife died in an epidemic, and now he sadly and swordless wanders the roads of feudal Japan with his precocious 7-year-old daughter in tow. For reasons that are never delved properly into, he is accused of having betrayed his clan, and consequently he is pursued by various assassins, including a Chiropractikiller (!).
Nomi, who is an elderly and broken man, has no more fights left in him, but nonetheless he is practically impossible to kill. Whenever an assassin wounds him, a small herbal bandage administered by his daughter heals his wounds almost immediately.
The early scenes of Nomi and his daughter on the run are clear parodies of the popular Lone Wolf & Cub manga (which has also been made into a series of six movies), with satirical hints also to the Zatoichi movies. Pretty soon, however, Nomi is captured and sentenced to commit seppuku – unless he can make the depressed son of the shogun smile! The son lost his mother in the recent epidemic, and hasn’t smiled since. Now, Nomi, already a pretty sad existence himself, has 30 days during which he has one attempt per day to make the son smile.
It’s actually a pretty brilliant idea for a comedy. Nomi and his daughter and their two kindly guards now have to come up with thirty different comical designs in the hope that one of them will make the melancholy son smile. Of course, the project is the same for the audience; it’s like an experiment in what comedy is and how it works.
Of course, the comical notions presented to the shogun and his son on a daily basis become increasingly crazy, and the son doesn’t smile. The premise, from the point of view of the director, is a bold one, and in proper Japanese fashion also a humble one. After all, he would be blowing his own horn if his characters were successful at making the shogun’s son smile; then the director would be saying “Ha, I know what comedy is!” He is too modest (or cunning) to do that; the movie remains an interesting experiment in comedy which will be a success if people find it funny.
The end of the movie is a very touching one, and one has to single out the Scabbard Samurai’s young daughter, Tae (played by Sea Kumada), who is wise beyond her years and a surprising defender of the samurai values. Always wearing an expression of caring concern, she is the most impressively acted character in the movie, and a major reason to see it.
Now, for the final verdict: is the movie, in this reviewer’s opinion, actually funny? Well, yes. Not uproariously funny, perhaps not even laugh-out-loud funny, but it is full of good chuckles and the time does not go dully by. It is very interesting as an intellectual exercise in comedy, and it is all the more admirable because it is too modest to declare itself a success. It is a fairly funny movie, but what’s more: it is a good movie.
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Cast: Takaaki Nomi, Sea Kumada, Itsuji Itao, Tokio Emoto and others.
Runtime: 103 min.