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Behind the history and evolution of the weapons of war have always been the master craftsmen who forge them, artists who with dedication and years of training turn the elements into the mightiest–and even beautiful–instruments of death. In Japan, in the waning years before firearms became the next step in the long march toward modern warfare, it was the sword, and those who made the finest held secrets that kept the balance of power, passed on from generation to generation. Now they must fight to protect it.
Tatara Samurai (たたら侍) begins with necessity. A clan attacks the small village of Tatara in a quest for a legendary brand of steel with unique properties created by masters using a time-honored and traditional process. It devastates the people and further necessitates a need to defend it, requiring the best trained warriors. Years later, Gosuke (Aoyagi Sho), a survivor of that battle, is a young man in the village, his father Yasuke (Komoto Masahiro) recently inheriting the noble title of Murage from his father, Kisuke (Takahashi Choei), makers of the steel. Gosuke is destined to follow suit, but feels haunted by that tragedy in his past, believing he is not strong enough to protect the village and so abandons his path to forge his future as a samurai, leaving behind his wife, Okuni (Ishii Anna) to join an era of war. However, his own mettle is tested and the journey to understand both his roles leads him to great discoveries about his past, his future, and himself.
Written and directed by Yoshinari Nishikôri, Tatara Samurai is a familiar tale, one seeped in lore, and while that might be a trapping of the genre, it is no less majestic. The long odyssey from boy to man for Gosuke is an uneasy one and Nishikôri takes great pains to recreate a feudal landscape wrought by conflict and honor, allowing the troubled young traveler to experience much about the land he lives in and defends. It is a time of sweeping change, when musket rifles are taking hold and the powerful Tatara steel could make these guns the best protection for the village, though not all agree. Gosuke’s actions and choices have impact in ways he cannot fully understand and he must face harsh truths in knowing the right path, even when it isn’t always clear.
Nishikôri is a patient filmmaker, and while he stages some well-executed battles, it is the smaller moments that have better effect. Tatara village is a strikingly-authentic looking setting and there is a deeply organic sense of traditional life portrayed within buildings and grounds, all soaked with age and atmosphere. We linger on long quiet moments here and it’s often visually stunning. A number of breathtaking sequences prove both Mishikôri and cinematographer Akira Sako are adept as storytelling through imagery as the script is itself. This is a peaceful land surrounded by violence, and while the conflicts frame the story, some of the best moments come in watching the elborate process in creating the ingot, all in astounding traditional methods that feel almost like a documentary. This potent stuff and history buffs will swoon. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of wonder in the mastery of this craft.
Nishikôri is far more interested in the stillness than the action, a choice that makes this significantly different than most like it. Western audiences might be tempted to make comparisons with Tom Cruise‘s equally sensational The Last Samurai (2003), and while the films share much, there is plenty that separates them. Gosuke’s arc, a non-traditional coming-of-age story sees him play out as a metaphor for Japan itself, the forging of steel and the discover of what makes power and strength different a running theme that defines much of what we see. This is a genuinely moving story that is rich with culture and while maybe some of the more nuanced aspects will be lost on Western audiences, the film is no less powerful.
Tatara Samurai is a decidedly dense story, and it can be easy to lose one’s place and even know who is fighting for whom at times, yet things all find their way in the end, leaving this an experience not to be missed.
Tatara Samurai opens from Eleven Arts in theaters June 2.
Movie description: Tatara Samurai is a 2017 Japanese epic action adventure about a young man who must choose between the trade of his family's heritage or the way of a fighter in order to protect it.
Director(s): Yoshinari Nishikôri
Actor(s): Shun Sugata, Akira, Kosuke Toyohara
Genre: Drama, Action