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‘Tsubaki Sanjuro’

Classic samurai tale makes the cut

by Mark Schilling

The films of Akira Kurosawa have generated far more remakes than those of any other Japanese director, beginning with the John Sturges 1960 Western “The Magnificent Seven,” a reworking of Kurosawa’s “Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai).”

Kurosawa himself was no fan of these homages — though his production company, now run by his son Hisao, has done a tidy business selling remake rights.

I’m no fan of some of them myself, but I also understand why filmmakers keep coming back to Kurosawa: His best films have strong narrative bones that can be fleshed out in any number of ways, from the macho minimalism of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western “A Fistful of Dollars,” based on “Yojimbo,” to the energy and sass of George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” inspired by “Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (The Hidden Fortress).”

The latest Kurosawa remake, Yoshimitsu Morita’s samurai comedy “Tsubaki Sanjuro,” uses the same script as the 1962 original of the same name — by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa — which automatically lowers its freshness quotient. Also, producer Haruki Kadokawa has a reputation for turning cinematic pig’s ears into silk purses full of box-office gold. Finally, star Yuji Oda, Japan’s answer to Tom Cruise, is already being excoriated on Internet blogs as the unworthy heir to Toshiro Mifune’s famously unshaven, unwashed and untamed ronin (masterless samurai) hero.

Tsubaki Sanjuro
Rating
Director Yoshimitsu Morita
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese

So “Tsubaki Sanjuro” ought to be a dull, cheap travesty, right? Not quite, since Morita and his collaborators understand that Kurosawa’s original is less high art — to be solemnly reconstructed shot by shot — than cheeky, clever, fast-paced entertainment. Minor Kurosawa? Most certainly, but more than most of the master’s films, “Tsubaki Sanjuro” lends itself to remaking, since the story — canny older guy helps clueless, but lovable, young guys outwit corrupt, powerful enemies — is timeless, universal and more plot- than vision-driven. You don’t have to be a reincarnation of Kurosawa to shoot a watchable version of it, just have flair for action comedy of the ironic sort, which describes Morita accurately enough.

Morita has fallen since his peak in the ’80s, when he was making brilliant black comedies like “Family Game” and “Bakayaro! Watashi wa Okottemasu (Bakayaro! I’m Plenty Mad),” but his worst tendencies, from fey whimsy to turgid sentimentality, are absent in “Tsubaki Sanjuro” — the script simply has no place for them. Instead, Morita draws sharp, individualized comic performances from his cast, rather than settling for the more usual generic mugging.

As for Oda — he is no Mifune, but then no one is. Oda, however, creates a hero more comprehensible to a younger generation, being less like Mifune’s crafty bum with a sword, more like a once-hot boy-band singer (Oda’s former job description) reduced to hustling gigs at seedy clubs. I didn’t quite believe him as a master swordsman — he lacks a certain lethal stillness, but I did believe his ability to bullshit and bluff.

Based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the story begins in media res, with nine young samurai, led by the earnest Isaka (Kenichi Matsuyama), deep in a discussion about graft and corruption in their clan. They suspect that the elderly chamberlain, Mutsuta (Makoto Fujita), is the guilty party, a suspicion the superintendent, Kikui (Tokuma Nishioka), is investigating — and is coming to question them about. Overhearing them, a scruffy ronin (Oda), tells them they are dead wrong: the chamberlain is being falsely accused, while the superintendent is in cahoots with the bad guys. They are, in fact in danger of their lives, since a gang of swordsman under Kikui’s employ is coming to wipe them out — thus erasing potential opposition to the plans of Kikui and his henchmen.

The ronin saves them through quick thinking, while fending off the swordsmen with such deadly panache that their impressed leader, Muroto (Etsushi Toyokawa), offers him a job. The ronin refuses, though he extends a grudging respect to the tough, canny Muroto, the ronin’s equal in ways the naive young samurai are not. The ronin, who could walk off at this point — having done his good deed for the day, instead decides to help the hapless nine in freeing the chamberlain, who has been imprisoned by the superintendent. “You guys are such a danger to yourselves that I can’t stand to watch it,” he explains. A more likely reason is that he is bored and sees a chance for an interesting game of wits — and clash of swords.

There is much more to the plot, including entertaining by-play between the ronin and the chamberlain’s wife (Tamao Nakamura) and daughter (Ann Suzuki). When the former asks him his name, he spies camellias blooming nearby and answers “Tsubaki Sanjuro” (“Sanjuro Camellia”), adding that “I’ll soon be Yonjuro, though” — a joking reference to his age, since “sanju” means 30 and “yonju,” 40.

A four-word review of “Tsubaki Sanjuro” would be “Kurosawa did it better,” but it’s only fair to add that Morita doesn’t do too badly. And if his film encourages his young target audience, many of whom are only dimly aware of Kurosawa’s existence, to rent the original, he should be forgiven much. But you, being smarter, will see the original first.