Groove in a Grove

Tajomaru is part of a trend in filmmaking that has seen a number of Japanese classics approached from new angles. In Hollywood, we have the Satsuma Rebellion retooled in The Last Samurai, and Keanu Reeves already at work on the forthcoming Forty-seven Ronin. Within Japan, Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe (2000) replayed a famous samurai legend with a gritty, glossy, pop sensibility. Shinji Higuchi’s Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess (2008) re-appraised a Kurosawa classic through the priorities and influences of George Lucas’s Star Wars. Kazuaki Kiriya’s Goemon (2009) retold an old kabuki tale, re-imagined with the weight of a century of potboiler novels and schlocky ninja movies. And now we have Hiroyuki Nakano’s Tajomaru (2009), a retelling of the acclaimed Rashomon (1950), filtered through six decades of Hollywoodisations, changes in priority, and upheavals in the movie business.

In particular, it resembles the recent TV remake of Grave of the Fireflies, both in its repurposing of the material and in its attempt to tell two stories within its running time – the original and a new tale that grows around it like a clinging vine. It is also oddly similar to Ridley Scott’s recent Robin Hood, in its earnest attempts to revere an “original” that does not really exist. Tajomaru is not a genuine historical figure. He is a name from an early twentieth-century short story, who has gained in celebrity over the last fifty years merely because he was played in a film adaptation by the famous Toshiro Mifune. Only now, almost a century after he first appeared, does he get a backstory, and a motivation beyond the basest of desires.

The first, and most noticeable thing about Hiroyuki Nakano’s Tajomaru is its vibrant colour – not unexpected from the former pop-promo director whose best-known video was the psychedelic Groove is in the Heart for Deee-Lite. The original Rashomon film, of course, was made in stark black and white, a teasing counterpoint to the endless shades of grey revealed during its story. But Nakano’s film is saturated with rainbow hues throughout, right from the opening sequence of the young nobles wandering through a forest of cherry trees.

Nakano’s camera seeks out one of the stranger contradictions in Japan: despite overcrowded cities at the coast, huge tracts of Japan’s hinterland are unspoilt national trust. It is impossible to build on the mountains, and so many of them have been left as wilderness, thick with deciduous trees that only accentuate Nakano’s glorious palette with their autumn colours. Hence, even in this film that hearkens back to Japan’s medieval past, filmmakers can still work on location a mere train-ride away from the 21st century metropolis.

The seasons, too, are bluntly symbolic, whisking through the hopeful spring of the characters’ youths, through to the beautiful yet ominous autumn colours of the first reel, and the desolate snowfall as the true drama commences. But these clichés are part of an honourable tradition; it was, after all, Kurosawa’s Rashomon that begins with an awful storm, with rains that only let up when a tiny glimpse of hope appears towards the end.

“A Masterpiece of Lies”

Tajomaru’s source material is unimpeachable. It began as two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), a troubled young writer whose “Rashomon” was a mood piece set in a rainstorm at the southern gate of Kyoto, the old imperial capital. More relevant was “In a Grove”, an innovative tale from the same author in which a rape and murder on a remote highway are approached through a collection of seven contradictory reports by witnesses, suspects and investigators. No story quite matches another, leaving the reader to piece together what really happened from the various untrustworthy fragments.

“The original Rashomon is a masterpiece of lies, and truths, and the twists of the human heart,” says producer Mataichiro Yamamoto. “And no remake could ever exceed the power of the original.”

The “original”, however, is not necessarily Akutagawa’s story, but the film that followed it. In 1950, Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto adapted Akutagawa’s two stories into a film that enjoyed a modest success in Japan, becoming the fourth biggest box office of the year, although out in the provinces it left audiences so confused that some theatres hired narrators to explain the difficult parts. It might have sunk without a trace had it not taken the foreign film world by storm the following year. The first Japanese film to play in the Venice International Film Festival, Rashomon unexpectedly won the Grand Prize. This rather took its producer, Masaichi Nagata, by surprise, as he had previously made his distaste for the project clear. It certainly surprised Kurosawa, who did not even know that his film had been entered in the competition.

In the decades since, Rashomon has become a victim of its own success. Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography, pointing a camera straight into the sun, or panning through dappled forest glades, has been ripped off by generations of imitators. Kurosawa’s and Hashimoto’s script, endlessly toying with viewers by adding new perspectives to alter previous meanings, has been pastiched in films as varied as Run Lola Run, The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point. Sixty years on, Rashomon now gets that most double-edged of movie-industry honours: a remake.

But a remake of what? Akutagawa’s originals are conveniently out of copyright, so there is no problem with lifting the story. However, the writers on Tajomaru have done far more than that.

“I think it’s an interesting interpretation of ‘In a Grove’,” suggests leading man Shun Oguri, who plays the disinherited nobleman Naomitsu. “But I think it is an entirely different object. We have inherited the name Tajomaru from ‘In a Grove’, but I think that’s about it!”

The screenplay for Tajomaru delves behind the story to a chaotic world of contradictory samurai histories. In adding an appearance by the named Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (played by Kenichi Hagiwara) the script grounds the film firmly in a historical period: the 15th century. Moreover, it throws in further anchors to real events, moving the story of Rashomon away from an vague samurai parable set “somewhere in the past”, into a precisely focussed tale based on a real historical feud. There really was a Hatakeyama clan in feudal Japan. Notoriously, the clan died out, and was revived with an appointed, adopted heir: a pragmatic reaction to succession problems that backfired when two descendants went to war over the overlordship of the family.

Vantage Points

Producer Yamamoto imposed some tough restrictions on director Nakano, starting with the length of shoot restricted to 30 days. Kurosawa’s Rashomon was expensive by the standards of its day. Nakano’s Tajomaru tries to keep costs down by stealing ideas from television. At producer Yamamoto’s insistence, every shot was completed with two cameras, and run for as long as possible, with pick-ups dropped in later. “Right from the start,” remembers Nakano, “Mr Yamamoto wanted to treat things as if we were dealing with a stage play.” Apart from a few transition scenes and location work, the central drama revolves a handful of “stages” – the infamous grove itself, the courtroom sequence, and a riverside battle.

“This method isn’t used very frequently in Japan,” notes Nakano, “but since this is a living drama we thought we would try for a sense of realism…. The actors gave it 100%, then 150%, but when it came to selecting which take to use, we always went for the one that was most natural.”

The original events of “In a Grove” featured seven perspectives on a single incident. In Kurosawa’s film adaptation, this was reduced to five – those of the three participants, and two witnesses who see portions of the prelude and aftermath. In both cases, the creators imply a final, unmentioned vantage point: that of the audience itself, in the only position to unravel the complicated, contradictory testimonies. In Rashomon, this was subtly implied in the court scenes by having the characters address the fourth wall, as if the audience itself sits in judgement. In Tajomaru, the viewer’s perspective is now the only one that counts, but that is because we get a bird’s eye view of the whole story. We know who is lying in the judgement scene. We know what really happened because we have been lurking behind the fourth wall for the whole film. In this sense, Tajomaru is much more of a traditional, old-fashioned film than Rashomon ever was. It refuses to play with the viewer’s sense of memory or incident. We simply watch events unfurl. It is the difference, as Hitchcock might have said, between surprise and suspense, since we know what has happened, and suspect what is going to happen next.

There has been as long a debate about the appeal of Rashomon as about its story. Some have suggested that it merely attracted foreign accolades because of the oriental exoticism of its samurai-era setting. Others have suggested it was all down to the script, by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, that presented such an innovative, multi-angle perspective, combining the genres of courtroom drama and detective story. Some Japanese critics have been left baffled, wondering if there is anything particularly special about Rashomon at all, beyond the subtle cultural commentary sneaked into this film. Released at the height of the American occupation of post-war Japan, when samurai films were subject to heavy censorship, and the media was rife with war criminals on trial and confessions of Japanese war guilt, Rashomon suggested that there was no such thing as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In an environment where the victors controlled discussion of the defeat, Rashomon asked if anyone could ever be 100% right about anything. It was, to some, an early shot in the long battle over cultural relativism that has dogged Japanese schoolrooms ever since.

Class Warriors

But Tajomaru wants to have its cake and eat it. Its love for Kurosawa’s original seems based not so much on the film’s story, but upon its effect. Tajomaru seeks to rehabilitate Toshiro Mifune’s bestial bandit, giving him a noble lineage and a set of vengeful motivations, turning him from a force of brutal nature into a dispossessed heir. In Nakano’s rewrite of movie history, even the thieves have noble pedigrees, while those who aspire to be nobles are revealed as mere thieves.

When Naomitsu finds a feast cooking over a campfire, he seizes it without a moment’s thought, and waves off the angry owners with the words: “I was hungry.” Tajomaru’s world makes real the uncompromising fascism of the samurai. Overlords are overthrown, women are raped, food is stolen, and the question of who is right or wrong is left to trial by the sword. As in the history of the samurai themselves, this only serves to create a barbaric, distasteful free-for-all where only the strong survive. When Naomitsu is rich, his sense of entitlement derives from his wealth. When he is poor, it derives from his needs. He simply takes whatever he wants, because he wants it.

As with the recent remake of Hidden Fortress, class is a powerful subtext. Japan’s filmmakers might plead artistic poverty, but they are privileged indeed compared to the dole queue and the factory worker. There is an airy, off-hand condescension about the way the young nobles deal the boy they rescue from punishment for stealing a single potato. With a wave of Naomitsu’s fan, the boy is saved, his stolen goods returned to him, and an ironic noble name bestowed upon him. With childlike reasoning, Naomitsu thinks that Sakuramaru’s problems will go away if he is simply given a bath and some new clothes. Instead, he creates a seething monster who will betray him. The message of Tajomaru, should one wish to look for it, seems to be that charity to anyone will only be repaid with resentment.

History Makers

In other aspects, we might be on safer ground by saying that Tajomaru is merely “inspired by real events”. Despite its solidi historical allusions, the setting mixes historical elements from 700 years of samurai history, from the old-world niceties of the imperial capital to the armour styles of the sengoku period.

In a modern media where every celebrity has to have a “charm point”, distinguishing them from other celebrity’s like a Pokémon’s special powers, actress Yuki Shibamoto’s distinguishing feature is supposedly her winsome eyebrows. Which is all very well, but in an accurate representation of Japanese period fashions for her character Princess Ako, her eyebrows would probably have been shaved off and replaced by dots of make-up high up her forehead. In fashion as in many other aspects of its recreation of the past, Tajomaru merely flirts with the broad strokes of costume drama. The original “In a Grove” was similarly indistinct, although it drew on a collection of tales that was compiled in the Middle Ages, and hence predated the true samurai era.

Nakano’s movie injects incongruous modern music on electric guitars and synthesisers, but this is no less anachronistic than Kurosawa’s use of a western style orchestra in Rashomon. In Tajomaru, language is arcane but recognisably modern. Fashions are a manga artist’s idea of how a vaguely defined samurai era might look, and attitudes are shot through with modern concerns. When asked what the theme of his film is, Nakano responds without hesitation: “Love knows no limits. And if that makes you sceptical, then just put yourself in their position. If you were trapped in this story… if you had to be the protagonists, what would you do?”

True to the arguments the story always engenders, Shun Oguri agrees with his director, but only so far. “The theme of this film is with us in the world we live in today,” he argues, “and it’s something that turns up in a line spoken by Kenichi Hagiwara, who plays the Shogun. There’s a point where the Shogun says: ‘The whole truth is not a tenable thing. Pursuing it is like chasing a phantom.’ And I think that’s right.”

Tajomaru plays with the sense of anachronism, as if suggesting that old-school methods can have powerful uses in the modern world. Just as Tajomaru derives much of its marketing might from the fame of Kurosawa’s original, Naomitsu draws much of his power from the old-fashioned sword he steals. The weapon of Tajomaru is a heavy, Chinese-style straight blade, something that one might expect to unearth from a plundered tomb – in fact, in Kurosawa’s original, a tomb is exactly where Tajomaru claimed to have stolen it. There was once a time when all swords in Japan were like this, but they were supplanted during the Dark Ages by the more familiar, curved blades favoured by horsemen in the northern wars. A few centuries on, when everyone is using light, flexible swords, Tajomaru’s old-fashioned blade smashes through opponents like a hammer. It is a sight out of time, as if a fully armoured knight with a two-handed claymore suddenly takes on a bunch of Renaissance gents with weedy rapiers.

And when it comes to fighting, after going ten rounds with Hiroki Matsukata (Old Tajomaru) the star of numerous samurai epics, Shun Oguri is in no doubts about who is the master.

“I learned a lot from Matsukata, especially when we were fighting,” says Oguri. “People of our generation rarely have to wield a sword, and so we have to practise and practise, and all too soon forget. But people like Matsukata have to swing swords all year round, and so their attitude is very different. They are very matter-of-fact about it. For me, it was a really big bonus to able to spend time with someone like him.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai. Tajomaru is released on UK DVD by Manga Entertainment in January 2011.

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