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. Continue reading