What Judge Roman Martel tells you about this movie is true...from a certain point of view.
Our review of Tajomaru: Avenging Blade, published October 6th, 2011, is also available.
Take one classic story, add a few modern touches, an attractive young cast, and you're in for one heck of a ride. Just try to forget the other movie made by that Kurosawa fella.
Time for another adventure in feudal Japan, where Shoguns ruled and samurai fought with (and without) honor. Tajomaru begins with three children, obviously of nobel stock, who save the life of a scruffy little thief. He is subsequently raised with them in the noble household as a brother. Flash forward and the children are now all young attractive folk living a good life. But tragedy looms.
Brothers Naomitsu (Shun Oguri, Crows Zero) and Nobutsana (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Ip Man) are destined to become advisors to the Shogun, and when the job opens up, they must decide who will fill it. Naomitsu is content to let his brother have the post, as all he wants is to marry the lovely Ako (Yuki Shibamoto, I Want to Be a Shellfish). Unfortunately, the little thief has grown into a scheming young man, Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka, Cyborg Girl), who begins a series of events that will topple his two brothers, allow him to slide into the advisor spot, and land him with a heap of gold. Little does Sakuramaru know his fate will come in the form of a bandit named Tajomaru (Hiroki Matsukata, 13 Assassins). When the avenging blade comes, even he may find it difficult to escape.
As movie progressed, I began to realize I'd seen some of these story elements before. Not the bits involving the court intrigue, or even the rival brothers stabbing each other in the back. No, it was the moment when Naomitsu and Ako head into a forest, with Ako wearing a veiled hat. I made a wisecrack how it would be funny if they ran into Toshiro Mifune laying under a tree, because the costumes and setting reminded me so much of Rashomon. As the subsequent scenes involving the bandit Tajomaru unfolded and I though, "Wait a second, I think Mifune's character in Rashomon is named Tajomaru."
Yes, Tajomaru: The Avenging Blade could be considered an adaptation of the short story In a Grove, the same story that inspired director Akira Kurosawa to create one of his most famous films. For those familiar with the Kurosawa film, this movie is nothing like it. Where Rashomon strove to examine themes and create innovative camera techniques, Tajomaru is shooting for a typical summer blockbuster. It's a big bold movie, full of color, melodrama, a dash of sword fighting, and the occasional Japanese pop song.
Visually the film is a treat. Nakano uses an array of bright colors, not only in his sets and costumes, but also in the location shooting in the forests and countryside. Combined with that is an interesting electronic score, that seems a bit odd at first. But once the Japanese pop songs and silly little rap kick in, the electronics enable those pieces to fit.
If you embrace Tajomaru on its own and enjoy it for what it is, you'll have a good time. What director Hiroyuki Nakano (Red Shadow: Akakage) and his screenwriters have done is flesh out the characters from the classic story, giving us background on the samurai and his lady fair before they enter the forest. From there, we discover what happened to them after the events of In a Grove. But the movie does not slavishly retell the story as we saw in Rashomon. Instead it spins elements around, offers new perspective, and builds a story focused on these characters.
The cast (most of whom are young and fresh) do a nice job with the material, deftly handle some very melodramatic scenes and over the top dialogue. There are powerful betrayals in the film, during which Oguri and Shibamoto do an excellent job. I also have to give kudos to Matsukata, who is playing the same role Mifune played in Rashomon. Matsukata manages to pay homage to Mifune and make the part his own.
I found the end result to be entertaining, if a bit uneven. Tajomaru has an issue that many anime films suffer: an inconstant tone. The first portion of the film comes across like a typical costume drama with some fun sword battles, but it takes a turn for the goofy when Naomitsu encounters a group of bandits. These characters are right out of an anime series, with their colorful but stereotypical personalities and over-the-top antics. Here, the movie becomes an adventure comedy, before spiraling back into darker territory and high melodrama. Yes, some of the acting is overblown, but it's not helped by cheesy dialogue. Even still, there is a spirit of gusto to the whole thing that makes it work.
Funimation gives Tajomaru a solid Blu-ray presentation. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is excellent showing off its vivid colors and atmospheric details. The sound balance for both the Japanese and English dub TrueHD 5.1 tracks is handled well, plus the Japanese subtitles were easy to read and flowed nicely. For extras, we get an EPK-style featurette that focuses mostly on Oguri and how macho his character is.
In many ways, Tajomaru: Avenging Blade is a live-action anime, providing an entertaining twist on a classic story as a visual treat. Fans of costume epics should give it a try; just make sure you're prepared for a pop song or two.
Too enthusiastic to be guilty.
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