Sunday, September 05, 2010


Power, greed, lust and envy---this movie had all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy but all it amounted to was a costume melodrama that came with a pop-rock soundtrack, capped off by a  perfunctory ending that's so silly, it's not even worth mentioning. Imagine Edmond Dantès heartbroken and depressed, walking away without exacting revenge on his enemies, if you will. Imagine Alexander Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo adapted on screen by a Walt Disney company...oh wait, right, that happened already.

It's feudal Japan, the Heian period. The House of Hatakeyama is about to be divided as a conflict erupts between two brothers...

Born the second son of the Hatakeyama family, Naomitsu  (Oguri Shun) had long accepted the fact that his  rank in life was lower than that of his older brother Nobutsuna, (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), who's the heir and future leader of the family. As a child, he knew better than to challenge his brother's authority, he knew early on that his duty was to serve his family with utmost loyalty. As a grown up, he sought neither power nor glory; to him, happiness meant living a life of obscurity and having enough freedom to do as he pleased.

Naomistu went  about his life oblivious to politics, he couldn't be made to care about wealth or be bothered to find out how much influence he could wield. He was blind to the malicious intent and ambition of others around him, and so when the shogun (Kenichi Hagiwara) unexpectedly  issued a decree declaring the marriage to his betrothed Ako (Shibamoto Yuki) a condition precedent to obtaining the title of  provincial deputy, Naomitsu failed to anticipate the trouble that the said edict would bring on to his family.

The shogun's announcement set off a major controversy, leaving Naomitsu at a loss as to how to allay his older brother's fear of being deposed of his position as head of the clan. He sincerely tells Nobutsuna that he's not interested in obtaining gold or the status of deputy. But all is for naught as the latter's mind is slowly filled with lies told by their adopted brother, Sakuramaru  (Tanaka Kei), who's already made his own bid to acquire the power and position held by the Hatakeyama family. Playing Iago to Nobutsuna's Othello, Sakuramaru incites the insecure older brother to betray his only brother; forcing Naomitsu to flee with Ako into the woods where they come across the bandit Tajomaru (Matsukata Hiroki).

Drawing inspiration from Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short story In a Grove, writers Ichikawa Shinichi and Yamamoto Mataichiro's Tajomaru stands as a brave yet clumsy attempt at doing a fresh and innovative take on the original story. What the screenplay does is, it fills in the events that occurred prior and  subsequent to the discovery of the body in the woods and runs [amok] with it-- thereby producing an alternate account of what transpired whilst providing a backstory to the now legendary bandit from which this movie takes its name.

As a period piece, Tajomaru excels in enticing viewers with its grand scale and lavish production, unfortunately, the plot and execution of it all makes it more of a drab assembly of clichés and contrivances than a brilliant reinvention of a classic tale. For while the original material concerned itself with seven varying accounts told in the course of a murder investigation, Tajomaru merely makes use of certain elements in the literary piece and reproduces key scenes in the Akira Kurosawa adaptation, Rashomon, to create a spin-off with a storyline that can be found in no less than a dozen samurai epic films. The fact that it's unoriginal is not even the main issue, the problem lies in its  lukewarm rendering of classic themes such as love, betrayal and revenge, and its writers' seeming inability to recognize when to stop introducing twists so ludicrous and fanciful that it makes the whole thing unintentionally laughable.  

Tajomaru gives its viewers the initial impression that it's a throwback to sword-fighting films of old; it briefly introduces the characters and their motivations, hints at an impending conflict, and generally sets the stage for its hero to fall to the depths of despair in order to subsequently rise up to reclaim his honor and dignity. Its first forty minutes is pure cinematic gold given that it has all the hallmarks of an enduring tragedy wherein a simple misunderstanding breaks the tenuous equilibrium that exists within a family.  That being said, it's set up  rather nicely, as the movie opens with a simple voice over, laced with a melancholy that only comes with narrating things past. It's complimented by breathtaking cinematography that captures the changing of the seasons, for as spring slowly gives way to fall, two brothers are seen to compete to gain one woman's hand in marriage, furthermore, a trusted servant reveals himself to be the snake that he is. Its overall look and tenor evokes that of a Shakespearean tragedy, but sadly, the extent of its hook ends in the setting of its lush landscape and intricately designed costume pieces, because  beneath all that style and gloss is a story that never really managed to make sense of what genre it wanted to belong to, such that its focus kept on shifting every quarter of the film.

The movie is layered with conflict-- it has a virtual blitzkrieg of dramatic events that would lead anyone to believe and anticipate that the protagonist would eventually be given the means and opportunity to seek revenge under a new identity. That in itself would have sufficed, the rub is that as one dramatic event was followed by another, the more far-fetched the story became and the less satisfying was the outcome. There were too many elements in it alien to the story; the pop-rock Robin Hood-esque montage and rap sequence negate the tone and gravity established in the first half of the film, while a last-minute twist merely serves as an overture to a nonsensical trip to hell and back, which was mere padding  for the story. And it literally is a trip to "hell" and back. 

The inclusion of a modern track in the middle of the film would not have been so out of place if this movie had the same flighty humor as director Nakano Hiroyuki's Red Shadow: Akakage or the "ninja-splatter punk" style of Kitamura Ryuhei's Azumi where a freakishly made-up Odagiri Jo played a bishonen assassin. But Tajomaru is not the type of movie to fall under any of the aforementioned category. It presents itself to be more than what it actually is---it's supposed to be this serious film based on a classic story but in reality, all it is, is a melodramatic film that's so turgid, one can't wait for the closing credits to roll on screen. 

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this movie is that it has a hero that's content to just pander and coast along without any predetermined goal, direction or zeal. Naomitsu does not have the grit and heart typical of heroes  in this genre, he's easily disheartened and weak without his lady love. He's no Edmond Dantès or Crisostomo Ibarra, that's for sure, as he spends a good amount of the movie looking hurt, betrayed and intensely sissyfied despite the dreadlocks and the fur overcoat. Oguri Shun tries hard to lend credence to such a pathetic character, looking exaggeratedly forlorn and wistful, and at times mad with rage and comically homicidal. He sobs, he snarls in anger, looks dejected and even throws his head back to wail at the sky and survives  what appears to be at least a 12-ft jump before finally deciding take action against the enemy. There's very little character development in this production, so the rest of the cast can't be expected to do any better-- Ikeuchi Hiroyuki plays Nobutsuna with a permanent look of dissatisfaction on his face, showing no hint of affection or consideration for his younger brother contrary to the portrayal of his child version; Shibamoto Yuki looks resplendent in colorful silk robes but her turn as the defiled and self-sacrificing Ako makes for one beleaguered heroine that serves no purpose but to turn this movie's hero into a whimpering idiot. And even though Tanaka Kei gets to play a marvelous villain, the conclusion to the sword fight and his dying words in the end only emphasize how unbelievably moronic this movie turned out to be.

So if you're planning on watching this, be sure to remember the following:  (1) lower your expectations;  (2) have a good laugh; and (3) be done with it. Don't lament having wasted your time and money on it. 


  1. As a period piece, Tajomaru excels in enticing viewers with its grand scale and lavish production, unfortunately, the plot and execution of it all makes it more of a drab assembly of clichés and contrivances than a brilliant reinvention of a classic tale.

    I had more fun reading your review than watching the actual movie. I love the way you sprinkled this post with examples of great movies and heros...This SHOULD have been a better movie, looking at the cast and teasers you can't but have your expectations up far too high. Well I chose your option No. 3: watched and deleted ;)

  2. Thanks :) Had this review on queue since April but I just couldn't get through writing it. I initially entitled it "Tajomaru Emasculated" but decided to stick with the movie title. Like you, I deleted it after watching it. Made me laugh though.

  3. Anytime I get to see Shun's face is a delight so a big hug for posting his image at the top of your review!

    Oguri Shun tries hard to lend credence to such a pathetic character...

    ^^I've been avoiding this movie mainly because the trailer didn't really overly impress me nor did the movie poster. I know they say not to judge a book by its cover but I really think a movie poster can be make or break. And here, I got the feeling from it this wasn't an Oguri Shun that I'd wanna rush out to see. So when you say he "tried hard," was it more a case of him doing what he could to save a dingily written character or was Shuny a smidge under-par? *crosses fingers*

    Movies (& doramas for that matter) that start off well but then go downhill are so frustrating. The "SIGH. What it waste / What it could have been!" thing always scratches the back of my mind. When I finally get around to watching this, I will surely take in your 3 pointers :))

  4. Btw, forgot to say, Odagiri Joe in Azumi...

    *runs screaming while tugging out own hair*

    Freakshow is an understatement. Only hairstyle he can't pull off I think lol

  5. I had a feeling you'd like the pic, jicks. :) Good call on the trailer and the poster, I wish I had your talent in discerning what movies to avoid. Lol.

    As for your question about Shun's acting-- I'm of the opinion that he did well in some parts and overacted for the most part. But I think it's more because of the script than anything else because Naomitsu really is a frustrating character. He's one whimpy dude and I kept hoping that he would man up but he never did. The twists introduced in the movie were just plain crazy and the dramatic parts have a tendency to make you go, "are you freakin kidding me?!" I think I had about 6-7 instances wherein I said those words out loud while watching this. All I can say is that it's unintentionally funny.

    Ah, Odagiri Joe in Azumi... I always combat that image in my head with the look he sported in Shinobi. Keeps the nightmares away. Hehehe

  6. You did indeed select a very nice pic :))

    I have found that in super dramatic situations Shuny does tend to overact it a little, but often, like you say, it does come down to the stupid scenarios the scriptwriters have put the character in. At the same time though, I have a strong belief that no matter how poorly a role is written, a good or a GREAT actor can always somehow make it work. So it's hard for me sometimes to see someone like Oguri Shun in a "bad role." I don't want to accept that there is such a thing (><")

    All I can say is that it's unintentionally funny^^Well well at least I'll still be entertained xDD

    I loved Odagiri Joe in Shinobi! I think I read somewhere that E.G. isn't so much a fan but I personally liked the film alot. There were some aspects of the plot that felt a bit rushed but I guess I just liked the whole Romeo & Juliet situation. And it was all so pretty to look at ^_^

  7. Omo, 'twas fascinating to watch you rip this movie apart (in other words I enjoyed the review, lol). I wasn't even aware there WAS such a movie. I think I gave up toying with the idea of becoming a Shun completist when I saw his prodigious body of work at D-Wiki. Too many films/dramas to watch in a lifetime!!!

    Shun's been running low on brownie points with me lately (his perf in the Crows Zeros was a bit of a letdown). I need to watch something where he's BRILLIANT and LIKABLE and all those things (besides HanaDan lol). Binbo Danshi perhaps? Just kidding @___@

    @ jicks - ehehehe yeahhh I didn't quite get the whole Shinobi vibe -- although I also think the R+J angle was the film's biggest draw, only I kept comparing the Odagiri Joe + Nakama Yukie scenes to other films out there -- like Tony & Maggie's tragic death scene from Hero.

  8. @E.G.
    lol Is it Shun you'll be watching Binbo Danshi for?? xDD That series is sitting on my hard-drive but I haven't brought myself around to it yet... I'm avoiding Yamada Yu -_-;

    Re Hero, anytime Tony & Maggie get together onscreen together makes for cinematic perfection. I love these two more than I love Eita & Ueno Juri.

    And that is saying a helluva lot.

  9. @ jicks - I don't know, I'm kind of on the fence when it comes to the good/great actor-bad role bit. I get what you mean about how actors can sometimes make the best out of a poorly written role but at the same time, there's only so much an actor can do to salvage a lame-ass movie/series. For instance, I'm a big fan of Nino's work as an actor but I won't force anyone to see stuff of his like Minami-kun no Koibito (blech) and Pikanchi Double (ick) no matter how good a performance he did in it.

    As for Shun, I think he does better playing supporting roles. I liked his bit in Smile more than his role in last year's Tokyo Dogs but then again, the problem with the said drama is that the material wasn't funny at all + he and Hiro didn't have the right chemistry to carry a buddy-series.

    I actually liked the production value of Shinobi-- it was glossy and pretty, the effects were top notch but the story was severely lacking. I agree that the movie seemed a bit rush, there just wasn't enough time to learn about the characters that were in it. Can't say the anime version did better, but at least there was more backstory in it.

    @ E.G. - Something where he's BRILLIANT and LIKABLE... can't think of any. I think Crows Zero would have been it but since you didn't like it that much, I can't really recommend any other movie of his. If you wanna see him in another Takashi Miike feature, you can try checking out Sukiyaki Western Dyango where he has a cameo. The whole movie is in english but seeing that you didn't like Miike's most commercial work, I don't see how this one would fare any better.

    Ahh Binbo Danshi... I think I saw till episode 4 of it. A lot of people were impressed with Shun but the character he played was just generous to a fault and hopelessly naive that I found it hard to watch him try to sell the comedic parts of it.

    And finally, I'm with you guys when it comes to Tony Leung + Maggie Cheung. I so love this screen couple. They certainly brought that residual magic and tension in Hero that made In the Mood for Love so memorable.

  10. @zooey
    I'm with you on the Shun is better in a supporting role thing. Ditto to everything you said over at E.G.'s blog about him too, except I did like him in Hana Kimi. He's definitely the hot topic of conversation atm btwn us ne... I feel like I need to review something on the man now!

    Btw, Shun's English in Sukiyaki... cute xD I do remembering rewinding it a couple of times however lol Still, it was much better than some certain JE wonderboys *coughs*Kurosagi*coughs*

    The good actor / bad role situation is a toughie- I'm the sort of person who will sit thru a poor movie/series IF the actor in it is doing his own thing well. I've seen many Hong Kong series of late where the quality of the show is lamer-than-lame but there is one standout actor or actress who keeps me going. It's fun seeing how much better this person is than everyone & everything else around them.

  11. @ jicks
    "lol Is it Shun you'll be watching Binbo Danshi for?? xDD" << Hahahhahaha. Oh hush now! *hides from Child Services* =P

    Lol, thinking of any Shun drama/movie to review in particular? (I know you're raring to do the Dolittle dorama XD Is it airing now? Haven't been able to keep up with all the new stuff coming out. I only have one pair of eyes... @__@)

    Re Kurosagi: Nothing will ever be worse than those 5 minutes of pure undiluted Pingrish. Ever. Not Jingrish, not Shungrish (lol). Pingrish 4vr and ever!!!

    @ zooey
    Ah all right, lemme take Sukiyaki out for another spin. Get back to you on this one XD

    Binbo Danshi - actually the whole "hopelessly naive" thing about Shun's character is what's keeping me away from this drama. I do NOT want a Kdrama romcom heroine looking like Oguri Shun and speaking Japanese. Oh well. You lasted till Ep. 4 you say? Hey you were practically halfway through! Why'd you stop? lol

    Tony+Maggie = Ultimate Supercouple Loveteam of the Worrrld

  12. @ jicks - He's a hot topic indeed. Not to put any pressure on you but I'm already looking forward to seeing you review something of his.

    I'm the sort of person who will sit thru a poor movie/series IF the actor in it is doing his own thing well.

    Have to admit that I'm guilty of this as well, though I'm trying not to do it as much lately. Time is gold after all and I guess getting old kinda lowered my tolerance for crappy stories. Like E.G., I've fallen asleep a few times while watching a series or a movie-- something that was unthinkable 3-5 years ago when I could stay up till the wee hours of the morning. Nevertheless, I second the part about it's fun to watch your favorite actor outperform everyone else. Lol :)

    @ E.G. - Good luck with Sukiyaki. I also had a hard time getting into it, I think I had like 3 false starts before finally getting on board the whole Tarantino+Engrish+Western spin on the Heike/Genji story. It's weird but at least it's different from most films. I guess you need to be in a certain mindset to finish it.

    And you're right about Binbo Danshi, since I'm almost halfway thru it, I should just suck it up and see the rest of it. Who knows? It might just turn out okay after all...