How has Yoshihiro Nakamura remained an international secret?
If there was an American equivalent to “A Boy And His Samurai,” it would be the sort of film that would end up earning $100 million from family audiences. It is a sincere, high-concept movie that absolutely plays to formula, but does it with a zeal that is enormously endearing. It is interesting that I’ll be publishing my review of the movie “Real Steel” today as well, because these films both fall into some of the same broad genre definitions.
In both films, there is a boy who needs a father figure, and an unlikely figure, associated primarily with violence, has to learn how to also display a tender and protective side to bond with the boy. In this movie, Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka) is struggling to raise her young son Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), who is almost kindergarten age. He’s at that point where kids accept whatever reality works best for them, where the whole world is made of possibilities and they’re really starting to come into focus as people. Hiroko left her husband because he expected her to play some sort of conventional domestic role, and she needs to work. She needs to have a place in things and be good at something. And so she’s raising Tomoya alone, and one afternoon, the two of them meet Yasube (Ryo Nishikikido), who appears to be a genuine samurai from the Edo period, somehow transported to modern Tokyo. So of course, Tomoya takes him home.
Yasube has been trapped in this world without any knowledge of how to conduct himself or how to survive, so he throws himself on the mercy of this mother and son, and in return, he offers to play the role that Hiroko’s husband never could, tending to the house and to Tomoya and leaving her free to dedicate her full attention to her job. Yasube is so stiff and formal that it’s almost like having a domestic robot, but slowly, Hiroko starts to warm to this soldier out of time. She sees how he is with Tomoya, and she sees what it means to the boy. And this is where Nakamura really shines with this film, the relationship he builds between samurai and child, between someone so fierce and stern and someone so sweet and gentle. It is delicately etched work, and very funny besides. There are many places where I think the film is fairly naked in the way it manipulates the audience, and I also don’t care. I think the film does it so well, with so much good will and genuine charm that I almost looked forward to seeing them play the next beat in the formula.
Nishikikido gives a great performance here, and Tomosaka is lovely, warm and at times laugh out loud funny. She has to keep some sort of grip on normal in the midst of this rather outsized idea about time travel, caring for people, and the power of a great dessert, and the more real she plays it, the funnier it makes Nishikikido’s work seem. Fuku Suzuki is almost too young to be called an actor, but Nakamura manages to capture something very real between these characters. Watching the way this film builds to a sports movie finish in one of the most unlikely settings imaginable, I was struck by just what a sweet open nature there is to the work that Nakamura’s made so far. I love “Fish Story.” I love “Golden Slumber.” And I feel like I need to start seeing his other work immediately. I need to see “The Triumphant Return Of General Rouge,” the sequel to “The Glorious Team Batista,” and “The Two In Tracksuits” and “The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God” and I need to see them soon. I’m fascinated by this guy’s generous, human attitude towards character and story. He sees the connections that make this world so absurd and so beautiful, and he knows how to dramatize those moments that makes us all believe in something bigger. He is, like Hayao Miyazaki, a believer in the better parts of our nature as well as an observer of our weaker moments. I think it’s thrilling to see a filmmaker like this working in film after film, and I can only hope that at some point, he’s going to get the recognition he deserves.
There’s a reason this won the Audience Award here at Fantastic Fest tonight. For now, I’ll just say that if you have any chance to see “A Boy And His Samurai,” take it. You can thank me later.