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Friday, September 16, 2011

TAJOMARU: AVENGING BLADE -- DVD review by porfle

In director Hiroyuki Nakano's action-drama TAJOMARU: AVENGING BLADE (2009), which takes place in Japan of 500 years ago, the plot isn't simply the glue that holds a succession of swordfights together.  You might even call it slow, but the story is more than compelling enough to make the wait between clashing blades worthwhile.

The pretitles sequence introduces us to the main characters as children, with older brother Nobutsuna the impending heir to the house of Hatakeyama--thus future deputy to the Shogun--and his younger brother Naomitsu existing merely to serve them.  Naomitsu's good fortune is the love of Ako, daughter to the Shogun' counsellor, which makes Nobutsuna jealous.  When their family retainers catch a starving young thief stealing a potato one day, kindhearted Naomitsu adopts him as a servant and friend and names him Sakuramaru. 

At first, this sequence comes off as a bit overly charming, but it lays the groundwork for future resentments and betrayals among the characters and ends on a dark note, with the randy old Shogun taking an unhealthy interest in Sakuramaru.  Years later, Nobutsuna's (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) jealousy and desire for a fortune in gold soon to be inherited by Ako will result in Naomitsu (Shun Oguri) and Ako (Yuki Shibamoto) fleeing into the wilderness with Sakuramaru (Kei Tanaka) hot on their heels.  This is just the beginning of Naomitsu's long and winding odyssey through a series of tragic events.

A key sequence involves the young lovers' encounter in the woods with an eccentric bandit named Tajomaru.  Those who have seen Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON will probably recognize the name, as that film featured Toshiro Mifune in the same role.  Here, he captures the two and manages to cause a rift between them which results in Ako abandoning Naomitsu to his fate.  When Naomitsu defeats Tajomaru in battle, the old bandit bestows upon him both his legendary name and his sword.  Taking up with a comical band of thieves and becoming their leader, his new life offers him freedom while giving the film its only lighthearted moments. 

Later, when Naomitsu is captured attempting to return home in search of Ako, a lengthy trial to establish his true identity allows various characters to relate their conflicting versions of events in another nod to RASHOMON.  As is most of the film, this sequence is absorbing and dramatic (some might say melodramatic, especially when Shun Oguri displays a remarkable ability to turn on the waterworks) with several surprising twists and turns. 

This leads to yet another potentially tragic development for our hero as he and Ako are cast into something called the Pit of Hell, which is pretty much as bad as it sounds.  Needless to say, Naomitsu eventually fights his way back for an opportunity to take on the film's main villain (who shall remain nameless here) and get his revenge in an all-or-nothing battle that reminded me of the long-awaited climactic brawl in THE SPOILERS.  As with the other swordfights which punctuate the story, it's furious and hard-hitting in addition to being realistically and rather elegantly staged, with several shots resembling dynamically-drawn panels from a manga.

Hiroyuki Nakano's direction is solid and the film is filled with beautiful imagery.  Performances are good, with Naomitsu-as-Tajomaru's fiercely loyal band of thieves being among my favorite characters.  The musical score is an odd mix of the traditional with occasional rock songs, which works pretty well for the most part.

The DVD from Funimation is in 16x9 widescreen with Japanese 5.1 and English surround soundtracks.  Subtitles are in English.  In addition to some Funimation trailers, the bonus feature is a Japanese promo for the film which is wonderfully breathless and hyperbole-packed.  The combo pack contains both the DVD and Blu-Ray versions. 

The story of TAJOMARU: AVENGING BLADE unfolds at a leisurely pace but rewards patient viewers with plenty of soulful drama along with some rousing battle action.  While hardly epic in scale, it doesn't need hundreds of extras or a lot of CGI effects to be entertaining.

Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD combo at

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