I’m a big fan of Yoshihiro Nakamura. Ever since I saw his masterpiece Fish Story years ago I’ve made it a point to see his new films whenever they become available. Thankfully, the Japan Cuts curators always seem to include his latest works in their line-ups and 2016 is no exception. This year sees the US premiere of Tono, Risoku de Gozaru! aka The Magnificent Nine.
Based on a true story and set in 18th century Japan, The Magnificent Nine focuses on a poor post-town which is slowly dwindling in its population due to the land taxes and unfair laws that the samurai rulers have put into place. One day, tea grower Tokuheiji Sugawaraya (Eita) and his sake brewing pal Juzaburo Kokutaya (Sadao Abe) come up with a genius idea that could help bring some financial stability to the poor farmers in the village. They decide they’ll lend money to the government so that they can collect interest payments that will allow them to acquire more horses and ease the burden of those who have to carry the trade goods. To do so, the duo need to raise a rather large amount and so they determine they need 10 people to contribute equal shares with the knowledge that they will get none of it back. With their lives and reputations on the line, this gesture of (almost) pure selflessness is all to ensure the survival of their town.
On paper, The Magnificent Nine could go one of two ways, it could be a heavy drama in the vein of The Seven Samurai but, in the hands of Nakamura, you get a period comedy. Unfortunately, it ends up going the route of dramedy because there is a significant amount of dead time and drama after the first 40 minutes or so. This isn’t to say that there isn’t humor scattered throughout the entire film, quite the contrary, Nakamura’s comedic timing, when appropriate, is spot on. A lot of it is just silence and hilariously shocked faces with a couple of funny bits of dialogue, but you’d be surprise how many laughs come from nothing but those gazes. This is a testament not only to the script and directing but also actors and their ability to evoke exaggerated emotions.
While the movie spans many years, it cuts the waiting period for us as an audience once money is collected and then resumes when they realize they’re still short the necessary funds to approach the han (Samurai estate), sending the group on a recruiting mission to get more contributions. While this certainly helps speed up the timeline, the amount of time the film takes to get the financial support from 9+ people takes a while and really bogs down the film, moving from what would be comedic territory into drama territory.
The Magnificent Nine was, personally, a disappointment. It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Nakamura has built himself a reputation of directing interesting films with terrific results. This one though felt dragged out and lacked the serious creative punches his other films have been known to have (with the exception being the educational editing). It also felt more dramatic than it was billed as so, with my brain being ready for mostly comedy, I left disappointed that I wasn’t laughing as hard or as often as I would have liked. That being said, by most standards, the film is still pretty good but it just doesn’t come close to being a favorite of mine in the Nakamura filmography.