Takashi Koizumi learned filmmaking by brushing shoulders with one of the great Japanese directors, Akira Kurosawa. As a young man, he apprenticed under the master by serving as Kurosawa’s assistant director in a number of productions that include Ran (1985) and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). Starting in the late 90’s, Koizumi spread his own wings and helmed his own projects, which eventually led him to his own mastery. One of his recent crowning achievements was 2014’s jidaigeki (means ‘period drama’) titled Higurashi no Ki, or known in its English title, A Samurai Chronicle.

Adapted from a novel by Rin Hamuro, the film tells a story about a seasoned samurai, Toda Shukoku (played by Koji Yakusho), who was ordered to commit seppuku (a ritual suicide) after being found in a compromised situation with a concubine of the clan leader. He was given a 10-year period for which he used to chronicle his clan’s history in writing. By the time 7 years had passed, a young hot-blooded samurai, Shozaburo Danno (played by Junichi Okada), is sent to keep an eye on Shukoku. Danno, who began the film by swinging his sword at a colleague, through his encounters with Shukoku learned the quiet life of a samurai who prefers working on the soil to provide for his family. In the process, Danno also comes to believe that the senior samurai is actually innocent from whatever he was accused of. He then took it upon himself to prove it, while helping Shukoku in finishing his writing project.

01 Opening Night JFF - Koizumi Takashi (Photo by Bawuk)

Jakarta was lucky enough to host a week of Japanese film screenings under the name of Japanese Film Festival 2015, in which A Samurai Chronicle was screened as the opening night film. The entire event took place in CGV Blitz Grand Indonesia from November 26 until December 1, 2015. It was organized and made possible by the associations of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, Embassy of Japan in Indonesia, Japan Foundation, Japan Image Council, and DKI Jakarta government, as well as theater-chain CGV Blitz. On the opening night, the simple glory that is this film was accompanied by the presence of its director, Mr. Koizumi. He was there to present the film, as well as do a quick Q&A session at the end of the screening.

In a nutshell, the film’s aesthetic does give clues about Kurosawa’s influence to Koizumi’s work. The direction, choice of shots, as well as the pace of the storytelling highlights the kind of calmness and stillness that is uniquely Japanese. There seems to be an effort to harmonize the presence of the human characters with the landscape of nature. We see Shukoku working his soil in bare feet, Danno practicing his sword in the green forest while the wind breezes, and Shukoku’s son befriends a commoner’s son by the river.

01 ASC - Mieko Harada & Maki Horikita (Source - japenesefilmfestival.net)

However, the film’s main strength is probably the portrayals of the characters. The characters that surround the two samurai from different generations showcase the elegant hardship that is being related to a samurai with a sense of honor and duty. Shukoku’s wife (played by Mieko Harada) doesn’t say much, but she is ever-present in supporting her husband until the day he needs to fulfill his seppuku. Her sadness for the eventual death of her husband does not come out in tears and quivering lips—it comes out in her on-going attempt to maintain a normal household, because no matter what, their lives will eventually go on. Shukoku’s daughter (played by Maki Horikita), has both her father’s quiet bravery and her mother’s sense of duty. Even though she is aware that being a samurai’s wife is tough, she still falls in love with Danno. Meanwhile, her younger brother (played by Haruto Yoshida) must come to terms with his father’s punishment while learning the hard truth of social classes. In a film like this, sometimes the supporting actors actually get more opportunities to create breath-taking performances because they don’t have much to say. In this case, Harada, Horikita, and Yoshida managed to make an impactful presence, for their quiet acceptance makes Shukoku’s journey all the more profound.

Beyond the similarities in the aesthetic, Koizumi did capture another Kurosawa’s staple in this film. Danno’s journey in trying to prove that Shukoku is innocent does come across as a type of truth-seeking mission. The truth-seeking angle of A Samurai Chronicle reminds one of a certain epic whirlwind story that highlights different versions of truth—Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. It is not certain if it was Koizumi’s actual intention, but he seems to be exploring the similar idea of finding the truth. However, perhaps Koizumi had actually taken a step further than his mentor.

Rashomon focuses itself in spotlighting different versions of the truth. It is trying to say that truths are context-bound, that there can be more than one truth. A Samurai Chronicle doesn’t concern itself with this, but it subtlety reminds us about the importance of recording the truth. Shukoku basically spent the last 10 years of his life recording his own history in writing, and while Danno was sent only to make copies of that written history, he eventually made it his duty to record the actual truth. Through this, the film seems to try to say that no matter how many truths exist out there, they don’t mean much unless being recorded.

In a way, Koizumi’s version of an honorable samurai is no longer the portrait of a sword-swinging warrior that stands for bravery and justice. And it doesn’t have to be like that anymore anyway, remembering where and when we are now as a society. After all, Koizumi presented this tale to a contemporary audience in the mid of 2010’s. The sword was an old-fashioned way. His version of an honorable samurai is a truth-seeking, brush-swinging recorder of history.

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Director: Takashi Koizumi
Original Story: Rin Hamuro
Screenplay: Takashi Koizumi, Motomu Furuta
Producer: Taichi Ueda, Atsunobu Matsumoto
Music: Takashi Kako
Cinematography: Shoji Ueda, Hiroyuki Kitazawa
Editing: Hideto Aga
Lighting: Hideaki Yamamoto
Sound Recording: Masato Yano
Production Design: Tadashi Sakai
Costume Design: Kazuko Kurosawa
Distribution/World Sales: Toho Co., Ltd.
Cast: Yoji Yakusho, Junichi Okada, Maki Horikita, Mieko Harada, Shinobu Terajima