by Jason Suzuki
During the Tokugawa era much cultural shift began to take place. Not only was it the beginning of the changes to the role that samurai would play in society following the sengoku era, but shifts toward matters of business seemed to be underway. Stories depicted in ukiyo-e and elsewhere usually had some sort of financial aspect to them. It's this aspect that dominates the latest film from Fish Story and The Snow White Murder Case craftsman Yoshihiro Namakura, which takes place in 18th century Japan in a small post town where a group of commoners hatch a selfless scheme in order to benefit the town and its future. Despite his ability to produce high quality, affecting works in any genre, The Magnificent Nine has all the elements of a Nakamura film except one: entertaining.
Struggling to survive and grow a business under the taxation of their lord, Kokudaya and Sugawaraya (Sadao Abe and Eita) hatch a plan to loan money to the lord and charge interest, which would then be used to buy horses for the town. Rather, it's Sugawaraya who hatches the plan and Kokudaya whose excitement at the prospect helps propel it into action. From here the film follows a simple formula. Meet new person, tell of plan, win person over with the selfless plan, get money, need more money, repeat. It's English title even sells the film short, many more than nine people sacrifice for this endeavor and the attempt to create a parallel to Kurosawa's masterwork loses the point of the film's collectivism.
Like his best work The Magnificent Nine is a film about perseverance and going against the odds. Like much of his output the motif of perseverance allows for interesting interactions between the past and the present. Nine has all these elements but doesn't work due to very little time for character that not even its good-hearted didacticism can save from being overlong and with little narrative substance. It's a testament to Nakamura and his cast that the film remains for the most part enjoyable if sadly forgettable and in its last half hard to sit through. Watching people beg for money becomes less enjoyable when it takes up the bulk of the film and when the stakes of death are not properly conveyed. Even his use of blending past and present comes off as lazy and doesn't quite register, even though it becomes a major element to the final third of the film as well as the film's final shot!
Nakamura still has many successes under his belt. Films that are immense crowd pleasers while also depicting characters worth cheering for as they represent under dogs and those who pursue a goal even to self ruin, only to have that hope benefit future generations and those around them. This could have been yet another one of those films and on paper it sounds like it. Unfortunately it should have stayed on the paper of the source novel it is derived from.
The Magnificent Nine plays Saturday, July 16 at Japan Cuts 2016.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.