By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
A rollicking period adventure that eventually transforms into something more ruminative, Sanada Ten Braves manages to juggle our emotions with confident ease, guided by an experienced film-maker who is in very good form indeed.
Set near the end of the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603), we see not only how renowned samurai warrior Yukimura Sanada (Masaya Kato) has achieved almost mythic status as a brilliant strategist, but also the way in which his ten braves are recruited. Starting with Sasuke Sarutobi (Kankuro Nakamura), each soldier is brought on board for their particular set of skills, largely used for nefarious means or merely just to survive.
This band of misfits start to get a reputation of their own, and before long they, along with their famous leader, are invited to appear before the Toyotomi clan, who are about to be targeted by the Tokugawa Shogunate, who have already toppled a number of other regional kingdoms. With the Sanada Ten Braves on board, the clan believe they have a chance of holding off the Shogunate’s considerable forces.
What the Toyotomi clan are unaware of is that Sanada isn’t quite the military mind they think he is, and in fact he receives his carefully constructed plans from Sasuke and his close colleague Saizo Kirigakure (Tori Matsuzaka), hilariously delivered via a device made by Sasuke. If ever this secret was uncovered, the group’s stature, along with their profitable workload, would disappear.
Saizo has problems of his own, always watching his back for the ninja collective he abandoned in order to join the Braves. Most aggrieved is Hotaru (Yuko Oshima), a talented female assassin who harboured feelings for Saizo.
As the battle with Tokugawa plays out (known as the Siege of Osaka), each warrior starts to discover who they really are, and how this specific conflict is affecting them and their comrades, leading to a fiery, spectacular finale where the true impact of war is made clear to everyone.
Sanada Ten Braves begins as one kind of film, but clearly and concisely shifts tone and ground as its story moves on. Those expecting an elaborate action/adventure will have expectations initially met, with the early sections delivering exuberantly staged combat, extroverted characters, and lively comedy (the extended prologue is even shown in animated form). As the film progresses, the material changes shape and direction, introducing more dramatic elements, as well as a fascinating commentary on the truths and half-truths of war history, and how exaggerated some of it may actually be. The legends we study, and the real flesh-and-blood individuals who existed may be completely different figures altogether, embellished to either instil fear into an enemy faction or boost the pride of a vulnerable nation.
This change may catch some movie-goers off-guard, but for those who remain on its retuned wavelength, will be treated to a film that offers more substance than may have first appeared. Openly introducing war as a comic book fantasy for young males, who relish the grandiose exploits of indestructible warriors that have been written or drawn in larger-than-life fashion, plays to the modern norm, but an intelligent subversion of that attitude gradually pervades what we are watching onscreen. The boys’ own adventure mentality starts to disappear, and a mournful sense of consequence takes over. This ensures that the inevitable finale battle is genuinely enthralling and emotionally satisfying.
Performances are well modulated, keeping in touch with the slowly changing material. Nakamura is a suitable bundle of energy as Sasuke, a self-assured con-man who not only has managed to bring all these disparate people together, but made them believe they are better than what society deems them to be. His almost father-son relationship with Sanada is also well-handled. Matsuzaka is a nice foil for Nakamura, presenting a more taciturn persona that is always trying to keep his enthusiastic colleague on track. Kato perfectly balances Sanada’s warrior charade with the responsibility he feels towards his young soldiers, and never allows his character to appear imbecilic or vain.
The screenplay by Tetsuya Suzuki, adapted from the stage play by Nozomi Makino (which in turn is based on the novel Sanada Sandaiki), gives each character a chance to make an impression, while examining the turmoil going on around them. Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi then effectively weaves all these various people, conflicts, and tones together with consummate skill, beautifully connecting material that could have easily become chaotic and fractured. Tsutsumi has built up an eclectic body of work, and has remained an intriguing film-maker because of his willingness to choose varied projects. Some of his films include the 20th Century Boys trilogy, Initiation Love, Eight Ranger 1 and 2, 2LDK, and Memories Of Tomorrow, starring Ken Watanabe and seemingly inspiring the Julianne Moore drama Still Alice.
Production values are first-rate, and the fight choreography is always convincingly staged and crafted.
The one main quibble I have is with a particular sub-plot that is introduced early on, unfortunately telegraphing its obvious destination. For anyone that has seen a certain Oscar-winning film from the 1970’s, this one story thread will seem familiar and predictable.
Sanada Ten Braves belies its stage origins (Tsutsumi, Nakamura, and Matsuzaka all worked on the play) with a cinematically stylish rendering, bringing its story to the big screen with passion and care. Tsutsumi organically transforms the material from one medium to another, providing audiences with large scale entertainment that thankfully never forgets the characters who are running amongst these enormous sets and locales.