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Tajomaru: Avenging Blade Blu-ray/DVD Combo Review

11 min read

When justice is sacrificed for expediency is there any sin in becoming an outlaw?

What They Say:
In the days of feudal Japan bandits ruled the forests. Tajomaru was the king of criminals—his ruthless character terrorized villagers and royalty across the country. As the legend was known, whoever killed the infamous thief inherited his name, his sword and his reputation.
Up-and-coming actor Shun Oguri (Sukiyaki Western Django) stars as Naomitsu, a nobleman forced to flee the capital by conspirators embroiled in jealousy. In a desperate struggle with the nefarious Tajomaru, Naomitsu loses the love of his life, Ako, but gains a new title and the coveted blade, The Cutting Wave. As he wages war on his betrayers in furious battles—and even braves the depths of the Pit of Hell—bodies will fall and vengeance will be served by the great bandit king.

The Review:
Please note: This is a BD/DVD combo release. The version of the film viewed was from the Blu-Ray disc and so all technical comments from that.

Audio:
The Blu-Ray disc contains a TrueHD 5.1 track for both the original Japanese that the feature was filmed in and the English dub. For the purpose of this review the Japanese tack was used and it is a rather strong one. Most of the dialogue is present from the center speaker with the additional speakers being used to help fill up the ambient noise. The track presents the dialogue, music and effect with no dropouts or distortions noticed. The English track was also spot checked and was found to be clear, though FUNimation did what sounds like a more thorough job with the mix as sometimes a crowd event on the Japanese track fails to use the other two front speakers to help give a feel for being in a large gathering.

Video:
Originally released to theaters in 2009 Tajomaru: Avenging Blade is encoded in 1080p is presented 16.9 ratio and in HD native. Frankly it is a gorgeous visual treat that really shows off the care used to assemble all the various visual elements in the film and the breathtaking beauty in the environments they shot the film in and against. The video isn’t flawless as there are some black flecks noticed in strong reds at times, a little aliasing is present in the title and there are a couple film pops from the source material as well noticed in the viewing. Other than that the visuals come across strong and there is a slight presence of grain that adds a nice feel to the imagery and keeps the video from being a little too strong and feeling almost fake.

Packaging:
The release is packaged in a standard DVD keep case that contains a flip tray that allows the BD and DVD discs to each have their own spot and not have to stack on top of each other. The cover uses a split look with the main three characters present in a variety of poses against a picturesque background of some of the historical noble houses of the day in the upper half of the cover space. The bottom portion of the cover features an image of a group of bandits fighting in a field of golden stalks that are about waist high which creates a rather dramatic look while the film title is placed in a burgundy banner between the two picture elements.

The back features a large image of the main character set against a sky colored in deep red and orange with a couple of stills and the technical information being present under the image. The spine uses the deep red cover with a small image of the lead at the top and a gold colored title written vertically. Unfortunately the standard Blu-Ray banner is present and its blue color clashes with the rest of the design as it wraps around the top portion of the cover. The discs themselves both use the top image from the front cover with the BD using a closer shot of the image than the DVD uses.

Menu:
The menu is a full screen display that has several scenes from the movie playing in its background throughout with the options being placed in a small red box surrounded by a yellow boarder. All selectable options when chosen cause that option’s choices to pop up in the box. The menu uses a white color for these options with the highlighted one being shown in a light blue color. The menu is quick to respond to changes in selection and to implement choices and even has sound effects for these, though the changing of the selection sound is rather tinny and hollow compared to implementing a selections sword drawing sound effect.

Extras:
Present on this release is a Making of Tajomaru featurette which contains some behind the scenes work as well as some interviews from the cast and crew during production. It is a bit odd in that it feels promotional but there is a good deal shown during it that almost seems to cross into the realm of spoilers, so I’d recommend not watching this extra first.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The world of feudal Japan is often associated with honor and some rather spectacular imagery of period buildings and clothing but it also was one where a person’s role in life was determined by birth and the caste system was set solidly throughout society. While it could be stifling many learned to just accept it as that was the way it was and it is in this environment a young man named Naomitsu grows up.

He is the second son of the Hatakeyama family which serves a Deputy to the shogun and as such his role in life will be to always be positioned behind his older brother Nobutsuna and to be in the role of supporting him. This situation isn’t exactly ideal but it is one Naomitsu doesn’t exactly regret either as it is just the way things are. As children the brothers play together with Ako, the daughter of another powerful family as the three are able to enjoy the rather idealistic peaceful and leisurely days their family’s status provides them.

One day as they are returning from sword practice a thief is discovered in the Hatakeyama grounds. Before the thief is executed Naomitsu manages to convince the retainers to spare the youth and he gives the youth the name Sakuramaru. The youth is made Naomitsu’s servant and then raised along with the three children as if equal but an encounter with the shogun- a man who has a thing for the youth- will change everyone’s lives in ways they can’t even imagine in the future.

Time advances and the boys are now young men and on the verge of coming into their fate. Naomitsu has embraced his role in life as he is engaged to Ako and he decides that that is all he wants out of life as he continues to support his older brother. Life isn’t going to play along though when the Shogun makes a proclamation that the man who marries Ako will inherit her fortune along with obtaining the position of Deputy after her parents die suddenly of the plague.

This move sets the two brothers at odds as the elder brother Nobutsuna becomes obsessed with making Ako his so he can claim his rightful spot as Deputy. With a “helpful” push from Sakuramaru that further pushes Nobutsuna into a spot where he breaks psychologically and he forces himself upon her. Sakuramaru then “helpfully” comes to warn the younger brother of his older brother’s actions and when Naomitsu sees Ako in distress he chooses to run away with her and throw everything else away. This attempt goes awry though as he takes a few loyal followers with him, unknowingly including a treasonous Sakuramaru who cuts down the other followers but misses the chance to get Naomitsu when they stop for the evening.

As the two lovers get lost in the forest as they are not accustom to the road or finding their own way they come across a bandit who reveals himself to be the infamous Tajomaru- a man whose legend has spread throughout the land and whose name is even known in the capitol. Naomitsu attempts to fight the man but he is overpowered and knocked unconscious fairly easily. When he comes to he finds he is tied to a tree and Tajomaru tells him that he raped Ako while he was out. When Tajomaru offers to let them go Ako makes a startling announcement- she will go with Tajomaru as his wife if only he kills Naomitsu first since he is to blame for her current situation. Tajomaru feels pity for Naomitsu over the traitorous woman and he cuts Naomitsu free but finds that Naomitsu stabs him in the back when Ako distracts him by running off.

As Naomitsu is dealing with his crushing shock of betrayal Tajomaru explains to him while barely clinging to the last vestiges of life that since he killed Tajomaru, he now is Tajomaru. It turns out Tajomaru is a title that has been passed down for centuries when Tajomaru is killed and the bandit who did it then taking on the name. With the title comes the famous sword Namikiri which proves ones identity as Tajomaru and the new name owner is bequeathed the philosophy that Tajomaru must live by- fulfilling his desires to their fullest.

With this encounter and its fall out Naomitsu throws away his name for this new one and he learns to live as Tajomaru with some help. When he hears talk that “Naomitsu” is in position to become the shogun’s Deputy however he rides to his ancestral home to find another in his place and he himself condemned to die because of his new name and the crimes that go with it. That isn’t all he will find there as “Tajomaru” will discover that many of the things he thought he knew about events, allies and even justice don’t match up to what he had come to believe. With a heart in turmoil will he truly take up the role of Tajomaru and live according to the philosophy of fulfilling his desires- no matter what it may be that he desires or what person or obstacle stands in his way?

The first thing that jumps out upon watching the film is the stunning visuals used in the film and the care taken to either find the perfect location and shots or mockup the environment to provide the look with wonderful success. The environment isn’t the only thing well dressed either as the costumes, weapons and even choreography are rather top notch and fit well into this really solidly presented film. To complement the visuals a unique style was chosen for the soundtrack that uses a very rich accompaniment of traditional instruments as well as some more modern pop music that get inserted a few times. This actually works surprisingly well as it helps create a feel that the film is something out of the ordinary as a good deal of period films can start to blur together over time and this aspect provides a fresh take on the genera.

What really causes the film to sparkle though is the presence that the features star, Shun Oguri, brings to the role and his ability to handle some of the very broad emotions that he is going to be required to show. But it isn’t just him alone as the chemistry between him and his fellow actors really helps carry almost every scene, even some of the more farfetched ones. There are a few performances that don’t quite match this level and one death scene in particular that feels almost like a parody in its delivery but overall this is a very solid cast delivering a performance based off a rather solid script.

Probably the films greatest weakness lies in its ambitious scope. With a story that spans so many emotions and events one would imagine that it must cover a bit of time but the weight of its passage just isn’t present outside the first jump from the characters childhood to adulthood. While it isn’t necessary for the film to take place over a certain number of years the feeling that this is all happening in a short span undercuts the impact of scenes as one doesn’t quite get the sense that there has been enough space for the individuals to have gone through quite as many of the changes as they did and still function as shock would likely still be present. This lack of presence of time undercuts the depth of some emotions as well as the bonds forged during the film and weakens the impact of some of the bonds that are presented. The actors do an admirable job of covering this up but the presence of times impact is still noticeable and it is missed.

Also the film has a bit of an odd flow to it as it seems to peak and crest at some unusual times which leads to a bit of a disconcerting feeling like the film wants the viewer to find the work just a bit off in its pacing. There is just something here that makes it feel like the timing of events needed to be worked out more and there is one scene in particular that feels like it is building to the film climax which disrupts evenness of the story when it turns out it isn’t. It is such a powerful scene in the film that it kind of depletes the viewer mentally and while an argument can be made from a film study perspective that this works to deepen the next scenes visuals and atmosphere, to less studied eyes it kind of just takes the wind out of the films sails. The scene is such that it leaves me in a quandary as it is powerful and it fits the elements well but I just don’t know where it would mesh better, but its’ ideal location is not where it currently is for the drop it causes in the stream of the story.

One final note, the character Tajomaru appears in the 1922 novel In a Grove which was later adapted into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. While this film and that one don’t share a lot of similarities there are still some as one of the elements in both features involved a rape and the odd incidents after it which bear some relation to other events though they aren’t direct. While this film doesn’t approach the concept of multiple perceptions of the same event it does present more of a singular view where a character has to try to figure out the truth. Much like in Rashomon one is asked to take a close look at humanity in the form of these individuals and their self serving nature, though there may be some hope held out as well.

In Summary:
Tajomaru: Avenging Blade is an ambitious tale of love and betrayal amid feudal societies demands set amidst a gorgeous backdrop with some equally inspired music to help set the mood. With some stellar performances and surprising twists the film is sure to keep audiences guessing as to the truth behind the words that individuals use and the feelings they secretly harbor as they clash emotionally and sometimes physically against each other with the speed and strength of swords.

Features:
Japanese Language, English Language, English Subtitles, Making Of

Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B-
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: September 20th, 2011
MSRP: $29.98
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.