Single mom Yusa is doing all she can to raise her son Tomoya on her own. In addition to her struggles as a mom, her career is stuck in something of an unconquerable rut as idiotic bosses and incompetent tech support beset her at every turn. One day, while walking home with Tomoya, she spies a man dressed as a samurai standing outside their local grocery store. She dismisses it as a marketing ploy until that same samurai befriends her son and finds his way into her life. He claims to have come from another time and Yusa allows the samurai, named Kajima, to stay in her home out of pity. But is this man completely unbalanced or does he actually hale from an ancient past?
A Boy and His Samurai is both highly appropriate for Fantastic Fest and one of the greatest outliers in the fest’s short history. We have developed a reputation for welcoming the weirdest, wildest, most extreme cinema from all over the world. The genres we regularly visit with are horror, sci-fi, crime and action. Rarely do we add heartfelt family dramedy to that mix. But the film is so thoroughly sincere and heartfelt, not to mention being entirely beholden to the tropes of samurai cinema, that it had no problem finding an overwhelmingly positive reception at this year’s fest.
Director Yoshihiro Nakamura is in many ways already Fantastic Fest royalty after his film Fish Story wowed fest-goers in 2009 and his followup Golden Slumber was widely considered one of the very best films of last year’s festival. We may have been expecting great things from his this year, but we could not have imagined how he would deliver. A Boy and His Samurai manages to be disarmingly funny in addition to being deeply affecting and endlessly earnest. There is not a cheap laugh to be found as all the humor is based on character dynamics and irresistibly sweet moments.
As with any time traveling fish-out-of-water story, many of the funniest moments in A Boy and His Samurai stem from conflicting value sets and how the characters adjust/react to them. While these days most people ignore misbehaving children in a restaurant—as the parents try feebly to apply modern child psychology to trick them into following instructions—Kajima sounds a warrior’s yawp and commands obedience; providing both a hilariously abrupt end to the child’s misdeeds and a callback to the throaty roars indicative of the line delivery in most samurai cinema. Kajima also has a hard time grasping the idea of Yusa being a career woman. He can’t wrap his head around a woman not tending the house. This both allows for comedic table turning when Kajima agrees to make the “sacrifice” of tending her household as a man and communicates universally outdated sexual politics and the humor inherent in satirizing them.
A Boy and His Samurai is also a testament to the universality of loneliness. What makes this film so effective is its bittersweet humanism. Despite using supernatural elements to highlight them, the film is rooted in the importance of shared human experiences. All the characters in this film suffer from a crippling loneliness that ultimately draws them together. Kajima is disconnected from everything he knows, Tomoya has no friends his own age, and Yusa’s husband divorced her over her decision to pursue her career. Our hearts go out to them and, in our empathy, we relish every lighthearted moment that allows for an escape from that loneliness. The sweetest moments in the film, the moments that have even the most hardened horrorphiles tearing up, are the moments wherein the characters to whom Nakamura has done such an incredible job connecting us are faced or threatened with a return to that devastating loneliness. There could have been a complete absence of subtitles on the screen and the impact of those moments still would have easily translated.
There is not a bad performance to be found in the entire film, but Ryo Nishikido as the wayward samurai is particularly strong. There is a genuine sense of discovery in his performance not only as he adapts to live in a completely new era, but also as his hidden talent for baking and crafting insanely complex cakes evolves. This discovery is mirrored and augmented as young Tomoya grows to be an apt confectionary apprentice--adorable in any language.
Like the custard that proves to be Kajima’s specialty, A Boy and His Samurai is a sweet, tender treat that left a smile on the lips of everyone lucky enough to partake of it at Fantastic Fest.