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Be a Man! Samurai School
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by Jay Seaver

"Tak Sakaguchi should maybe stick to the punching and kicking."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Tak Sakaguchi was at the Fantasia screening of "Be a Man! Samurai School", and every once in a while, the writer/director/star would pause the Q&A, ask if we wanted to see some action, and engage in a little stage fighting with another stuntman who was in town as a guest of the festival. That was a big crowd-pleaser; and it's what Sakaguchi is best at. He's not exactly bad at comedy, but he does tend to fall back on what he knows.

Here, Sakaguchi plays Momotaro Tsurugi, one of a number of students starting the new year at the little-known but highly-exclusive school of the title. There's also clumsy Tyuji Tomaru (Shin'taro Yameda), and scarred Genji Togashi (Shoei), who cries out "grit!" to show his desire to have the school make him a man. Less enthusiastic is Hidemaro Gokuji (Hiroyuki Onoue), who comes from a long line of samurai and yakuza but prefers a far less violent lifestyle himself. This, of course, will not be found at Sakigake!! Otokojuku, which is every cliché about abusive teacher-student and upperclassman-freshman relations turned up to eleven. And that's before the return of Omito Date (Hideo Sakaki), an expelled student looking for revenge.

Those who've seen Cromartie High School will note that Sakaguchi is in somewhat familiar territory for his writing and directing debut: As in Cromartie, much of the movie, especially in the first half, is episodic, a group of loosely linked sketches that are generally pretty amusing, although some jokes might be getting lost in translation. The casting sometimes seems strange, too - none of the actors playing teenagers appear to be under twenty-five; thirty-two year-old Sakaguchi actually comes the closest. There's this weird sequence in the middle when bulky, full-mustached Genji is on a blind date with a girl who actually looks like a schoolgirl, and Western audiences might not be sure how to react - are we supposed to take it at face value of this being a mis-match because the guy is ugly, should we just overlook the fact that it looks like he could be this teenage girl's father, or is this some sort of gag on how Japanese movies often seem cast high-school boys with actors five years older than the actresses playing high-school girls? That segment lands with a thud, which is unfortunate, because a lot of the other jokes work.

The last act feels a little off, too - as much as the film has had some acrobatic action and goofs on students getting beaten, it hasn't really been a "fight to the death!" movie. Sakaguchi stages the three big fights at the end pretty well, but that doesn't really seem to be what the movie was building to. Plus, a couple of the movie's best jokes happen when cutting away from those fights. It's a tough fit, and points up what may be a weakness of Sakaguchi as a first-time director: He's good at action, and very good at comedy, but doesn't quite have the storytelling chops yet to mix them to good effect.

(It makes me wonder what to make of a comment by another director in another Q&A; Ryuhei Kitamura mentions he wrote a screenplay for Sakaguchi to direct, and and though he wrote a horror movie, Sakaguchi opted to shoot it as a comedy. Broad comedy and action seem to be his comfort zone, which might be expected from a guy who has for the most part been a physical performer.)

He's a good enough actor, though Hiroyuki Onoue is the go-to guy for character-based comedy. There's not a lot of great acting required here, though - most of the comedy is very broad, and though that's not as easy as it looks, it's well within the cast's capabilities. The folks who are called on to fight do pretty well with that.

There's some pretty solid laughs in "Be a Man! Samurai School", and the action isn't bad either. It's just the putting them together that proves to be tricky.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17583&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/07/08 13:03:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

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  DVD: 12-Mar-2009

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