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Magnificent Nine (aka Lord, It's Interest!), The
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by Jay Seaver

"A samruai comedy of some interest."
4 stars

There’s a thread running through many of director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s best films that makes them leave an even better impression than they might, an often-upbeat ability to find power in community. Think of the seemingly-disconnected threads that come together in "Fish Story", or the friendships that rescue a framed fugitive in "Golden Slumbers", stories where connection is not so much the lesson that the protagonist must learn but the force which determines whether people will thrive or not. "The Magnificent Nine" is likely his most literal presentation of this idea, a friendly primer on what people can accomplish working together.

After a brief prologue, the film picks up in 1766, when sake brewer Juzaburo Kokudaya (Sadao Abe) is returning to his hometown of Oshioka with a new young wife (Maika Yamamoto), becoming reacquainted with old friend Tokuheiji Sugawaraya (Eita), a tea grower who explains the bind that the town is in - the feudal lord is broke, so he increases taxes; since nobody can pay, they go into debt; leaving town is seen as running out on your debts and gets you arrested, but without a way to pay them off; and a bad harvest exacerbates the cycle, with Jinnai Asanoya (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a fellow brewer and owner of the town’s general store, really the only one making any money. One night, Juzaburo idly ponders that if the people of the town were to pool what cash they had and make a loan to the lord, they could likely live on the interest. Toki (Yuko Takeuchi), the owner of the local bar, is especially taken with the idea, and starts organizing, although it must be done in secret, as the peasantry loaning to the gentry is technically illegal.

The plan is, of course, more complicated than that, needing, as you might guess from the English name it has been given, at least nine investors, back-channel approaches through friendly retainers, and some trickery with how certain commodities have different prices depending on whether they are paid for with gold and silver. I suspect that the exact mechanics of the plan Juzaburo and Tokuheiji come up with may be somewhat opaque, even for a Japanese audience, although Nakamura and co-writer Kenichi Suzuki (working from a novel by Michifumi Isoda) do a good job in making just enough clear that the general type and difficulty of the challenges the group faces is easy to follow, pushing the audience toward concern, discomfort, and relief as is appropriate, while also giving some appreciation of the balance of clever and desperate they must be to come up with this plan.

The English title winds up being a bit misleading - though the film has a fair-sized ensemble, there are four characters who wind up being central. Of them, Juzaburo and Sugawaraya are the most fun to watch actually play off each other, with Eita giving the latter the obvious enthusiasm for the plan while Sadao Abe’s Juzaburo is the one whose methodical, mind is going to make it work. The pair are fun to watch play off each other, with Abe never quite playing Juzaburo as frantic but nevertheless showing a nicely nuanced gain in confidence as the film goes on, while Eita boosts every scene he’s in, making it a little more frantic or upbeat, but also highlighting the frustration and bitterness Sugawaraya feels as his town withers and the people with the resources to do anything about it seem unconcerned. Yuko Takeuchi delivers a less ambiguous spark as Toki; her character is a little more familiar - the bartender who knows how the whole town is put together and has a friendly but sharp word for everyone there is a staple on both sides of every ocean - but she’s fun to watch as Toki becomes more involved. The weakest link among the main cast is probably Satoshi Tsumabuki, and he’s far from a negative; the movie just asks too much, taking him from a side character in the first half of the film to a major player toward the end, built up in a way that threatens to make the movie about his character rather than the group, threatening to derail what should be big moments for the other characters.

The film does have room for that, though, as it actually covers a surprising amount of time even if you exclude the possibly extraneous prologue and kind of delightful epilogue, with more title cards explaining that a few months or years have passed than one might expect for a story that doesn’t seem conventionally “epic”. But for as much as movies often win people over in the spaces between the main events, the incremental approach Nakamura takes works for his movie; he pushes things forward with little jokes and scenes where people play off each other awkwardly before finding common ground, pivoting easily to heartfelt sincerity when that sort of climax is needed and an awareness of the absurdity of the whole situation for another. Nakamura isn’t trafficking in the huge laugh here, as much as the steady stream, and the film is at its weakest when he goes for the big, stirring declaration.

But that’s fine. The big moment would kind of be missing the point, as Nakamura spends the entire movie gently pushing the idea that a community cannot survive and thrive based on the efforts of a mere portion. For instance, when investment stalls, the inclusion of a part of the community that the brewing industry overlooked plays as a gentle rebuke to their short-sightedness. There’s also a realistic recognition that there must be buy-in from the government for these unusual plans, and that it certainly helps to have a community-minded business. Still, these play less as necessary conditions than caveats in a story of a community surviving because it comes together and empowers itself.

It’s not a lesson that Nakamura and his cast and crew hammer into the audience, but one that is still unavoidable, driven home by a steady stream of optimism and good humor. That seems like a small thing for a film to offer, but it’s among the most satisfying, doubly so when the method of doing so is as funny and enterprising as it is here.

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originally posted: 03/14/17 15:31:30
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