The ensemble film trope has always been a favourite of mine. It’s been an enduring staple for films, ever since the first ensemble action film, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954). Presenting an opportunity to gather an all-star cast, a story involving teamwork that everyone can relate to, and a lively vibe enhanced by scenes of camaraderie, films with this premise can be a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Now we have director Yoshihiro Nakamura, famous for his character-led storytelling and his versatility with genre (thrillers, horrors, dramas and comedies; sometimes happening all at once). So when I heard that he was doing an ensemble comedy with an all-star cast including the likes of Sadao Abe, Eita, and Yuko Takeuchi, I was psyched. Will the film live up to its title or will it fail magnificently?
Set in 18th century Japan, the residents of the town Yoshioka are living in hard times due to the state of poverty and the high expenses of land taxes and logistics. But an ingeniously simple idea from a simple tea grower (Eita) gets everyone talking that could bring the whole town out of their misfortunes. Nine of the wealthiest (including Abe and Satoshi Tsumabaki) citizens pool all of their resources to sell and anonymously loan their earnings to their Lord, therefore collecting the interest earned and distributing it to the townspeople. That is, of course, unless they are caught as the price for that is death by beheading.
Sadly, this film is a massive disappointment on almost every level. Never have I thought to see a comedy about an inspirational true story be so underwhelming. The story itself had so much potential, but it never gets realized and some of the major flaws are the pacing and the plot. The running time of the film is 129 minutes, which is way too long for a story like this, and with three-quarters of the narrative involving people essentially begging people to give money, it drags for an eternity before getting to its goal.
What makes it worse is that there are so many characters to keep track of, making the film needlessly convoluted, while the majority of them do not have enough of a personality to stand out. The tone is also confusing, as if Nakamura wasn’t sure to make this film a comedy or a drama. The trailer of the film certainly markets the film as a comedy, but apart from the first five minutes and a certain actor’s performance, I just didn’t see much of an attempt to make the proceedings funny. I struggled to follow the plot and even remember the character’s names, and what’s worse, didn’t care about their predicament. When the film reaches its ending, I did feel some kind of relief but I’m sure that it was from the fact that it ended, rather than the journey of the characters.
The actors try valiantly but fail to add much life their cardboard cut-outs. Abe does make his downtrodden character quite sympathetic while Eita is fine, showing a youthful side as well as an authoritative aspect to his character. The rest of the supporting cast don’t make much of an impression, with the big exception of Takeuchi, who is a delight in every second of her screen-time. Adding some mirth and vitality to the proceedings, Takeuchi woke me up every time I saw her, and I wished she appeared in the movie more often.
The Magnificent Nine is well made, though, with production design and cinematography that evokes the time period well. I can’t really say the same about the music, which is annoyingly repetitive, especially during scenes when plans upon plans are sketched out by the characters.
The experience of being bored by a film is something I can’t forgive and The Magnificent Nine is riddled with tedium. This is one of Nakamura’s films coming out in 2016 with the other being The Inerasable, a horror/thriller starring Yuko Takeuchi. I hope that it will compensate for this severe letdown.
The Magnificent Nine is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on Saturday July 16 at 12pm at Japan Society.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.