Finally, a movie for Tea Partiers to enjoy! Abacus and Sword weaves a tale of fiscal responsibility and the importance of good accounting practices in an increasingly modern world. To my surprise, it also stars Masato Sakai, who starred as Aoyagi in Golden Slumber. Seeing these two performances from the same actor, within a few weeks of each other, has convinced me Sakai is an incredible actor worthy of international acclaim. The film itself does not quite live up to Sakai’s performance, but it does overcome some third act lagging to deliver one of the most poignant endings I’ve seen in a very long time.
Based on actual journals and accounting records, Abacus and Sword chronicles the decline of the samurai age in 19th-century Japan, but it does so in a novel way, by focusing on a family over the course of 50 years. Inoyama Naoyuki (Sakai) serves as a bookkeeper in Kaga Domain. Known as “the mad abacist” by his peers because of his skill and devotion to the abacus, Naoyuki is the only one good enough to unravel a conspiracy involving rice theft. The 1830s marked a prolonged famine in Japan, so Kaga administrators rationed rice to the people—except Naoyuki’s superiors held on to 30% of the rice in order to sell it at a higher profit to rival domains.
Revealing this earns Naoyuki enemies, but also the respect of Lord Shigemaga (Masatoshi Nakamura). As this unfolds, Naoyuki enters into an arranged marriage with Koma (Yukie Nakama), a beautiful fabric-dyer. They quickly have a child, Nariyuki, who narrates the story as an adult. Once Nariyuki arrives, the film puts most of its energies into dramatizing the strained relationship between father and son.
After living on credit for years, Naoyuki demands that his family live responsibly. He keeps impeccable books on the household expenditures, sells off every frivolous possession they own, including a few items of extreme sentimental value to the family. As Kaga’s economy collapses, he applies many of his techniques at home to the domain as a whole. As Nariyuki gets older, he starts to chafe under his father’s iron abacus. Naoyuki stresses the importance of living a responsible, debt-free life. He also sees the political writing on the wall—he knows the abacus is the future, and the sword is the past. Nariyuki would much rather learn the way of the samurai than the way of the abacus, and as a war is waged against the remaining shogun (a 20-something Nariyuki among them), he realizes the true value of his father’s teachings.
Sakai plays Naoyuki as a man of keen intelligence and gentle humor, which makes it all the more upsetting when his conflicts with Nariyuki cause him to reveal real anger. The phenomenal performance anchors a strong cast that includes Masahiko Nishimura and Mitsuko Kusabue as Naoyuki’s parents. Politics are just a backdrop to this story of a family struggling to get by on a low abacist salary (the lowest salary in the domain) without accumulating any debt. Frayed tensions, and not just between father and son, lead to conflicts both small and large. It’s the rare historical drama that’s more about people than events. Its fantastic characters and slight cultural irreverence make it wonderful to watch…
…until the third act, when the story makes a slight shift from the people to the events. The more entwined in history the characters become, the less interesting the film is. However, all is forgiven with the ending, which packs such an emotional wallop that even the self-described robot writing this review had to muster all the restraint in his arsenal to avoid bawling like a baby while simultaneously calling my parents to apologize for…everything.
History fascinates me, but fictional historical epics often irritate me because they’re too much of a surface-skim of broad characters and well-known events. If you’re like me, you’ll love a movie like Abacus and Sword, which makes the political and historical context clear but doesn’t dwell on it, opting instead to examine how a single family deals with broader events occuring off-camera. That’s the way to do an historical epic, and director Yoshimitsu Morita knows that. If you have the ability to see this at CIFF or any other U.S. film festival, take advantage of the opportunity. I have my doubts about it getting an official release.