Yamada: The Samurai of Ayutthaya is a historical martial arts movie, based (rather loosely perhaps) on the life real life figure of Yamada Nagamasa. Yamada was a Japanese Samurai who ended up in Siam (modern day Thailand) after his lord was defeated in battle and he was forced to leave his homeland. In the period in which the film is set, the early 17th century, there was a fairly significant Japanese community in Siam, who lived, it seems alongside, but separate from the native inhabitants. This is where we meet Yamada at the start of the movie. The land is ruled by King Naresuan, but the peace is under threat from a rival, Sawadee. A gang of robbers and looters is on the loose, and Yamada volunteers to help seek them out.
He succeeds in discovering the masked raiders, and overpowers the gang in one of many of the film’s fight sequences. However, on unmasking them, he discovers they are Japanese. To preserve the honour of his countrymen, he agrees with Japanese chief in the area to keep this quiet, while they uncover the ringleaders. But he is betrayed by the chief, who has him ambushed to ensure his silence.
Yamada is rescued by a passing group of Thai men, who take him back to their settlement to recover. In time a strong bond grows between them and they share the secrets of their Thai martial arts with him, and he becomes one of them, to the point where even decides to become a bodyguard to the King. But he knows he must one day return to the Japanese settlement to finish things.
The film was in part made to commemorate the 124th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Japan, and at the story’s heart is Yamada’s journey to understanding and growing to love the Thai culture and traditions, including its martial arts. Some of the strongest scenes, though be warned, many of them are also fairly brutal, are his training in Muy Thai. It’s especially interesting at the start of his training as we see the contrast between his smooth, flowing, Japanese style contrasting with the choppy, fast moving, frenetic Thai style. In these sequences, some of the actions are sped up (almost opposite to The Matrix style of freezing that we’ve become accustomed to) and this is very effective as it emphasises the all-action approach of the Thai martial artists.
While some of the Thai boxing scenes work well, unfortunately, towards the end, the focus shifts to swordplay, which is less impressive. The lack of special effects budget means the realism is lost. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much, but it’s combined with a failure to create any sense of peril for the protagonist. At times it feels like a procession of bad guys are lining up to be hacked down.
The idea of the Samurai amongst the Thai martial artists was an interesting one and I felt the movie was at its strongest when it slowed right down and depicted rural life in a time and place that was pretty unknown to me “ that was really interesting. Some of the shots of the Thai countryside and Yamada training around the temples are truly lovely, and a number of the fight sequences (though not all) are bone crunchingly effective. The message promoting cultural understanding is a worthy one, even if it is laid on a bit thick, and sometimes the fact that many of the stars were hired for their fighting talents rather than their acting talents does show.