Unexpected notice, an unfamiliar destination, limited time and funds — the plot sounds painfully familiar to anyone who has been ordered to transfer to a new location at a certain point in their careers. For many people working in Japan relocation is a frequent matter — and when the order comes, there is little one can do to turn it down. But while many of us may think that this is a rather modern phenomenon, the recently released movie Samurai Shifters (Hikkoshi Daimyo) tells a different story: sudden relocation orders took place in Edo Period Japan as well and, as we can see in the movie, it took a lot of wisdom and hard work to make it happen. Although Samurai Shifters is historical fiction, as we watch, we come to realize that this samurai comedy resonates with contemporary salaryman culture and the relocation strategies used in the movie are so practical that they can be applied to any modern-day career.
Based on a novel by Akihiro Dobashi and directed by Isshin Inudo, the story of Samurai Shifters is set in 1682 when Japan was under the de facto rule of shoguns and their appointed regional daimyo (landlords). Due to various political reasons, however, some daimyo were ordered to relocate to a new territory, often on very short notice and with no guidance or financial support. This is exactly what happens to Naonori Matsudaira, the lord of the Himeji domain in Samurai Shifters and also a real-life daimyo who was ordered to move seven times during his reign. Matsudaira is given two months to move his entire clan of several thousand people and their families to a new land nearly 600km away that is half the size of their current home. To make this seemingly unachievable duty possible, the clan needs an extremely talented “professional” — one who is knowledgeable, meticulous and dedicated to the job — and here is where we meet our protagonist, Harunosuke Katagiri (Gen Hoshino).
A socially withdrawn samurai working as a librarian, Katagiri is a humble man who prefers the company of books than this of people. His profound knowledge of various subjects, which he acquired wehile hiding amid books at the library, however, is the undeniable reason why he is wanted by his clan. Katagiri is given the arduous task to develop a master plan for the entire relocation, as well as dismiss over half of the clan’s samurai due to lack of space and funds at the new location. With no prior experience and extreme lack of any social skills, Katagiri’s only wish is to escape — which he attempts but fails when he is given the ultimatum to either accept the role or commit seppuku.
The plot evolves as Katagiri, with the help of Genemon Takamura (Issei Takahashi), other samurai from the clan, and Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), the knowledgeable daughter of the former relocation officer, develops several strategies to use in the relocation. As he executes his tasks one by one, Katagiri gradually gains confidence and his clan’s respect.
Strategy #1: Discard half of one’s possessions
The saying “less is more” can never be truer when it comes to moving, but in the case of Matsudaira’s clan, it is vital. Katagiri, therefore, asks for everyone’s cooperation to discard any belongings they will not need. To make his point clear and prove his dedication, Katagiri himself ends up burning dozens of his books from his library. When a member of the clan says he cannot throw away anything because his collections are of extreme value, Katagiri covers up everything in the room and asks him to write down everything he owns without being able to see it. As a result, Katagiri ordered everything that wasn’t on the list to be thrown away under the pretext that if the owner cannot remember his valuables by heart, it means they don’t need them.
Strategy #2: Create new positions for those who need to be dismissed
Katagiri is given the heartbreaking task to dismiss half of the clan’s samurai as there is neither enough space nor enough funds for everyone at the new location. Like in the case of many struggling companies, however, this is a task that no leader concerned for his staff wants to face. Instead of dismissing the samurai, Katagiri develops a plan to turn the samurai into farmers who would produce a crop the clan could use in the future. Katagiri promises to come back for them once the clan restores its land and funds — a promise he eventually keeps. While the samurai wait for Katagiri, they acquire a solid skill no one else but they have in the clan.
Strategy #3: Do everything as a team and enjoy it
Something that Katagiri makes clear as he assumes his post is that unless everyone works together, they will fail. “Relocation is like war. Let’s do it together,” he tells the members of the clan. To cut costs, Katagiri suggests to carry the luggage themselves — and as he explains his reasoning, the samurai begin training for the relocation day. Nakanishi, the accountant, spends sleepless nights to put a list together on merchants that could lend them money. Oran, for whom Katagiri gradually develops feelings, gives Katagiri her father’s notes on past relocations and works with him closely throughout the process. Takamura prepares for a battle in case something goes wrong during the relocation — which, eventually happens in a scene where he uses the clan’s extremely long and heavy spear to fight the enemy (in reality, the crew used a replica though it still weighted more than a dozen kilograms). The clan’s cooperative spirit culminates where they sing along as they train or walk the long road to the new location in musical-like scenes that are filled with positivity and fun. In the end, as things go well for the entire clan, we are reminded that cooperation can go a very long way.
Entertaining, heartwarming and highly useful for anyone who wishes to succeed in their careers, Samurai Shifters is a historical comedy we can all learn a lesson or two from.
Cast: Gen Hoshino, Issey Takahashi, Misaki Takahata
Director: Isshin Inudo
Text by Rose Haneda