It’s easy to get caught in the spectacle of The Floating Castle. This comedy-drama retelling of the 1590 Siege of Oshi—in which a small force of some 3,000 soldiers, mostly peasants, held off repeated attacks by an army numbering more than 20,000—has no shortage of action, excitement, and comical banter. But among all the muddy swordplay and the frivolity of a commander who’d respond to threats of force with a slapstick comedy routine, there’s a sobering reflection on the downtrodden folk upon whose backs the legends of samurai are so often built.
Chaotic action sequences sit juxtaposed with lingering shots of the aftermath of the battle: not just bodies strewn everywhere, but immense damage to the fields and crops that the people rely upon. Earlier in the piece, we see farmers singing and dancing as they plant rice—hard work made doable by a shared sense of community. By the end, those same fields are a barren wasteland, the result of battle after battle and, most of all, an effort to flood the land and force Oshi’s surrender. The contrast is a pointed one: Ishida Mitsunari (Kamiji Yusuke), an ambitious tactician under Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the latter’s efforts to conquer all of Japan, seeks both to prove his worth to Toyotomi and find glory in battle—what’s the destruction of the livelihoods of mere peasants for such “noble” aims?
While most in Toyotomi’s path choose quickly choose surrender, Oshi’s people aren’t the type to just sit back and let Ishida’s flood wash them away. Inspired by a particularly charismatic leader in Narita Nagachika (Nomura Mansai), farmers take up arms to fight back and, against all odds, make their stand. The appeal of this sort of David and Goliath story, especially one grounded in history, is timeless, and Mansai’s impressive performance—drawing on his background in kyōgen theatre—lends both levity and emotion to his every scene. He has the range to move effortlessly from a foolish noble who can’t plant a single rice shoot without tripping over his feet to a fierce commander (if not a fighter) who’ll stare down hundreds of loaded muskets for the sake of his people, without ever skipping a beat.
The contrast between Ishida (and, by extension, Toyotomi) and Narita is the beating heart of The Floating Castle. One is driven by the kind of ambition and power that leads to viewing people as disposable resources, and the almost playful way in which he engages in war. The other is something of a buffoon, lovingly nicknamed “Bonehead”, who views his people as equals and wants nothing more than for them to be safe and protected. Indeed, his plan was initially to surrender, before the unfavorable conditions forced a spur-of-the-moment decision to choose war, despite having only 500 samurai against Ishida’s 20,000.
In a way, Narita himself is guilty of the same disregard for life that Ishida displays, unilaterally choosing war the way he does. This isn’t something the film really engages with, and the peasants are more than willing to fight beside their beloved Lord Bonehead. As such, there’s a certain lack of nuance in how it treats this idea of the downtrodden commoners being pushed around by the warmongering whims of samurai. But it’s a captivating, exciting enough tale to make such bluntness easy to overlook as you cheer for the underdog.
The film also misses an opportunity with Kaihime (Eikura Nana), who history books remember as a fierce warrior who played a crucial role in Oshi’s defence. The Floating Castle certainly talks about her martial capabilities, and even offers a glimpse at times in a way that all seems to be building up to her making some powerful stand. But it’s a moment that never arrives, and Eikura’s strong performance is held back by a script that never lets her be more than a motivational factor for other characters.
Such oversights hold The Floating Castle back from reaching the heights of some of its peers. But between Nomura’s commanding presence as a charismatic fool turned beloved commander and genius tactician, a fine balance of energetic action and lighthearted humour, and a thought-provoking reflection on the plight of commoners in an age of warring samurai, it’s nonetheless a worthy watch.
The Floating Castle is streaming for free from February 14 to 27 as part of the Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.