Director: Hiroyuki Nakano
Cast: Morio Kazama, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Tomoyasu Hotei, Tamaki Ogawa, Taketoshi Naito
I bought this film sight-unseen, which is pretty rare. Like most people, I like to have some idea of what I'm plunking down my money for. For some reason, though, this movie sort of snuck off the shelf, took the twenty-five bucks out of my pocket, and came home with me before I'd even realized it. Maybe it was the cool, minimalist cover, or maybe I was still coming down off my Kill Bill vol. 1 kick and wanted a Samurai film, I don't know. Either way, I found myself watching it last night, and I was floored by what I was seeing.
You know those happy coincidences, where you realize you wound up with a lot more than you thought you were going to get? Like when you go to a new sushi place and realize they've got the best stuff around for less money than that other place you've been going to for years, plus you get more maki roll for your money? This movie brings a similar feeling to mind; "This is great! I'm glad I took a chance here."
The story revolves around a young Samurai named Heishiro Inukai, who is on a quest to retrieve a clan treasure stolen by a wandering, steely-eyed Ronin by the name of Rannosuke. It's classic Samurai fare through and through, and for a Japanese film is remarkably straightforward, though it's never dull. Quite the opposite, actually.
Director Hiroyuki Nakano uses the relative simplicity of the story as a blank canvas, and paints in a masterfully blended portrait of a classic Akira Kurosawa Samurai epic lovingly clothed in a hip, MTV Asia-style update. The effect sounds overwrought on paper, but Nakano pulls it off without seeming to bastardize the source material. In fact, it's one of the more respectful homage films to date, cinematography wise.
Kurosawa film buffs (and I'll just get this out of the way right now, I am a MASSIVE Kurosawa fan) will instantly pick out the lifted scenes, from the busy, always-moving village shots of Seven Samurai to the dark, packed-earth barren landscapes of Throne of Blood. There's even some subtle references to Kurosawa's editing style, with extremely longs shots arranged horizontally, reverse-field cuts, and even a single (and therefore very obvious, and also very funny if you get it) horizontal wipe. Of course, it goes without saying that the movie is almost completely shot in black and white.
Because really, why would one make a color Samurai Film?
The best part about the movie, however, are the characters in it. Every cast member turns in a fantastic performance, and the people they portray are as memorable as you could want in a film. We've got your headstrong young Samurai on a quest for honor and glory with his two friends (one of whom is actually named Kurosawa, go figure) and along the way they come up against a conniving brothel mistress, a retired master fencer, his ridiculously attractive daughter, and the super-powerful, taciturn, skilled, very tall, and possibly gay antagonist. We also get an old master ninja who steals every scene he's in, and his two bumbling ninja students who manage to seem like they know what they're doing...Most of the time.
It all blends in a great way because the movie doesn't take itself too seriously. It's not goofy or silly, and the fighting is quite realistic, but it's also a very funny movie. Heishiro's aptitude to spring nosebleeds at inopportune moments (and his love interest's apparent ignorance as to what that means) made me chuckle, and the movie's playfulness over the sexual orientation of Rannosuke is hysterical -- but you have to be quick or you miss some of it. The old ninja master is my personal favorite; you can't beat a guy who makes his first appearance by basically falling out of a hole in the ceiling.
I don't want to ruin any more of the movie than I already have, but suffice to say that nearly everyone can enjoy Samurai Fiction on whichever level they like. It's simple and funny enough that even young kids can watch it (provided they don't mind subtitles - there is no dub, thankfully) but there's plenty of depth here to satisfy veterans of the genre.
On a final, technical note, the DVD transfer is very good, though there is no surround sound, only Stereo Japanese. No matter, however, since the stereo mix is perfectly clear. One of the best things about the disc is actually the subtitles; they absolutely nailed it. My Japanese is admittedly quite poor, but it's good enough that I can pick out poorly-translated subtitles from a mile away. Thankfully, no such problems exist here. The titles flow well and keep the pace of the movie to right where it should be.
There are a few extras that come with the film, one of which is inexplicably on Disc 1 while the rest are regulated to Disc 2. The main draw here, called "Samurai Non-Fiction", appears to be a spot shown on Japanese television regarding the making of the film. It's worth watching, and rounds out a nice package that is of much higher quality than a film like this would normally get with a U.S. release.
Grab a copy of this film as soon as you can. This is one of those rare movies that has blanket appeal without diluting it's core concept, and looks great in any collection.
Reviewed by: Kelly Kelley