Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: Samurai Fiction (1998)

Samurai Fiction (1998, Hiroyuki Nakano)

I adore samurai films. Along with spy movies and tales of cops and gangsters, the samurai story is a genre I would rank especially high were I to suddenly write a quick list of film genres that I adore. A cursory glance in the Between the Seats archives revealed that I haven’t written very much about the genre over the 1 ½ years we’ve been around. Let’s give it a go and take a look at something special.

A film genre can be bent and toyed around with by any writer or director with a modicum of creativity and imagination. For the spin to work well however, there must be a sound understanding of the genre in question which the filmmakers wish to tamper with, otherwise, what was the point of the exercise? For his first feature length movie, Japanese director Hiroyuki Nakano chose to tap into the rich tapestry of the samurai legends and give new, younger audiences of the late 1990s something maybe they hadn’t seen before. The story of a young buck samurai named Inukai Heishiro (Fukikoshi Mitsuru) who against his father’s wishes vows to avenge the theft of his clan’s prized samurai blade, committed by a renegade and master-less samurai named Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei), would be told be with some nods to certain elements of cinema’s past as well as include some other, more modern ingredients. For one, Samurai Fiction is presented in brilliant black and white cinematography, which reminds some of us more astute samurai fans of the great classics. The main character, while brash and often setting foot into trouble without much planning, chooses to fight for the honour of his clan, just like any good samurai should. But he is a young, less experienced warrior, a lad who, if he isn’t watchful of where he points his weapon, will be served an unforgettable can of ass whopping. He is also accompanied by two long time but rather bumbling friends in his quest for justice. Together, the three of them form somewhat of a Three Amigos type of chemistry. Not really samurai material if you ask me. Finally, director makes use of a rock soundtrack to amp up the mood.

The end result is a curious affair, one in which several very, very different elements come together to form a strange beast of a film, a samurai tale which is part comedy, part romance and part action. When Inukai first catches up with his enemy, the latter puts a significant dent into the young man’s hopes of becoming a great hero. The battle is over in about a minute, with Inukai seriously wounded. Thankfully he is found by a middle aged man and his stunningly beautiful daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), who take our protagonist to their home. With time Inukai finds his health and love in the form of Koharu. His persistence in wanting to retrain in order to find and vanquish the devious and deadly Kazamatsuri irritate the peace loving father and daughter couple, but soon the stakes will be risen too much for anyone to stand idly aside.

As a first time director, Nakano takes all these unique ingredients and cooks a rollicking good time for audiences. The first few minutes of the movie were a bit challenging to sink my teeth into because I was under the impression that the director was trying too hard in emulating the ever popular Quentin Tarantino style of filmmaking, what with some fancy editing, a mixture of violence and laughs and a hip, ‘too cool for school’ soundtrack. The characters and all of their personalities and quirks soon won me over and I was tagging along joyously with this rambunctious but ultimately honourable hero and the wonderful supporting players. Looking back on the film, I feel rather silly for thinking that Nakano was too desperate to lend his project a Tarantino-esque sense of style (the title, Samurai Fiction, deliberately pokes fun at the title of the popular Tarantino film Pulp Fiction). After, it was Tarantino himself who, only a few years later, would make his own hip samurai epic consisting of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. So it was really Tarantino aping Nakano who was aping Tarantino. Or something of the sort...

Needless to say, Samurai Fiction breezes along and before I knew it the final showdown was taking place. The story is kept light enough and avoids falling into any terribly serious drama, yet we can easily understand Inukai’s perspective in the story and want to cheer him on in his adventure for restoring clan honour and of blossoming love. Almost everyone involved brings solid doses charisma and by the end there wasn’t a single character that was annoying, disappointing or that felt out of place. One should pretend that they have no clue towards which sort of conclusion is film is headed, but the lack of surprises is more than made up for with the deliciously entertaining cast and set pieces. Everyone is clearly having a good time while also showing respect to their characters in bringing them to life. From the lead actor to the jolly fellow playing an aging ninja servant to the clan’s headmaster (and who awkwardly lands from the ceiling whenever the clan master calls for him) is giving it their all. From the information I gathered in the DVD’s bonus material, the chap Tomoyasu Hotei who plays Kazamatsuri is actually a rock musician who supplied much of the film’s score. In all honesty, he isn’t asked to do very much, but he too is pretty good in his role. Kazamatsuri is one of those villains who doesn’t need to say much in order to create a presence about him. Well, he doesn’t say a whole lot and there is indeed a presence about. A dangerous, dangerous crook with a glare that would make Superman and his laser ray vision turn around and run like a chicken. Oh my! Koharu's father also ends up being a terrific character, a former samurai officer who long ago gave up on violent means to resolve problems when a terrible incident for which he is directly responsible sealed his fates and that of his daughter.

The addition of a rock score, despite whatever reservations I might have had before popping in the DVD, did add a fun flavour to the experience. On paper one would think that ‘samurai’ and ‘rock music’ don’t rhyme very well, but I guess that when a talented and ambitious director shows prowess at inventing his own bloody alphabet, anything ends rhyming and making harmony. Samurai Fiction was a deliberate attempt at opening the world of that genre to entirely new generation of movies fans, many of which grew up on music videos and basically the type of music featured in this movie. It’s easy to claim that the result should be putrid because, after all, greatness shouldn’t be tampered with, but sue me if I found the music complemented the story wonderfully.

To say that I adventured into Samurai Fiction with some reservations wouldn’t quite be accurate. To be honest I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. However, I can now tell you the readers what to expect: plenty of samurai, plenty of fiction and plenty of kick-ass fun. I don't think it's going to blow anybody's mind, but the fun factor is just too high to be ignored.

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