Samurai Fiction

Mark Schilling schill at
Wed Apr 14 22:43:08 EDT 1999

Here's my Japan Times review of SF Samurai Fiction. The film was a big
success, playing for 20 week at two Tokyo theaters.

Mark Schilling

Produced by Cine Qua Non; screenplay by Hiroshi Saito, directed by Hiroyuki
Nakano; cinemantography by Yujiro Yashima. With: Mitsuru Furikoshi,
Tomoyasu Hotei, Taketoshi Naito, Morio Kazama, Tamaki Ogawa, Mari Natsuki.
Running time: 111 mins. 
In Hollywood movie genres fade away, but never die. A Costner or
Spielberg always comes along to breath new life into them. In Japan, the
most moribund of genres is the jidai geki -- period dramas set in the days
when samurai ruled the land. In the Golden Age of the 1950s, nearly half of
the industry's production was devoted to jidai geki, from the masterpieces
of Kurosawa to formulaic series that rolled off studio production lines
like so many plastic swords. In the 1960s television ended the jidai geki
boom, as audiences migrated to the small screen. The genre limped into the
current decade, but as box office receipts continued to dwindle, even the
most conservative studio executives came to realize that the traditional
jidai geki could no longer put butts on seats. After the failure in 1994 of
big-budget jidai geki based on the Chushingura story, one by the sixty-plus
Kinji Fukasaku and the other by the seventy-plus Kon Ichikawa, the studios
cut their topknots and put their hakama in mothballs. Too much red ink had
been spilled. 
     The obvious solution -- to reinvent the genre for Gen Xers -- was a
sacrilege to the studio craftsmen who had, over the decades, refined jidai
geki conventions until they approached kabuki and noh in their rigidity.
The revolution had to come from without, not within. 
      Hiroyuki Nakano, a music video director who has won international
recognition, including six MTV Music Award nominations in 1990, and worked
with everyone from Mr. Children to Sarah Vaughn, wants to lead that
revolution, but he is also intent on entertaining his under-25 audience in
the ways to which they have become accustomed.  
      The title of his first feature film, *SF Samurai Fiction,** says it
all. Working from a script by Hiroshi Saito, Nakano tries to do for jidai
geki what Quentin Tarantino did for crime thrillers: bring a fresh
sensibility to a tired genre. Pay homage, yes, but also introduce new
attitudes and ideas that subvert and revitalize. For all its geek games of
spot-the-reference, Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," was not just a movie about
other movies, but a cheekily extreme entertainment that took real chances
and inspired everything from reverence -- Tarantino as the god of cool --
to outright revulsion. 
       *Samurai Fiction** is cheeky enough, but hardly extreme. For
types who have not had a new idea since 1958, Nakano's MTV stylistics may
seem presumptuous, like playing a rap CD at a tea ceremony, but his story
is little more than an amusingly clever reworking of old formulas instantly
familiar to fans of manga, video games and TV variety skits with samurai
themes, even if they have never seen a frame of *Yojimbo.** No one is going
to write an outraged op-ed piece after watching this movie; though they may
leave the theater feeling that the title was a sell. 
      The film is framed as the present-day reminiscence of the spirit of
Heishiro Inukai (Mitsuru Furikoshi), a 17th Century samurai. The digital
clock on the screen soon spins back to 1696, when the 20-year-old Heishiro
embarked on the most memorable adventure of his young life. 
     It begins when a ronin (masterless samurai) named Rannosuke
Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) kills a family retainer and takes an heirloom
sword as a prize. Though enraged by the theft, Heishiro's father (Taketoshi
Naito) forbids him from tearing off in pursuit; Kazamatsuri is known as a
deadly swordsman and, despite his years of training in the art of fencing,
Heishiro is no match for him. 
      A hot-headed lad, Heishiro tears off anyway, accompanied by two
retainers who are just about his age and are just about as prudent.
Running through rice paddies and along the beach, they look like kids on a
romp. Heishiro's father sends two of his best ninja after this feckless
trio, but by the time they catch up, Heishiro and his pals have already
found their quarry and been cut down by his sword. 
     Luckily a middle-aged ronin, Hanbei Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama), has
intervened in time to save Heishiro from being sliced to sashimi. He sends
the ninja back to report the news to Heishiro's father, takes the youth to
his cottage and, with the aid of his adopted teenage daughter, Koharu
(Tamaki Ogawa), nurses him back to health. 
      Needless to say, Heishiro burns to revenge himself on Kazamatsuri.
Needless to say, he falls in love with the pretty and pure-hearted Koharu.
If *Samurai Fiction** were a genre parody like Hayashi Kaizo's 1990
*Zipang,** these plot threads would wind their way to their predictable
denouement, with plenty of stops for obvious laughs on the way. 
     Being more ambitious, however, Nakano adds complications that 
may be genre standards, but deepen his characterizations, including 
Kazamatsuri's comic, but eventually bloody, encounter with a gang of
yakuza led by a vampish older woman (Mari Natsuki) and Mizoguchi's 
wrenching confession to Heishiro of how he came to adopt Koharu. We 
come to see that the master swordsman with the glinty eyes and haughty 
manner is as jealous of his reputation as any schoolyard bully -- 
and as ruthless in defending it, while Mizoguchi, with his affable Mr. Guy 
manner, is made of sterner stuff than at first seems likely.  
      With his rangy, athletic frame and pockmarked, saturnine face,
Tomoyasu Hotei is adept as a swordsman and creepy as a cold-blooded
killeri. A veteran pop musician, who was a founding member of Boowy in
1979, he is also responsible for the film's eclectic score, which ranges
from the infectious rhythms of drum'n'bass to the strains of Stephen Foster
on a saw. Morio Kazama, as Mizoguchi, does a capable job with the film's
most cliched -- and thus most difficult --role: the man of peace with the
fastest sword in the East. By revealing Mizoguchi's true strength only
gradually, he makes its final revelation, in his showdown with Kazamatsuri,
all the more convincing.   
    Will *Samurai Fiction** start a new craze for jidai geki? Visually, it
is remarkable; few new Japanese directors -- and not many older ones -- 
can match Nakano and cinematographer Yujiro Yashima in exploiting the 
potential of black-and-white film to delineate character and evoke
They also expertly use splashes of vibrant color to reveal natural beauty
illuminate emotions.  But compared with the best of jidai geki, *Samurai
Fiction** is slight indeed -- a clever experiment that wants to
be a real movie and almost succeeds. The next time out, instead of fiction,
perhaps Nakano and company ought to try the real thing. 

> From: MileFilms at
> To: kinejapan at
> Subject: Re: Samurai Fiction
> Date: Thursday, April 15, 1999 4:59 AM
> Hi... We're looking at "Samurai Fiction" at the moment and was wondering
> the reviews were like in Japan. 
> Aaron? Mark? Did you write anything that could be passed on?
> It would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
> Dennis Doros
> Milestone Film & Video
> 275 West 96th Street, Suite 28C
> New York, NY 10025
> phone: (800)603-1104
> fax: (212) 222-8952
> email: MileFilms at
> "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory." 
> — Friedrich Engels, 1803-1882

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