SAMURAI FICTION is a deeply enjoyable period samurai picture, made in 1998 but shot mostly in black and white, so it looks very classical. Not that it’s trying to pass. It occasionally uses more modern filmatics, like a seemingly endless shot pulling back down a road in front of three running samurai, or a slow motion shot of a girl smiling to represent the protagonist being smitten with her – you can imagine a love song playing over it sarcastically, maybe something in a Carpenters or a Barry White.
They don’t quite go that far, but the score is intentionally anachronistic, echoey electric guitar playing with surf, country and rock ‘n roll styles, later drum machines and synthesizers. I like the idea, and some of it works, some of it is cheesy as hell. The one great musical moment in my opinion is a scene where an old man plays a beautiful rendition of “Swanee River” on a saw. You don’t get that in many samurai movies.
Another modern touch: very conversational first person narration by the young samurai protagonist (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), talking from the present. “This is me 300 years ago,” he says. “My name was Heishiro Inukai.” He tells the story of the time his old man (Taketoshi Naitoh), chief councilor to the Nagashima clan, hired a wandering swordsman as a retainer, and the guy ran off with an ancestral sword given to them by the Shogun. Heishiro and two friends disobey his father to go try to chase the guy down.
It’s kind of a lackadaisical story. The sword-thief, Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei), doesn’t get far down the road before the three young men catch up to him. When they confront him he looks them over, then turns his back and takes a long piss – an impressive Badass Nonchalance, in the tradition of Dirty Harry foiling a bank robbery while eating a hot dog or Bruce Lee fighting his way past security while snacking on some chips. After peeing and quickly defeating them he spends most of the movie hanging out in a nearby gambling den while Heishiro recuperates with an old pacifist named Hanbei Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), who reluctantly take him in.
There end up being a whole bunch of interesting characters involved in the fight over this sword. There’s the opium-smoking madam Lady Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) and her goofball lackey Gosuke (Hiroshi Kanbe). There’s the old ninja Kagemaru (Kei Tani) who is always available to advise the councilor, sometimes dropping down from the ceiling when he’s called.
There are the young ninjas Falcon (Ryoichi Yuki) and Red Shadow (Akiko Mono) who are sent after the sword. There’s alot of humor about some of these characters being stupid, but it seems natural that there would be some knuckleheads involved in a situation like this. It’s funny without being a broad comedy or spoof at all. Closer to an Elmore Leonard tone than a flat out laughfest.
But the best character is Kazamatsuri. I was surprised to learn that Hotei was not an actor before this, he was a rock star. He’s the guitarist known for the song “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” used famously in KILL BILL VOLUME 1. He also played on the FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS soundtrack, and that’s him playing on this one too.
His grimacing face really stands out. He just looks like an arrogant dick. After they showed a wanted poster of him I couldn’t stop thinking how much he looked like a cartoon.
One of Heishiro’s buddies describes Kazamatsuri like this: “You never know what he’s thinking. They say he’s unsociable and conceited.” Pretty accurate. But he’s weirdly likable. You just want to see what this nut is gonna do next, like Billy Bob Thornton on the Fargo tv show. I love his brazenness in stealing the sword for no obvious gain, and then just strutting around with it, not trying to hide. He does not give a shit.
And he’s not entirely wrong in his stated reasoning that Heishiro is an idiot who will some day be given a position of power just because of who his dad is. I think he stole the sword partly just for the joy of the chaos it would cause, and partly as an anarchic protest against the system. Mostly the first one though. The second one might’ve been made up later.
He gets some good badass moments, not all of them urination-related. One is when he first enters the gambling den, interrupting a fight between ronin. They’re not subtle about recognizing him and suddenly leaving. He sits down, plays a round, gets up to leave, immediately kills both of the ronin as they attempt to jump him outside the door.
And he’s just a funny dude. Like the scene where a fawning Gosuke asks him excitedly about how many people he’s killed.
“Please tell me, sir.”
“Gosuke,” he responds, “how many women have you slept with?”
“How many?” Gosuke pretends to try to count on his fingers. “I’ve lost count.”
And Kazamatsuri says:
He’s also got that Mad Dog type warrior code I always appreciate where he treasures nothing more than a challenging fight. When he figures out that a great retired sword fighter lives nearby he wants nothing more than to have a duel with him, even if he’s gonna get killed in the process.
That swordsman is Hanbei, who repeatedly preaches non-violence to Heishiro because of his past experiences. The more he gets involved in the stolen sword brouhaha the more it seems like he might have to kill somebody. But he tries his best, fighting with his sheath instead of his blade, and trying to convince Hanbei to throw rocks at Kazamatsuri instead of duel him. There’s a hilarious scene where the whole gang at the gambling den tries to assault him. He manages to evade and dispatch them without wounding any of them, and keeps apologizing to them the whole time.
He’s not the Glimmer Man, he’s very sincere about his hatred of killing. But you fuckin know he misses fighting. Part of him is excited to be pulled into this mess, to get a chance to knock some dumb motherfuckers around.
I’m not totally sure why it’s called SAMURAI FICTION, but if it’s meant as a reference to PULP FICTION I can see how it makes sense. It could be inspired by Tarantino but not in the usual dumb surface ways. It tells a story about samurai intrigue but it also has time to show them hanging out, goofing off, being stupid, the parts you usually don’t see in the samurai story. Scenes about the samurais throwing logs in the river, pretending it’s their enemy. Koharu making pepper balls as a ninja weapon to throw into the eyes, and Heishiro discovering that he likes to smell them before eating a rice ball. The young samurais helping their friends shave their heads. Heishiro defending a fight he got into with another samurai because “He switched sandals with me!”
I wonder if Tarantino might’ve in turn been influenced by this movie when he made KILL BILL. O-Ren Ishii’s fierce attitude and her relationship with the lackey “Charlie Brown” are reminiscent of Lady Okatsu’s scenes, even though her joint is no House of Blue Leaves.
I was really impressed by this one and was excited to see what else this Hiroyuki Nakano has directed. I thought whoever recommended it said he had another good samurai movie. That’s because Knox Harrington actually recommended TWILIGHT SAMURAI, but when I went to rent it I mixed up the samurai-movies-of-the-late-90s-or-early-2000s-that-have-the-word-samurai-in-the-title. So that was a totally different director I was thinking of. This guy, when I looked him up I realized that one of his other action-y ones is RED SHADOW, which I rented not that long ago and couldn’t finish. Apparently it’s a spin-off of SAMURAI FICTION, presumably it’s supposed to be the same Red Shadow character, and apparently Hotei cameos as Kazamatsuri. But at least at that time I was not up for the jokey relationship drama and cheesy drum machine/electric guitar soundtrack.
So I don’t know if I’ll dig much further into Nakano’s works, but I definitely enjoyed SAMURAI FICTION. Thanks for the accidental recommendation.