In the tradition of Yoji Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai” and “Love and Honor”, comes a samurai-chambara period film called “The Samurai I Loved” (aka. SEMISHIGURE, 2005). Directed by Mitsuo Kurotsuchi and based on the novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, the film is an enthralling tale about love, honor and duty that also carries a small scathing theme of indictment of the authority figures during feudal Japan. Those who are familiar with Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” and Yamada’s own Samurai trilogy would be at home with this film. It has won numerous awards in Japan as well as in the Moscow film festival.
Bunshiro (Takuya Ishida) is a young samurai who became alienated and low in status after his father (Ken Ogata), a petty samurai is ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) because of the actions of corrupt government officials. He relentlessly studies swordsmanship when his life is thrown into turmoil and his childhood love, Fuku (Aimi Satsukawa) is sent away to Edo to work in a clan lord’s household. Many years later, Bunshiro (now played by Somegoro Ichikawa) has become a superb swordsman and a village inspector under the same man who had ordered his father to commit ritual suicide. His family’s stipend restored, Bunshiro is grateful that he is finally given a chance to redeem his family’s name. But fate has a way of complicating things, as he discovers that Fuku (now played by beauteous Yoshino Kimura) has become the lord’s first concubine and had given birth to his son. He tries to put his feelings for her aside, but when he hears of a plot to murder Fuku and her son he must now rise up to defend her. He enlists the aid of two childhood friends to save Fuku, as hidden feelings emerge that will end with Bunshiro challenging the very clan he has sworn to serve….
The film is one well-directed, well executed tale of love, honor and duty. Its strengths lie in its characters, luscious scenery and its gorgeous cinematography. The direction takes its time so that the viewer can get to know its characters, the period and develop sympathy for their plight brought about the decisions of corrupt authority figures who can manipulate the rules. The first half of the film deals with the effects of Sukezaemon Maki’s (Bunshiro’s father) ritual suicide. You see the hardships of those he left behind as their shack becomes rotted from the elements, without their monthly stipend, the family can barely make ends meet. Director Kurotsuchi also remembers to bring the embarrassment of a family when one is sentenced to seppuku, as Bunshiro is left to pull the wagon with his father’s body with the condemning whispers of the townsfolk. Despite all the despair, you see the unspoken love developing between young Fuku and Bunshiro; the warm emotion between them is endearing and a test of their friendship. The first half also brings the friendship between Bunshiro and his two friends; Ippei and kindly Yonosuke.
The second act brings Bunshiro’s passage into manhood; he has become a skilled swordsman and has developed a rivalry with a student from another dojo named Hyoma Inukai, who is skilled with the ‘madman’ sword technique. It also shows that one’s skills with a sword may present one with opportunities to advance, as Bunshiro is selected to become a village magistrate by the same man who ordered his father’s seppuku. Director Kurotsuchi also brings the power struggles that occur in these feudal times, as they see Ofuku’s son who may become a threat to the clan’s stability that proves to be the catalyst for numerous assassinations. Bunshiro is compelled to obey, but with one sight of his childhood friend, past feelings begin to return.
Bunshiro becomes torn between honor, duty and love which leads to the film’s swordplay sequences. While the film does have more swordplay than Yoji Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai”, it does NOT abandon realism. The sword fights are realistic; one swipe, one kill. It was a testament to the direction to have shot a beautifully executed swordplay that is reminiscent of Kurosawa and Kobayashi’s classics themselves. The fight with Bunshiro and Ippei against numerous swordsmen was nicely choreographed, accompanied with the usual Japanese style blood-letting and some arterial sprays. The direction also needs to be commended, as Kurotsuchi also remembers to bring the rivalry between Hyoma and Bunshiro to a resolution.
Takuya Ishida won a best actor award for his performance in the film and one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to see why. The actor manages to express the needed emotions through his eyes, you see his pain and confusion as well as the longing for Lady Ofuku. Yoshino Kimura (Sukiyaki Western Django, Blindness) is also enthralling as the lady Ofuku. I was so taken by her beauty as she exuded the sophistication, manner of the Japanese woman. The supporting cast also does a very good job with Ken Ogata in its lead. The director manages to bring the best out of his actors for the film.
Despite all the praise, “The Samurai I Loved” does have some faults as some parts of the script left some things unanswered. I guess all of those could be excused if one keeps in mind that this is a chambara film built on the relationship (or lack of) between Bunshiro and Fuku. The final act is definitely full of emotion, as the screenplay brings everything to a close that sidesteps the usual crowd-pleasing expectations. While time may heal all wounds, there are things that still gives us a feeling of regret. Sometimes, destiny is about the choices we make, but sometimes, destiny makes those decisions for us. The film’s title may give an impression that this may be a sappy love story which it is anything but. It has a feeling that is somewhat bittersweet, but makes one’s life worthwhile just to know the truth.
Highly Recommended! [4+ Stars]
VIDEO/AUDIO: 1.77 ratio anamorphic widescreen. The picture is sharp and clean although the colors are intentionally muted in some scenes to look ‘dreamlike’. The colors also lean towards earth colors. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Japanese track is nice and powerful. The subtitles are good with some mistakes in translations such as “Yeah”, instead of “Yes”. But the subtitles also provide definitions to certain Japanese terms to help its understanding.