Japanese Jidai Geki film
Winner of various film awards in Asia, including best new director, Hiroyuki Nakano's "SAMURAI FICTION" (1998) is a visual and aural feast for the audience. At first look, it looks very much like the classic samurai films of old, shot mostly in black and white with some use of color in certain scenes. The film is a phenomenal exercise in style, and despite its very simple premise, it stays true to classic chambara films such as "Yojimbo" and "Seven Samurai" while maintaining a touch of cool satire. This film may be one of the many inspirations for Tarantino's "Kill Bill". (just look at the cover)
Year of the Shogunate, 1696. When a sacred sword bestowed by the Shogunate gets stolen from a clan, Heishiro Inukai (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the son of the clan's lord is adamant in recovering the stolen blade and seeking vengeance from the culprit, a master swordsman named Rannosuke Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) to restore his clan's honor. Aided by his friends, Heishiro departs in a bid for fame. Heishiro is a skilled swordsman but untested in the ways of battle while Kazamatsuri is battle-hardened and has killed several men in his time. Failing in his first encounter, and nursed back to health by a kindly master swordsman named Hanbei Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama) and his daughter, Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), Heishiro must find the true meaning of dying for the sake of pride. Heishiro is torn between reaching a peaceful resolution or a bloody showdown.
This is Hioyuki Nakano's first full-length feature film debut after directing several music videos in Japan. Despite his inexperience in directing a full-length film, his skills shines through as he makes the simplest scenes seem like a work of art, as the scenes are given life and the characters are given room to breathe. While the story is pretty simple, it is a quest for a samurai's honor and one that seeks pride, Nakano brings a beguiling cinematic experience the way the film's plot is structured around its characters. The style is shot mostly in black and white with certain key scenes having a red splash of color (when someone is cut down) and a sort of a colored moon or sky that gives tribute to the Earth. I thought the film had beautiful cinematography, as the sceneries are further brought about to complement its style.
"Samurai Fiction" is indeed fiction. Dubbed as "episode one", the film revolves around a screenplay full of satire, but interestingly, the comedic parts don't seem silly or goofy. You might say that it delivers its silliness mostly with a straight face and is a very inherent part of the film. The film has a large share of unique and interesting characters, and admittedly, some are given more exposure than others, all are developed quite well. The old ninja master, the gambling madam, Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) and her simpleton-aides, the students and the master of a fencing dojo, all characters contribute well to the plot's development and aids in our main protagonists' exposition without glorifying them.
The cast of the film is quite excellent. Heishiro is a man of honor but well too eager to serve his clans' cause. Quite gullible at times, but Mitsuru Fukikoshi's portrayal does make him feel very real. I guess his naïve nature is also his main strength and also his weakness. The kindly swordsman, Hanbei (played by Morio Kazama) is a man with regrets and seeks to atone for his killing of another man. He has tried to relinquish violence and always pursues a peaceful resolution to any disagreement. Koharu is the beauteous daughter that inspires love and even-mindedness, played by Tamaki Ogawa, the character manages to charm the viewer. (Heck, even Hanbei is charmed as he experiences a nose-bleed when he sees some skin). Hotei's portrayal of Kazamatsuri is an enigmatic one. One may see small similarities to Nakadai's character in "Sword of Doom". One would be led to question his motivations, and the answer does make perfect sense in the climax.
With all the plot's devises, one wouldn't be hard-pressed to assume that this film is a bloody affair and an action-packed experience. Well, while there are quite a few fight sequences, the film is a quasi-bloodless affair and most of the violence is toned down. The swordplay in the film is simple, nothing too elaborate or stylized, but does have a realistic feel. Thankfully, even with the toned down action, the film is a superb cinematic experience because of its structure and lush cinematography. The film's soundtrack is an odd choice for Nakano, some beat up rock (70's rock) and some jazz were used to accompany certain key sequences. It was a little unorthodox to use traditional black and white camera work mixed in with a modern soundtrack. I guess this maybe (?) where Tarantino got his idea for "Kill Bill".
The film is indeed a masterwork in Japanese cinema. Samurai fans will definitely eat it up and non-fans will have to watch it at least once. The film is brilliantly simple--and so beautiful in its simplicity.
"A Superior Man can have dignified ease without pride, and a common man can have pride without dignified ease." This is indeed Fiction…"Samurai Fiction".
Highly Recommended! [4++ Stars]
Video/Audio. 1.85 Anamorphic widescreen. The picture is extremely sharp and full of contrast. There are noticeable image enhancements on some scenes but not enough to make it ugly. The 2.0 Dolby Digital is capable of giving the film its required ‘zest'. The English subtitles are perfectly timed and doesn't scroll too fast.
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