A send-up of samurai movies, a black n’ white Japanese period drama that doubles up as a comic romp, complete with a driving rock n’ roll soundtrack, Hiroyuki Nakano’s Samurai Fiction ultimately sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. Still, this is not a complete putdown, if certainly not wholehearted approval, as the modest pleasures of the movie are enough to make this a good one-time watch, if only for fans of the genre.
Clearly an exercise in style and pastiche more than a serious drama, Samurai Fiction has all the ingredients of the chambara genre: there is Kazamatsuri, the archetype of the solitary wandering ronin with the trademark contempt for authority, human life and basic decency, only interested in testing the limits of his swordfighting skill. This bit is played by Tomoyasu Hotei, a Japanese rock musician who also scored the film, and he does bring a certain rock star swagger to the part, his walk in particular seeming more like that of a ramp model sporting the latest retro-themed kimono n’ katana collection than Mifune. There are three young impetuous samurai (two of them named Kurosawa and Suzuki!), good-hearted but inept, eager to fight but with their enthusiasm far outstripping their ability. They do remind you of the nine young samurai from Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, and you really do wish for someone like Mifune to rough them up and say something along the lines of Yojimbo’s “A long life eating porridge is best” as they set off on their ill-advised misadventure.
To round off the triangle, there’s a world-weary pacifist ex-samurai with a heart of gold (this one named Mizoguchi!), a fighter on par with Kazamatsuri, but who’d rather be, well, eating porridge at home. The funniest sequence in the movie almost certainly is the training sequence, a common ingredient of martial arts cinema. One of the young samurai, desperate to face-off against Kazamatsuri, wishes to be trained by Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi, wisely realising the outcome of such a duel, instructs the young turk to fight him not with swords but by throwing stones and to that end, the training amounts to hitting targets with stones. Whe the guy desperately tries to go back to his more satisfying katana, Mizoguchi, with polite curtness basically says something to the effect “Stick to the stones, dude.”
The plot is standard, involving stolen swords, palace intrigue, ninjas and most of all, frequent swordfighting action, ending in a climactic duel that is another staple of many chambara classics. There’s a cute visual trick, of making the screen go completely red (in contrast to the otherwise black n’ white) when a character is killed, but this gets old pretty soon. It’s also a problem with the film in general, the gags, jokes and references are mostly fun and sometimes funny too, but the film has only a few ideas that it keeps milking throughout. A pastiche is always most entertaining when it is boldly stylized and deliberate in it’s over the top ways (Kitano’s Zatoichi is a case in point), but Samurai Fiction somehow seems watered down just that little bit too much. It’s still quite unpretentious and much fun to watch, if nothing more.