Samurai Fiction (1998)
A Film by Hiroyuki Nakano
The great thing about a service like Netflix (or even the mostly extinct retro rental stores) is that you can see this wide selection of movies on display, and you can come across things you never knew existed. Granted, sometimes this isn't always a good thing, as catchy box art or a tubular name leads you into a dark hole of "what did I just rent and why am I still watching this?" Tonight's flick was discovered in just such a manner - scrolling through box art when BAM! The title catches one's eye. Samurai Fiction. It just conjures memories of black and white swordsman flicks while also sprinkling in a little bit of false over-the-topness, or maybe even something like a certain other movie that ends with fiction in it's title. Either way, these seem like totally enjoyable thoughts, so the only question to unsheathe is whether or not this movie lives up to those images or not.
Samurai fiction is in part a two-section story, where part of the story is told focusing around each of two main characters. We start off being introduced to the new guard hired to protect a sword that was the gift of the emperor to a clan after he has displayed his immense skills. Seemingly for no reason, however, he ends up killing another member and stealing the sword instead of guarding it. This provokes the leader of the clan to try and cover things up in case the sword can't be recovered before it becomes important, while also sending out a good number of men to retrieve the sword. Our second main character enters the fray as the leader's son - more than happy to go forth and demonstrate his perceived impressive sword skills - decides to immediately take off after the man to reclaim the sword.
As he's leaving, he is caught up to by his two friends, and we find out that humor is going to be a thing that will be visiting us frequently in this flick as the three are even referred to by their peers as the Three Stooges. A pair of ninja are also sent out, primarily to get the sword back but also to make sure the son doesn't get himself murdered. The entire field escalates when the three finally catch up to the thief and exchange blows. Our ninjas prove rather worthless - causing a bit more harm than good - and the son witnesses one of his friends die in an attempt to protect him, which will lead to lingering desires for revenge later. At this point, however, a new party enters the fray in the form of a master sword fighter who seems quite set on never drawing his sword and in fact avoiding fighting as much as possible. He convinces the thief to leave, and with the help of the ninja brings the two wounded to his place to recover.
There's quite a bit of filler-like content here that does in fact show a bit of character growth for the son, primarily in the form of a budding romance to the hero swordsman's daughter. The swordsman and his daughter both spend quite a bit of time trying to convince the son to not seek revenge, while the thief spends most of his screen time at the local gambling den being hit on by the owner - and also not caring about it. He becomes obsessed over the swordsman though, wanting a duel that the swordsman doesn't wish to take part in. Tensions are escalating, and there's questions to be answered as we approach the finale. Will the son give up on revenge? Will the duel happen between the son and the thief or the swordsman and the thief? If it does, who will win?
The most obvious thing to note in this movie is the predominant use of black and white. It gives it a little of that old samurai movie feel, which does lend towards it's intended goal. To it's credit, it does throw in some red-screen a few times during character deaths, and every now and then something will show up in color, as though someone forgot to transfer it to a handful of greys. It's fitting, as the movie itself feels at a good deal of times like an old samurai flick in structure, and the fights in particular, but also just by how some of the scenes are shot also still ends up feeling modern (much like the flashes of color from time to time remind you that it isn't just an old movie you decided to watch).
The music (and a few scenes for that matter) make me reminisce a little about an anime named Samurai Champloo, as the music is obviously a modern thing placed upon it - but in this case it stands out much more considering the black and white live action going on. Audio is fine as far as balance - although in my case it was watched subbed, so there's a bit of reading to do. I don't hold subbing or dubbing against a movie - although admittedly I usually prefer to just be able to listen and focus on the visuals, I've also been known to leave subtitles on in most movies I watch just in case I start to have a hard time hearing things for whatever reason. Of course, since it's a foreign (to me) language, I can't exactly comment on their actual line deliveries, but from how it sounds there's probably just enough cheese on there to remind you it's not a one-hundred percent serious movie. The "I saw a lady and got a nose bleed" scenes should be more than enough to remind you of that even without knowing the language though.
The costume work is well done, matching up quite well to a lot of what I remember seeing in the older samurai flicks. I do remember there being characters whose sole inclusion seemed to be some form of comic relief, but for the most part I don't remember seeing any particular movies of that type that went quite as gung-ho for the comedy angle as this one though. The sword fights are usually quite brief, but well done (which isn't too much unlike other samurai movies either), and the thief's actor manages to do a good job of just keeping that blandly aggressive almost Judge Dredd like facial expression on throughout the movie. If you end up hating anything in regard to characters, it will be the actual characters rather than the actors playing them in this one.
So what's my final verdict on this flick? It's not bad, particularly if your fan of samurai movies but would rather have something a bit more light-hearted. It's whimsical and strives to give you that nostalgic feeling, which in the end it does rather well. It's nothing where I'd be racing out to watch it, but I'm far from regretting watching it either. I liked the use of the red screens to add a little bit of differentiation to things, although it would also have been nice to see it be a little more consistent towards the end when it decides to not use it on a bunch of deaths. All in all though, it wasn't bad. It wasn't quite as over the top as I thought it was going to be, which in some ways is a shame, but it was still different than the normal samurai tale - which is what the name promised me.