“Samurai Fiction” is another Japanese film that I found out about thanks to “Kill Bill” and Quentin Tarantino’s magpie-like methods. He pays tribute to it during the legendary House of Blue Leaves sequence when the lights are suddenly shut off, making the Bride a black silhouette against a wall of blue light. The stunning image is an almost direct echo of a similar one with red light instead of blue that can be seen during “Samurai Fiction”’s opening title sequence. However, this case is more unusual among Tarantino’s long history of homages. For one, this film, released in 1998, is more recent than the usual selection of vintage picks that the avid auteur rummages through. Then there is the very real possibility that the Blue Leaves nod is in fact the latest in a cycle of references that begins with “Samurai Fiction”’s salutes to “Pulp Fiction” and Tarantino, among other things.
For the first, fairly obvious clue, one needs not look any further than “Samurai Fiction”’s title. But besides that and the introduction of a femme fatale character as she smokes a pipe and receives a foot massage which is no doubt meant to evoke Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace, the Tarantino-esque touches are indirect and style-related. In other words, director Hiroyuki Nakano certainly doesn’t hold back on cinematic creativity, letting loose with a slew of stimulating techniques. A voiceover informs us that the story we’re seeing is set three hundred years in the past, a fact shortly after emphasized by the appearance of a digital clock that counts backwards to the year 1696. Most of the film is in black-and-white, but features splashes of vivid color such as the frames of red that accompany fatal blows and the opening credit sequence which shows dueling samurai and unsheathed katana blades in bright tones of blue and red. Best of all, the soundtrack is heavy on guitar riffs and channels surf music, funk, rock and even spaghetti western scores.
Smartly keeping things fairly simple, the story revolves around the theft of a certain ceremonial sword handed down from the Shogun. The sword thief is Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei), who is the very image of the solemn, lone-wolf ronin. He is pursued by Heishiro Inukai (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), the young, naïve son of a counselor. Along for the ride are Shintarô Suzuki (Naoyuki Fujii) and Tadasuke Kurosawa (Ken Osawa), his two childhood friends who initially try to stop him from going on his foolhardy quest, and two ninjas sent to stealthily follow Kazamatsuri and retrieve the sword themselves. Heishiro also meets a kindly former samurai named Hanbei Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), for whom the foolhardy young man soon develops feelings of affection.
As one might guess, the narrative is little more than a sturdy template that allows the film to focus more on the assortment of characters and plays on style and genre. Nakano upholds a mostly light and fun tone throughout, allowing for a fair amount of amusing elements. One great reoccurring character is the senior ninja Kagemaru (Kei Tani) who drops from the ceiling when summoned purely out of habit. The inn where Kazamatsuri stays is populated by a number of odd characters, including its sultry, scheming proprietress Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) and a trio of tattooed, bald-headed buffoons. The film even finds enough room to squeeze in an out-of-the-blue musical saw performance and at least one priceless line: “Don’t denigrate stones!” But looking beyond the broad comedy, it is clear that “Samurai Fiction” is meant to be a spirited homage to the classic chanbara films of old, spinning a typical samurai yarn simply for the love of the genre.
With sword fights and fierce warriors juxtaposed alongside a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility, “Samurai Fiction” certainly makes for one entertaining movie remix. Truth be told, I would have liked it more if it ventured a little further from its slapstick safety zone and developed more of an edge in terms of both comedy and coolness – both areas pretty much crafted to perfection in both “Kill Bill” and, from what little I’ve seen of it, the anime “Samurai Champloo.” Still, I’m plenty happy with “Samurai Fiction” as it is, and am certainly motivated to hunt down similarly hip revisionist samurai tales.