Friday, August 14, 2009

The Sweet Serenade Of The Cicada-Animeigo's "The Samurai I Loved"

"The Samurai I Loved”, the newest DVD release from Animeigo, sounded at first like it would be a chick flick that featured Brick McBurly in the starring role. Judging from the list of awards (most notably several ‘Best Actor’ awards for ‘older Bunshiro’ actor Ichikawa Somegoro) and nominations (being nominated for 11 categories, including Best Film, by the Japanese Academy in 2006) the film received, however, this indicated that the movie would be far more than that-which turned out to be the case. It’s a first rate film with an engaging story, great performances, outstanding cinematography, and some more-realistic-than-usual swordplay for the chanbara fans out there. Released as “Semishigure” (“Outburst Of Cicadas”) in 2005, the film was based on a story by Fujisawa Shuhei. The name might be familiar-Shuhei was an outstanding writer of historical fiction and three of his films were turned into the so-called ‘Samurai Trilogy’ by director Yamada Yoji-“Twilight Samurai”, “The Hidden Blade”, and “Love and Honor”. The director was different for this film (Kurotsuchi Mitsuo), but the results were similar-a film with heart and feeling that is much more realistic than the average jidai-geki effort, and that does a fine job humanizing the often-glorified image of the samurai.

The film begins with young samurai Maki Bunshiro taking his morning trip to the stream behind his house to wash up. There he meets his new neighbor, Fuku. Fuku is almost immediately afterwards bitten on the finger by a snake. Although the snake is relatively harmless, Bunshiro sucks the venom from her finger just to be safe. Fuku becomes enamored of the older Bunshiro, who of course being a young boy is oblivious to this fact. This is followed up by establishing Bunshiro’s relationships with his two best friends, Ippei and the more scholarly Yonosuke. Much of Bunshiro’s and Ippei’s time is spent helping out Yonosuke when he’s assaulted by bullies, and indeed it’s this very thing that interrupts Fuku’s first hesitant attempts to convey her affection for Bunshiro when the two attend a village festival together.

Bunshiro’s father, Sukezaemon, is a member of the Fushingumi-a group of samurai, farmers, and townspeople that work on civil engineering projects. He’s quite popular among the commoners for his compassion, having at one point saved many of their farms from destruction by refusing to take the easy way out during a flood (by not destroying a dyke to divert the water flow near their homes-he instead does it in a remote but riskier location where he ends up saving Bunshiro from being swept away by the flood). However, this counts for nothing when Sukezaemon finds himself on the losing side during a power struggle in the fictional fief of Unasaka. Sukezaemon is sentenced to commit seppuku, and in an awkward meeting with his son, tells him that he has no regrets-that he has done what he saw as being right. Afterwards, Bunshiro is filled with regret that he was unable to put into words all that he had wanted to say to his father. During the hottest day of the summer (with the cicadas in full shrill), Bunshiro is forced to recover his father’s body in broad daylight and is humiliated by having to transport it in full view of the crowds in the village. Even worse, the exhausted Bunshiro finds himself unable to drag the cart up a steep hill near the end of his journey. Despite being forbidden to see Bunshiro again (as his family is now branded as traitors), Fuku comes across him and wastes no time in lending her aid. Together, the pair manages to make it to the top of the hill-and the bond between them is cemented for good.

Bunshiro and his mother are sent by the han officials to live in a rundown house in the city where he and Fuku are separated-and soon, the girl is sent to Edo to become a maid for the Lord. When Bunshiro is summoned to the home of Chief Retainer Sanai Satomura (the man who headed the winning faction in the power struggle and had Sukezaemon put to death), he fears the worst-seppuku for himself and the abolishment of the Maki family. Instead, he is reinstated and given a position as a village inspector. Now an adult, he settles into his new position. Being skilled with the sword, he takes part in sword competitions. During one of these he is soundly defeated by one Inukai Hyoma and his seemingly supernatural 'sword of madness' technique, which puts Hyoma in every position but where his opponent believes he is. Returning home, Bunshiro is reunited with Yonosuke, who brings disturbing news-Bunshiro’s childhood friend Fuku is now the concubine of the han’s Lord, and has borne his child. However, there’s a problem-a competing faction doesn’t want her son to be considered as a possible heir to the current Lord, and is looking to have her and her son killed. Fuku has been moved to a remote village and is being guarded by several of the Lord’s retainers.

One day Bunshiro is summoned to Satomura's home and is ordered by him to go to Fuku’s retreat and take custody of the child. This puts Bunshiro in the position of having to rebel against the man who had his family reinstated, or to do the wrong thing and kidnap the son of his childhood sweetheart (who he still has strong feelings for). It’s the classic ‘duty’ vs. ‘self’ conflict that drives many samurai films, but rarely realized so elegantly. Bunshiro resolves to take a route that will fulfill his obligations to both and not fall into Satomura's trap. He sets forth with his friends Ippei and Yonosuke to put his plan into action. What follows provides plenty of excitement, suspense, and enough swordplay to satisfy any chanbara head. Bunshiro probably sets a record for most swords used up during a single scene, as he discards one after another as they lose their edge to clotted blood (choosing from a forest of swords he had earlier planted in tatami mats). And the story wouldn't be complete if he didn't face Inukai Hyoma and his 'sword of madness'-this time for real. As in any Japanese film, a happy ending is not a given-will both Fuku and her son survive? How about Bunshiro? Will Satomura pay for his crimes against the Maki? Do the childhood sweethearts pick up where they left off? The answers are surprising and are best experienced for yourself, so we won’t divulge them here.

We found the cinematography to be exceptional in this movie, with many shots that are masterpieces of composition. While the film moves slowly compared to most Western films (a feature it shares with many Japanese movies), this helps to give a sense of the passage of time within the story and convey a unique Japanese ascetic. The shots of the changing seasons with snow, cherry blossoms, and the omnipresent cicadas heralding the heat of summer do much the same thing. There’s a lot of symbolism, as in the close-up of a dead cicada shadowing Sukezaemon’s seppuku. It all provides a beautiful background for the story to play out against. As evidenced by Ichikawa’s “Best Actor” awards, the performances are excellent from top to bottom. The film’s story lends itself to an emotional response from the audience, always creating the danger of lapsing into melodrama. However, the actors do a masterful job of showing emotion in a low key and understated (yet completely sincere and convincing) way. Fuku’s and Bunshiro’s conversation near the end of the film will be felt in the hearts of anyone who has ‘let someone get away’. The film is, in effect, being played by two sets of actors-a younger cast for the childhood versions in the film’s first hour and an older cast for the adult versions in the last half. Both sets are outstanding and the transition is quite seamless (except when not meant to be, as in Fuku’s transition from ‘maid’ to ‘maiden’). As with most Japanese movies, the ending is realistic and bittersweet. About the only thing that didn’t ring true was Bunshiro’s final confrontation with Satomura-while we don’t want to spoil what delivers admittedly substantial dramatic impact, it’s tough to imagine things actually playing out that way. Animeigo again provides an excellent translation and the best subtitling in the business, and both sound and picture transfer are outstanding.

Extras for the DVD comprise the standard Animeigo lineup, headed up by the program notes. Since the story is largely fictional, these tend to explain much of the symbolism in the film (including what the original title of Semishigure would mean to a Japanese audience) and why certain things were put in the film that weren’t in the book. There’s much more culture than history this time around and even a bit of a biology lesson on the snake that bites Fuku early in the film. There are several different trailers for the film, a cast and crew bio section, a very large image gallery that probably includes all of the images on the film’s electronic press kit, and a trailer for Ashura (which also featured the star of “The Samurai I Loved”, Ichikawa Somegoro). There’s also a subtitled interview with director Kurotsuchi. If you’re familiar with the promo interviews Japanese directors (and for that matter, actors) usually give you’ll know what to expect-Kurotsuchi gushes over his great cast, great locations, great crew, great script, but says very little of substance. All in all, the extras do an adequate job of providing background for the film.

It’s a shame that a fine film like “The Samurai I Loved” has such a clichéd and “B-Movie” title. It’s well known in the publishing and video industries that including the word ‘samurai’ in a title for a Western release is something pushed for by marketing bigwigs, but in this case I think Animeigo had little to do with that decision and that it was decreed by the licensor. In any case, the men in the audience shouldn’t let the title scare them away-and at the same time, it’s a great film to watch with your significant other. My wife Ayame was visiting from Japan and we watched it together. She was extremely touched and cried throughout the whole movie. Similarly, it’s a good film to show your skeptical friends who don’t understand your fascination with jidai-geki rather than the crap showing at the local multiplex. It’s your chance to take the artistic high ground! While it’s lighter on action than a standard chanbara film, when the fighting comes, it’s intense, well staged, and brutal-and made all the more dramatic by the feelings most viewers will have invested in the characters by that time. “The Samurai I Loved” gets our highest recommendation-the song of the cicadas has never sounded as good.

"The Samurai I Loved" is available directly from Animeigo or from Amazon through the SA Store.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this movie until the final scenes. I was left with a sense of resound emptiness and loss. I am not sure what to make of the final scene on the lake. The film is a work of art and most underrated as Edo Period films go. It is to be treasured.