Samurai Stuff

November 1, 2007

Trips to the local video shop have revealed to me an inventive new wave of samurai and ninja movies that seems to have developed in recent years. Instead of trekking around temples and museums, now I can explore Japan’s rich and fascinating past from the comfort of my sofa. (I’m a lazy sod, you see.) The films below are all readily available in Japan on DVD with English subtitles. But if you watch any of them expecting a history lesson, beware- they display a willful disregard for historical accuracy. That is, unless Tetris, tap-dancing and time-travel were the order of the day.

Samurai Fiction

This stylish black and white feature messes with conventions and has a contemporary soundtrack, aiming to inject a little Tarantino-esque post-modern cool into the samurai genre. It stars lanky guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei (one of whose songs later featured in Tarantino’s Kill Bill, funnily enough.) Pierre Taki from techno duo Denki Groove also makes an appearance. What is it with Japanese movies casting musicians? Didn’t they learn anything from they mistakes of Madonna and David Bowie?
The title draws attention to the evident “Pulp Fiction” influence, and the film doesn’t benefit from the comparison, to be honest.

Azumi

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Here we learn that Ninjas were often nubile teenage girls. I didn’t think people wore miniskirts in those days, let alone shave their legs (but who’s complaining?)
Starring the adorable Aya Ueto (another pop-star!) as Azumi, this is an action-packed adaptation of a long-running comic-book series, directed by trendy Ryouhei Kitamura (of cult sword-fighting zombie movie “Versus”.)

Zatoichi

This hit movie, a remake of the classic blind-swordsman series, is directed by the ubiquitous Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (who, when he isn’t receiving awards in Cannes, is receiving pies in the face on Japanese game shows like “Takeshi’s Castle”.) Poker-faced Kitano also stars as the titular blind swordsman who wanders into a town dominated by two rival gangs. He allies himself with two geishas out for revenge, and takes on the bad guys. Cue lots of kinetic swordplay and deadpan humour. More lighthearted than his intense and violent gangster flicks, this one even features a nice “Stomp”-influenced tap-dancing number at the end, apparently a popular form of entertainment in the Edo era.

Mayonaka no Yaji-San Kita-San

Taking anachronism to another level, “Yaji-San Kita-San” features two gay Samurais travelling down the old Tokaido road on a Harley Davidson (that is, until the police stop them because motorbikes haven’t been invented yet.) A fun and truly bizarre film, another comic-book adaptation, it`s the directorial debut of Kankuro Kudo (writer of “Ping Pong”.) There are parallels with “Easy Rider” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, as the eponymous characters set off on their odd, existential quest across Japan. Along the way they encounter the afterlife, have drug-induced “Tetris” hallucinations, try their hand at stand-up comedy and record a hit single. There`s also a lot of modern Japanese pop music on the soundtrack, including the charming ditty “I wanna be your F*ck” by the Zazen Boys over the closing credits. The film gets increasingly more confusing and serious towards the end but it remains a unique experience. Surely this is amassing a cult-following already.

Nin-Nin

Yet another pop-singer-starring-comic-book-adaptation, which seem to be all the rage in Japan right now, “Nin Nin” features Smap’s clownish Shingo Kattori as an inept Ninja who ends up in contemporary Tokyo and befriends a lonely schoolboy, who he amuses with various inane martial-arts shenanigans. Shingo must protect his new master with his life, without breaking the sacred Ninja code. His inexplicable, multi-purpose catchphrase is “Nin!” which he says frequently (like a less funny version of Monty Python’s Knights who Say “Ni!”)
Don’t expect too much- this is aimed squarely at kids. On the plus side, this means it’s actually quite easy to follow by the usual standards of Japanese Japanese film. It`s a familiar story, with the shy, geeky kid, ignored by his parents and peers, being helped out of various scrapes by his secret (imaginary?) new pal. A bit like ET, but nowhere near as good. Shingo (popular with foreigners thanks to his English quiz on TV) does a fair job at the face-pulling and prat-falls, but keep a sick-bag ready for the massively sentimental ending.

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