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Friday, Oct. 21, 2005
A samurai needs some lovin' after a hard day's fight
Jidai geki -- period dramas set in and around the days of the samurai -- used to be The History Channel of film genres -- something beloved by the Viagra set. Not now, though; at least not entirely. MTV-generation directors such as Hiroyuki Nakano ("Red Shadow") and Ryuhei Kitamura ("Aragami") have decided that the essence of the genre is action -- with all those swords coming out.
Their jidai geki are arcade fight games on film, set to thumping, pulsing electronic scores. Forget the long, slow build-up to a one-against-all climax. These guys start with a bang -- or, rather, blood spurts -- and never let up.
Hideaki Sunaga's "Nagurimono: Love and Kill" is in this line: The first scene is of two man-mountains slamming the bejesus out of each other. His film, however, was produced by Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE), which also manages Pride Fighting Championships -- mixed martial arts bouts fought by champions in their respective disciplines: judo, wrestling, karate and so on. This, folks, is the real deal and the heart of the film is bouts between real Pride fighters -- Kazushi Sakuraba, Yoshihiro Takayama, Wanderlei Silva, Quinton Jackson and Don Fry -- that make most martial-arts movie action look as choreographed as ballet.
This is also not the sort of thing usually found in a real jidai geki -- a problem the film only papers over.
The story: A foppish English businessman (Christian Storms) stages a martial-arts contest between champions of two rival yakuza gangs to resolve a dispute over a wonder drug he is dealing and that both sides want.
The leader of one gang, the short-fused, pistol-packing Aijiro (Takanori Jinnai) is mad for a new anything-goes fighting style in which two opponents punch, kick, wrestle and choke each other until one is unconscious -- or dead. His loyal, dandyish lieutenant Anrai (Hiroshi Tamaki) scouts new fighters, but never steps in the ring himself. On the day of the big event, Anrai spots the businessman dallying with a beautiful prostitute (Asami Mizukawa) with whom he was raised, and has long loved. There is more at stake here, we start to see, than who whups who.
The plot complications exist in a parallel universe from the fighting action -- making "Nagurimono" a strange, if intermittently watchable, hybrid. Producer Nobuyuki Sakakibara, who also heads DSE, should have put the one Pride fighter with rudimentary acting skills -- the likable but scarily powerful Kazushi Sakuraba -- at the center of the film. Then he might have had a "Rocky," not a curiosity.
More in the traditional jidai geki line is Mitsuo Kurotsuchi's "Semi Shigure," a film based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa that has already been made into an NHK drama with a prizewinning script by Kurotsuchi. Set in Tohoku in the late Edo Period, the film has as its hero, not the usual historical figure or super swordsman, but a young samurai, Bunshiro Maki (Takuya Ishida), near the bottom of the status ladder. He falls even farther down when his kindly father (Ken Ogata) is accused of plotting against the clan lord and is forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide).
More than Bunshiro's struggle to regain family honor, however, the story focuses on his relationship with Fuku (Aimi Satsukawa), a servant girl he falls for as a 15-year-old, but says nary a word to. The bashful Fuku can hardly bring herself to speak to him as well, though she loves him madly. Then she is sent away to Edo to serve in the lord's household. Meanwhile, Bunshiro and his patiently enduring mother (Chieko Baisho) struggle on in poverty and disgrace. Bunshiro's one salvation is his swordsmanship, which he practices to the point of exhaustion, as though to sweat out his pain.
Skip ahead a few years. Fuku (Yoshino Kimura) is now the lord's concubine -- and the mother of his child. She has also become the focus of a clan succession struggle, with one side wanting her and her son violently removed from the power equation. Hearing of her danger, Bunshiro (Somegoro Ichikawa) and two childhood pals plan to rescue her. The swords finally come out.
This pattern -- an ordinary samurai placed under extraordinary pressure, with the stress more on basic human emotions than slice-and-dice action -- is also that of Yoji Yamada's "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)" and "Kakushiken Oni no Tsume (The Hidden Blade)," both likewise based on fiction by Fujisawa.
Kurotsuchi, a veteran TV scriptwriter and director, uses Yamada's work as a model and succeeds, much as Yamada did, in humanizing his people and moving his audience. In key emotional scenes, as when Fuku and Bunshiro push a cart carrying the body of Bunshiro's father up a mountain path, the simplicity of word and image and the "timeless" pace open up the tear ducts, uncontrollably. (Not that I tried to hold it in.)
Kurotsuchi risks undercutting his story's power by using two sets of actors for the roles of Bunshiro and Fuku. Somegoro Ichikawa -- a kabuki star who has branched out successfully into contemporary dramas and films -- makes a smooth transition from the actor playing his younger self, while Yoshino Kimura is prim, pretty and completely different from the shy, pudgy-faced girl of the opening scenes. It is only in the film's charged climax that she bridges the gap, and the tears start flowing again.
Many recent Japanese films about star-crossed love only dress up ancient genre conventions in new fashions, from MTV and elsewhere. The more conventionally shot "Semi Shigure" strips away the cliches to the plain, unbearable truth: Some goodbyes are forever, even at 15. Especially at 15.