Samurai Shifters (2019) review [Japannual 2019]

Introduction

It does not always happen that two novels of the same writer find their way to the silver screen in the same year, but in Akihiro Dobashi’s case that’s exactly what happened. The first novel that found his way to the silver screen was Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Samurai Marathon. The second novel, which he also turned into a screenplay, was Hikkoshi Daimyo!

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Review

1682, the second year of the reign of Tsunayoshi Tokugawa, the fifth Shogun. In order to ensure political dominance over the many lords under his reign, the Shogun often forces lords and their families to move from their current domain to another domain. No objection was possible. If one received the order, one had to comply. In order to protect strategic domain, the Echizen Matsudaira clan has already been forced to move multiple times.

One night, Tokyo liaison Kohei Nakata (Takaya Yamauchi) informs Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), lord of the Himeji domain, that they will soon be forced to relocate again. Besides the less than ideal location – Bungo province in Kyushu, the move will go hand in hand with a reduction in land and income.

In other to prepare for the move, chief retainer Sanemon Motomura (Yutaka Matsushige) proposes to decide who will take charge of the forthcoming move. When Motomura asks Genemon Takamura (Issey Takahashi), sword attendant to take this responsibility, he quickly proposes Librarian Shunnosuke Katagiri (Gen Hoshino) as the perfect candidate.

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Even though Samurai Shifters has a simply set-up and straightforward narrative structure, it does not forget to touch, wherever possible, upon certain features of Edo-society. The first aspect concerns samurai nanshoku (male-male love). While Inudo’s Samurai shifters does not offer a detailed look into the structure of nanshoku, he does successfully touch upon the wide-spread presence of homosexuality within the samurai class. Yes, the narrative might treat this homo-erotic aspect  lightheartedly – the apparent reason for the move was supposedly Matsudaira’s refusal of Yoshiyasa’s sexually invitation, it still is one of the first time that this easily forgotten aspect is featured in a jidai-geki narrative.

Another aspect concerns the societal structure of the edo-society. Inudo does not only touch upon the four divisions of society (shinōkōshō)) created by the Tokugawa government – most notably the division between bushi/samurai and merchants, but also upon the division internal to the samurai caste – the division between lowly ranked and highly ranked samurai. The latter is brought into play when Katagiri attempts to get the notes of the previous relocation officer from his daughter Oran (Mitsuki Takahata). Due to the fact that Oran’s father, as lowly-ranked samurai, was treated without respect by highly-ranked samurai, Oran refuses any request of Katagiri on the ground of him being highly ranked. This maltreatment is also the reason why she has refused any attempt to woo her. How will Katagiri, who feels attracted to Oran, be able to overcome her refusal of indulging her father’s notes? And will he be able to pursue her as his love-interest (Narra-note 1 (spoiler))?

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Something that the spectator will immediately notice is that Katagiri is as un-samurai-like as can be. While this is already revealed by his bookish and socially awkward nature and his ignorance of rank and status, his un-samurai-ness, which subtly ridicules the notion of the samurai as such, is most clearly revealed when he is ordered to commit hara-kiri (Narra-note 2). Instead of accepting his fate, accepting his chance to escape the shame of his failure, he cowardly resists to wield the blade. Luckily, due to Oran’s timely intervention, he is saved and officially given office as relocation officer (Narra-note 1).  Due to Katagiri’s initial position – i.e. living in his library far away from the realities of society, Samurai Shifters can also be read as a quirky coming-into-being narrative. Supported by Oran, who has the knowledge, Katagiri is slowly enabled/forced to realize an active social position, as man as well as samurai, within the samurai social fabric. Oran, and no one else, makes Katagiri in a man/samurai worthy of the signifier, a man able to save, of course with the help of his friends, the Matsudaira clan from the ruin the Shogunate has planned.

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One of the most important elements of a jidai-geki narrative concerns the bringing-to-life of the era. Luckily, Samurai Shifters does not disappoint in this respect. Be it the beautiful shots of glorious Japanese castles, the detailed castle Interiors (e.g. library, …), the castle town, the costumes and the top-knots, each visual element supports the believable and often impressive framing of the Edo-period. Even the actual move is beautifully framed. While the visuals never frame the move in its full scope as such, the visuals do enable the spectator to feel/taste the scope of the endeavor. While it isn’t an important element in the narrative, Samurai Shifters also includes one sword-fighting action sequence. This action-sequence, blending serious elements with more lighthearted elements, is pleasingly shot and will satisfy anyone who is not looking for a true chanbara tale.

Samurai Shifters is told with cinematographic simplicity, with a straightforward mix of fixity and movement devoid of any experimental flair. Despite this simplicity, Isshin Inudo does employ, at certain occasions, ‘special’ cinematographical techniques, either in order to support the fluidity of the narrative’s unfolding or in order to subtle empower the lightheartedness of Katagiri’s reactions (Cine-note 1, music-note 1).

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The narrating voice gives Samurai Shifters some historical context. Besides painting the set-up of the narrative, this narrating voice also provides some explanations about the move and Katagiri’s behaviour. While the scope of such endeavor is already evoked early on in the narrative, these explanations further help the spectator to realize the logistic nightmare such move is and the impact such move can have. The introduction of the historical framework is further supported by an element common in contemporary jidai-geki movies: titles introducing the various characters. An important but often overlooked facet of these titles is that they, beyond introducing the characters, evoke the minimal symbolic relation between characters as well (Psycho-note 1).

The reason why Samurai Shifters is so enjoyable is due to the satisfying performances of Gen Hoshino and Issey Takahashi. While each actor/actress embodies his/her role in a fitting manner, it is Hoshino’s and Takahashi’s performance, both striking a perfect balance between over-acting and natural acting, that enable each scene to become so pleasing. It is the way they interact, with each other as well as with the others, that enables the lighthearted tale of our samurai movers to become so engaging (Cine-note 2).

While Samurai Shifters does not offer anything new to the jidai-geki genre, it still is a pleasing narrative that touches upon less well-known aspects of Edo-society (like homo-eroticism). Inudo’s coming-into-being narrative should, nevertheless, not be mistaken as a lighthearted mockery of the samurai image, but understood as a subtle evocation that investing in knowledge and honesty are important values to pursue.

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