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August 11, 2009

The Samurai I Loved

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Semishigure
Mitsuo Kurotsuchi - 2005
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

If anyone thinks of Yoji Yamada's recent films about samurai while watching The Samurai I Loved, there is no coincidence. Mitsuro Kurotsuchi's film is based on a novel by Shuhei Fujisawa, whose books also served as the basis of Yamada's films. The English language title is a bit misleading as it may suggest great passion and much swordplay. The original Japanese title refers to the sound of cicadas and is might be more appropriate for a film where nature plays an important part in this period drama.

The film takes place in a remote village where the samurai essentially act as civil service employees on behalf of the ruling lord based in Edo. Not only are these samurai poorly paid, but are subject to the various political schemes of their superiors. Bunshiro sees the fortune of his family change, as his father is forced to commit suicide for being on the wrong side of a rivalry between two chief samurai retainers. The home and financial fortune are restored, but a price testing Bunshiro's loyalties. Fuku, the girl next door, from a samurai family of even humbler means, is in love with Bunshiro, as he is with her, but both are too reserved to express their feelings to each other. Fuku reluctantly leaves the small village to become the lord's concubine, further complicated her relationship with Bunshiro.

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Kurotsuchi opens the film with shots of the sky, of rice fields, the wind blowing, on a snowy winter day. Bunshiro and Fuku's relationship is first established on a hot summer morning when Fuku is bitten by a snake. It's a small bite, with Bunshiro spitting out the venom, and admonishing Fuku that a samurai's daughter would not cry over a small wound. Nature again plays a part when during a flood, Bunshiro's father, Sukezaemon, convinces a group that would take apart a dike, to work in an area that would cause flooding away from the rice fields, saving the livelihood of seasonal workers, and unstated, the income of the feudal lord. Bunshiro's official position is a the rice field inspector of his home area. Kurotsuchi breaks up his narrative with several montages of fields covered in snow, cherry blossoms, a shot of a small tree frog, and flowing water. The songs by the villagers are either about the changes of seasons or about animals. Several times, Kurotsuchi will use long shots of his characters, small, on the bottom of the frame, surrounded by the sky, fields and mountains.

The Samurai I Loved was a leading contender for Japan's Academy Awards in 2006. I have found nothing of substance on Mitsuo Kurotsuchi, although his slender filmography suggests that he might be the Japanese equivalent to Terrence Malick in both his output and visual concerns. In the brief interview that comes with the DVD, Kurotsuchi mentions another notoriously slow filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, in reference to having his sets created by former members of Kurosawa's team to be as accurate as possible. Kurosawa is referenced indirectly by casting Mieko Harada as Bunshiro's mother. As Bunshiro's father, Ken Ogata brings his own history of not only older period films, but whole chapters of Japanese film history, somewhat analogous to recent films casting Paul Newman as the father or father figure to Kevin Costner or Tom Hanks. Somegoro Ichikawa plays Bunshiro, neither overplaying the sentimental aspects of his character, nor underplaying the hidden feelings kept under close reign. Yoshino Kimura displays similar reserve to Ichikawa in the role of Fuko, indicating her passion in only a few small gestures.

The one scene of samurai action does supply generous spurting of blood when a ninja army fights Bunshiro. What makes is the reaction Bunshiro and the other characters have in realizing what kind of injury they can inflict on each other, the brief hesitation that any of them can die at any moment. The introspective aftermath is unusual for a genre where the characters typically live and die by the sword. The film ends on a poignant note. The Samurai I Loved examines the codes of conduct and how they conflict with a higher set of ideals. This is a love story in which the love is realized only in the intentions of the heart.

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Posted by peter at August 11, 2009 12:07 AM