Quentin Tarantino, meet Hiroyuki Nakano. Oh, wait a minute. Sorry, my mistake. You’ve already met. Well, can I introduce you to Kinji Fukasaku? Oh, sorry, that’s right. You’ve met him too. In fact, Quentin, you know almost everyone in this room, don’t you? Ah well, go and mingle. But just so you know, your cat is out of the bag now. You’ve been mining Asian movies for ideas for years, haven’t you? Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
As for the rest of you Tarantino fans out there, if you haven’t done so already, meet Samurai Fiction – a delight of a movie rivaled only by Kurusawa’s Sanjuro. Nobody could doubt the absolute awesomeness of a good Japanese martial arts flick – but likewise, nobody watching one could doubt that these samurai seriously need to chill out and take a five minute break. Well, Kurusawa in Sanjuro and Nakano in Samurai Fiction give us that break, poking a little fun at samurai seriousness while not denying us our martial movement fix for the day. Evidently Tarantino was as delighted as the rest of us by these and other great Asian martial arts films – and he plagiarizes them – oops, I mean pays homage to them – shamelessly.
Samurai Fiction’s opening titles, in which samurai performing kata are silhouetted against a red background, were in turn satirized in blue & black in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. Also, Tarantino used Hotei’s famous instrumental track “Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai” (“Battle Without Honor or Humanity” – the title of a classic yakuza movie by Kinji Fukasaku, a major influence on Tarantino) as background music for Kill Bill Vol. 1. Hotei played Kazamatsuri in Samurai Fiction and composed its soundtrack.
Tarantino admits that he gets his ideas from old movies mainly Asian and anyone with any knowledge of both movies would see that Tarantino takes names, significant parts of stories and other elements from Asian cinema. When asked about plagiarizing ideas from other movies, he stated, “I lift ideas from other great films just like every other great filmmaker.” Is that why the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs was STOLEN from Django? Or why one of the fighting scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is basically an exact copy of a scene from Samurai Fiction? Those are more than some pretty big ideas.
That said, let’s get down to business. The film was directed by Hiroyuki Nakano and it is almost entirely black-and-white, and follows a fairly standard plotline for a comedy and jidaigeki samurai film, but the presence of Tomoyasu Hotei’s rock-and-roll soundtrack separates it from the films it was inspired by, such as the works of Akira Kurosawa. A loose spinoff was released in 2001, as Red Shadow.
While the film is nearly entirely in black-and-white, paying homage to older samurai movies, this allows for the artistic and dramatic use of color; this is most noticeable whenever a character is killed, and the screen flashes red for a moment. Color is used to dramatic effect at the beginning and end of the film as well to focus the audience in what they are watching.
The plot centers on Inukai Heishiro (Fukikoshi Mitsuru), the son of a clan officer. One of his clan’s most precious heirlooms, a sword given them by the Shogun, has been stolen by the samurai Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei). Against his father’s advice, Heishiro insists on retrieving the sword himself. His father sends two ninja after him to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.
Kazamatsuri wounds Heishiro, and kills one of his companions. The young noble ends up staying with an older samurai (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa) while he heals from his wound and plans his next move. The older samurai tries to dissuade him from fighting, but Heishiro’s honor won’t allow him to leave Kazamatsuri alive. The older samurai, who turns out to be the master Hanbei Mizogushi, convinces him to fight Kazamatsuri by throwing rocks rather than with swords.
Meanwhile Kazamatsuri settles for a few days at a gambling house owned by Lady Okatsu (Mari Atsuki), who falls in love with him. Then one night one of the ninja sent to protect Heishiro bribes her to poison his sake for one thousand gold. She does, but Kazamatsuri tastes the poison and kills Okatsu. He then kidnaps Koharu in an attempt to get the master Mizoguchi to fight him.
Mizoguchi reveals to Heishiro that he killed Koharu’s father, and has since never drawn his sword on another man, despite his immense skill. They then go to find Kazamatsuri and rescue Koharu. While Mizoguchi stalls Kazamatsuri, Heishiro takes Koharu aside and says he will marry her if Mizoguchi wins. Kazamatsuri fights Mizoguchi, who only draws his sword after his opponent destroys his wooden sword. He then disarms Kazamatsuri near a cliff. Kazamatsuri, admitting defeat, commits suicide by jumping off the cliff. Heishiro and the others go to the bottom, where there is no sign of Kazamatsuri’s body, but Koharu spots the stolen sword at the bottom of the river, where Heishiro retrieves it.
Flash forward one year. Heishiro has married Koharu, the sword is restored, and Mizoguchi is now an official in Heishiro’s clan.
The film has a number of inside jokes and allusions. For example, the stolen sword that is at the center of the plot was a personal possession of Toshirō Mifune, the star of many of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films. One of Heishiro’s closest friends is named Kurosawa.
Between the rock and roll background and Hotei’s portrayal of Kazamatsuri’s cool disdain for the skills of the bumbling samurai who pursue him, it’s impossible not to become lost in admiration at Hotei’s ability to slide effortlessly and apparently in a state of total relaxation, from noncombat to combat situations — for example, when he is confronted by young Heishiro and his companions, Hotei as Kazamatsuri is so unconcerned by their presence that he turns coolly away to take a leak by the side of the road before responding to their taunts and challenges.
So, Tarantino fans, and those who think American cinema is the cat’s ass, why don’t you smell an Asian one? Why do I watch so many Asian movies? Apparently what I’m really doing is watching the future of American moviemaking, since American directors are so bankrupt of ideas that they have no recourse but to follow foreign filmmakers meekly as they lead them around by the nose.