Samurai Fiction (1998) by Hiroyuki Nakano

When Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) steals their ancestral sword, samurai Heishiro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), along with friends, Tadasuke (Ken Osawa) and Shintaro (Naoyuki Fujii), sets out to recover it. Meanwhile his father sends out a squad of ninjas to help getback the sword. Heishiro is later joined by a legendary swordsman Mizoguchi (Morio Kazama) and his foster-daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa), who tries to convince him not to fight Kazamatsuri.

Directed by Hiroyuki Nakano, from a script by Nakano and Hiroshi Saito, “Samurai Fiction” is a highly stylised homage to classic samurai cinema. The film frames its central story rather confusingly with the main character explaining that this is something that happened to him 300 years ago, including a cycling back through the years to the post-Shogunate period of relative peace. It is never explained what he means by this, and it really makes no difference to the story which then mostly takes place in the past. The film, shot predominantly in black-and-white, often references traditional period films, but blended with modern action cinema style. With overhead shots and other inventive camerawork such as characters running towards the camera, the use of narration, striking flashes of colour, occasional tongue-in-cheek references to the tropes of other historical dramas, it is clear that this is intended as a post-modernist reinterpretation of the genre. This is most evident in the soundtrack by star Tomoyasu Hotei, which features rock guitar, country rock, surfabilly, funk, and drum machines, providing a hyper-modern score to the traditional visuals. The story is simple, yet solid, allowing the audience to enjoy a reconstructionist samurai drama with a modern twist, a loving pastiche with enough tension and solid fight scenes to make it enjoyable in its own right.

Hiroyuki Nakano’s stylish samurai drama is an entertaining experience. The director previously worked in commercials and that sense of visual flair is apparent here, albeit sometimes at the expense of thematic or emotional depth. If you are a fan of old black-and-white samurai films, there is much to enjoy here as it draws in story and stylistic elements that will be familiar. A fun action film and a love-letter to classic cinema.

Irezumi (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) elopes with her lover Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa), who is apprenticed to her father. The two arrive at a nearby inn where they hope to find refuge with the owner Kenji (Fujio Suga) and his wife. They are betrayed by Kenji, who sells Otsuya to a geisha house run by Tokubei (Asao Uchida), while an attempt is made on Shinsuke’s life. Otsuya begins a new life as a geisha and is tattooed by artist Sekichi (Gaku Yamamoto) with a large spider on her back. She is told that she will become a man-eater. Otsuya sets about getting revenge on all those men who have wronged her, leaving behind a bloody trail of revenge.

Based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, with a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo (The Naked Island), “Irezumi” is a violent erotic thriller with a comanding central performance from Ayako Wakao. Wakao’s Otsuya is strong-willed and unbreakable in the face of adversity, soon coming to dominate all those around her, whether Shinsuke, or Tokubei. Men fall at her feet and she is not averse to standing her ground. Ayako Wakao’s fearsome performance is a highlight of the film, as you sense the passion and rage in her eyes in every scene. Her palpable sensuality means it is no wonder the men around Otsuya fall under her spell. Director Yasuzo Masumura creates an active feel to the film, full of life and movement. While the sexual scenes are mostly suggestive, there is no such discretion when it comes to the violence, with brutal slayings depicted graphically. The fight-sequence between Shinsuke and his attacker is a great example of using the set and surroundings to best advantage. The two men battling for survival seems to draw from and parallel the thunderous power of the heavens as the storm rages.

The vengeful woman has been an enduring trope in literature and cinema through the ages and “Irezumi” gives us one of the darkest and most disturbing interpretations of the archetype. As the title suggests there is a peculiar focus on the tattoo that Otsuya is given, with the artist coming to believe that it is this that turned her into a killer. However, it is not all that clear that Otsuya changes drastically through the film, she is very much the same woman when we first meet her as after her ordeals. Perhaps what changes is the male characters reactions to her, or impressions of her. Aside from Shinsuke, who is very much under her control in many ways, the other men continually underestimate her or take her compliance for granted. Alongside the timeless questions around whether villains are born or made, there is a more contemporary idea at play here: around society’s treatment of women and the potential whirlwind they will reap if they continue to underestimate or abuse them. There is an understanding that if women are pushed, just like men, they will bite back.

Gemini (1999) by Shinya Tsukamoto

Doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) has recently returned from treating soldiers at the front. His parnter Rin (Ryo) is a woman who appears to be suffering amnesia, with Yukio reminding her she was rescued from a fire that destroyed her home. Yukio begins to sense a strange shadowy personage following him and the house, where he is living with his parents, is troubled by an unpleasant smell. This dark figure reveals itself as a man who appears to be the double of Yukio. After a struggle this sinister doppelganger supplants the doctor who looks on helpless as this man, Sutekichi (also Masahiro Motoki), rekindles a romantic relationship with Rin.

The story is loosely based on an Edogawa Ranpo story, and on the surface, Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Gemini” follows a traditional gothic horror narrative. The double who appears to first haunt its victim and later take over his life, speaks to a primeval fear and is referenced in works throughout history. However, Tsukamoto is not a writer or director to be satisfied with such a straightforward tale, infusing the story with psychological terror and social satire. Interestingly, this is Tsukamoto’s first film to have a historical setting. There are brief flahses here of the grotesque imagery that characterises much of Tsukamoto early work (Testuo, Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet), with the film’s shock opening of a maggot-riddled feline corpse attended by rats providing an unsettling image, the horror of which remains in the subconscious, infecting the following narrative with horrific undertones.. As we witness Yukio seeing patients we need little reminder of the terrifying, gruesome realities of the natural world, of suffering, death and violence. Throughout Tsukamoto switches between quiet scenes of eerie dialogue and cacophanous, chaotic action, the vivid violence resonating through the haunted silences. This technique works perfectly to create a sense of unease, tension and shock, helped by the incredible work of long-time collaborator composer Chu Ishikawa, whose score captures the ever-changing qualities of the film, from hellish chants, to melancholic dirges.

Tsukamoto packs a number of themes and ideas into “Gemini”. The three protagonists may represent a typical love triangle, but their characters and performances are all reflective of deeper, more significant themes, referencing class struggle and societal causes of suffering. Yukio criticises the lower classes as little more than animals, unaware that Rin is herself comes from a lowly position, as a thief. This defect in his character, his inability to feel compassion for those less fortunate, makes his fate less sympathetic and his character more nuanced than an unfortunate victim. Sutekichi’s upbringing as part of an acting troupe also speaks to this notion that people only play the roles they are given and that class is a matter of luck as opposed to ability. We see this most clearly in the ease with which Sutekichi attains and maintains his new position as Yukio’s replacement. There is talk of disease in the film, again the fault of which is laid at the door of the lower classes. This along with the dead cat at the beginning are a stark reminder of the fragility of human life that can be snatched away in an instant. It is a dog-eat-dog, or rat-eat-cat, world in which people attain positions through violence rather than skill or ability. We see Yukio’s parents who will not accept Rin as they don’t know where she is from. A dark horror that touches on themes of class and identity with Tsukamoto’s typical visual flair.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning (2021) by Keishi Otomo

Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) joins an anti-shogunate force led by Katsura Kogoro (Issey Takahashi), soon becoming one of their greatest assessins due to his unmatched skills with a sword. Himura meets a young woman Tomoe Yukishiro (Kasumi Arimura), recently bereaved after the man she was due to marry was cut down by Himura. Tomoe, overcome by grief, slowly comes to realise that Himura’s violent image masks a much more kind-hearted soul, and one that yearns for peace.

“Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning” is a prequel to “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final”, and draws a lot of its tension from the viewing order (The Final being released first). Having seen “The Final”, and previous Kenshin films, we already know the fate of Kenshin and Tomoe, so at times this is a poignant watch not so much for what is happening on screen, but for what we know is coming later for these characters. Despite being a prequel, and the fifth in a series of lengthy historical epics, the film manages to feel fresh and inventive. The story is more sombre and melancholic than pervious entries. The fight sequences see a more brutal, violent, deadly, approach replacing the bombast, acrobatics and large scale battles of earlier films. This is fitting as we are seeing Himura in his previous incarnation as ‘Battosai the Killer’, before he became a peaceful wanderer, when his determination to restore the Emporer saw him on a single-minded mission to eliminate all pro-shogunate forces. The choreography is outstanding again, but with a more merciless edge. The film’s focus on a small cast of characters, the majority of the narrative revolving around Himura and Tomoe’s relationship, allows for a different feel from the ensemble casts we are familiar with, creating a more personal and nuanced drama. Their story is a tragic love story predestined by their political and personal motivations. Knowing what is coming makes it all the more difficult to watch their relationship develop, their mistrust replaced by a growing loyalty. The pacing, score and cinematography all reflect the tragic themes, using the environments to bolster the action; the wintry duel at the end perfectly captures the coldheartedness and silent suffering of the protagonists. Being the fifth film in the series, there is familiarity in the exceptional work of set and costume designers, recreating the historical Kyoto, and for keen-eyed viewers it is interesting to note the small details in every scene.

This film takes us back to before Kenshin became “Rurouni”, when he was still a coldblooded killer, effortlessly dispatching scores of shogunate soldiers. It is somewhat surprising that he still appears as a largely sympathetic character, despite his copious bloodletting and slaughter of hundreds of individuals, but Sato’s performance and the delicate way the script deals with the tumultuous period setting mean that we are able to relate to some extent with the protagonist. The film tackles the thorny issue of whether violence, even murder, is ever justified in achieving political ends. As Tomoe tells Himura, the idea of fighting for peace seems strange. His actions are completely contrary to his stated desire to bring about peace, apparently causing only suffering. As with other Kenshin films, the real history of the period is used primarily as set dressing, and the film has little commentary on the rights or wrongs of each side of the conflict. No doubt, historians will know the significance of shogunate and imperial forces, but for the viewers it is enough to know that our hero is fighting for the emporer, and those trying to stop him are fighting for the shogun. The finale of the film returns us to the opening of the first live-action Kenshin film, a beautiful ending that recontextualises Himura’s actions following the battle of Toba-fushimi. An incredible denoument to the “Rurouni Kenshin” saga, a contemplative drama that gives depth to the character and raises difficult questions about the role of violence in effecting change.

Rurouni Kenshin: The Final (2021) by Keishi Otomo

Taking place several years after the previous film, Himura Kenshin’s (Takeru Sato) peace is once again disturbed by a figure from his past. Enishi Yukishiro (Mackenyu Arata) bears a major grudge against Kenshin, for causing the death of his sister Tomoe (Kasumi Arimura), who was briefly married to Kenshin. Enishi is also working alongside Shanghai mafia boss Wu-Heishin (Takuma Oto), who is under investigation by Hajime Saito (Yosuke Eguchi).

Following on from previous instalments in the saga, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” features the familiar stylish action sequences and a lot of nostalgia for the first three films. As well as the return of most of the cast, including Yosuke Eguchi, Emi Takei, Munetaka, Aoki and Yu Aoi, the film also sees the return of Ryosuke Kamiki in another superb fight. There is a nostalgia to seeing the gang back together again and taking on a fresh challenge, and with the same director, composer and cinematographer it is almost as if no time has passed between the releases. The story this time around feels like a more personal affair and Kenshin and Enishi’s backstory and rivalry is a strong thread on which to hang the as-ever impressive action sequences. We learn through flashbacks of their history together, including how Kenshin got the crossed scars on his cheek. Once again the action choreography offers an amazing spectacle, from Enishi’s first fight in a train, through large scale battles and emotionally charged duels later on, there is an endless creativity and skill in each of these set-pieces. The sight of dozens of extras engaged in combat is an incredible sight, the vitality and skill of the actors a marvel to see. The story of the Shanghai mafia investigation is given short shrift, being far less interesting than Enishi’s main plot, but again the film gives ample time to several supporting characters, helping to flesh them out a little.

Despite a run time of over two hours, in keeping with previous films, the story is well-paced and rarely drags. The screenplay, also by director Keishi Otomo, is continuously pushing the plot forward, slowly revealing details about either Kenshin’s history, or the characters around him, building up a sense of connection to events and people that allows the fight sequences to land with a genuine sense of threat. Everything about this project proves not only a serious budget, but a dedication to making something that looks incredible. The costume and set design perfectly recreate the period, while adding colour and vibrancy to the characters, building a believable world around the fantastical plot. Takuro Ishizaka’s cinematography is also beautiful to look at and the film uses light, locations and weather, to emphasise certain moments. Snow softly falling over a tragic death, fires tearing through the city, using the background details to heighten the emotional content of certain scenes. Naoki Sato again provides an incredible score that slips easily between drama and action.

“Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” sees a darker side to Kenshin, similar to when we first encounter him. Despite his easy-going appearance, the film makes clear that he was a killer and has caused great suffering in the past. Enishi’s desire for revenge is understandable and we are left with difficult moral questions about both of them. The film is one of the best big-budget action films in the genre and a welcome return for these characters.