Japanese Film Festival Day Two: The Samurai I Loved & A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth

The second day of the Japanese Film Festival offered two different films that balanced each other out. That there was a thematic balance of drama and comedy does not mean that both of the films were equal, by any measure: the night’s drama was underdeveloped but the comedy can only be described as a tour de fun.

The Samurai I Loved

Where two people meeting in childhood equates to a lifelong love
In this traditional “failed romance” samurai movie, there are a few surprises. It’s the first samurai movie I’ve seen where the samurai are afraid of killing each other, for instance. The final confrontation with the target of the hero’s vengeance is also resolved unexpectedly and, it must be said, bizarrely.
That does not make The Samurai I Loved a great movie. It details the life of Bunshiro Maki, whose father is executed for “treason” (that is, being on the losing faction in a clan struggle). Allegedly when he was young, a romance blossomed between himself and the neighbours’ servant girl, Fuku. Circumstances mean that they can never be together, but many years pass and Bunshiro must himself commit “treason” in the eyes of his commander in order to preserve Fuku’s life.

Told with a difficult to grasp passage of time and severely underdeveloped relationships, The Samurai I Loved never quite goes anywhere. It exists in the uniquely paceless world of samurai epics: long, overdrawn, and underwrought. There are some genuine comedy scenes, but more disturbing are the scenes that appeared unintentional in their humour.

The battle with disappointment is won simply because Bunshiro is told to “see with the eyes in your heart” by his instructor, who performs an elaborate Noh dance to illustrate his point. This sort of laughable but winning formula is compounded by the fact that after one battle with more than 24 people, the previously barely adequate swordsman of Bunshiro has become the master of seeing with his heart.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of the romance that was never to be does not really materialise because this is another of those movies where love exists for no reason at all. Fuku and Bunshiro had barely any time together on screen, and when Bunshiro sees her for the last time in countless years she looks barely older than 12. When Fuku re-emerged as a fully grown woman, I’ll admit that I was relieved – but certainly no tears were jerked from me this time.

The Samurai I Loved is ultimately a film that exists to set a scene and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with the scene that has been set. It’s not a terrible film by any stretch, but it’s hardly the most worthwhile samurai film ever to have been engineered.

A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth

Roman wa doko da?

This was more like it, for me at least: get a group of slightly abnormal characters together and make them rob banks to restore the romance of the profession. The abnormalities in question are: a tendency towards romantic oratory; an uncanny ability to pick pockets entirely undetected; inbuilt lie detection; and a perfect internal clock.
Two of these abilities don’t seem that abnormal. Therefore it falls to the human lie-detector (Naruse) and the clockwork woman (Yukiko) to form the romantic core of the film.

The film begins with the Cheerful Gang robbing a bank of 40 million yen, only to have it stolen upon their otherwise successful escape. It turns out that Yukiko was blackmailed into surrendering the money. Thereafter the Cheerful Gang vows to make everything right: bad guys behind bars and 200 million yen to split four ways!

A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth is little more than around ninety minutes of fun, populated by endearing characters, occasionally stupid jokes and the Japanese William Le (for your reference: Esquelito of Nacho Libre serves as the Mexican William Le). Slickly produced with largely unannoying special effects that deal with explaining things from different time perspectives, this film does not have to do much to be a winner. It’s the sort of movie that you root for all of the characters and exist in the comfort zone of knowing that, even if they appear to be in danger, they definitely will survive.
Of course, like many comedies, it relies on the element of surprise, but more rewarding in this instance is the element of pleasing its audience by confirming their suspicions. One of the big twists is realised by the audience about a minute before its on screen realisation, and the slow motion sequence leading up to that twist filled the audience with a sense of mirth not frequently seen at the cinema … or at least at the sorts of movies that I go to.

My only problem with the film, (not withstanding the hilarious bank robbing English language tunes) was the car CG. I don’t know quite what’s wrong with Japan, but when their movies call on a car to be modelled in 3D they fall into the “Ini D” trap. The cars here aren’t as ugly as all that, but nothing can compare to legitimate stunt driving. With the stunts being performed here, I cannot blame them for being computer generated, but it’s a bugbear in an otherwise superfluous film.

A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth is the definition of a feel good movie. If you don’t feel good at its conclusion, you clearly have no soul.

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