‘Jidaigeki’, the Japanese period drama, has been a staple of that country’s screen culture since the foundation of narrative film. It typically covers the Edo period, which lasted from the 17th to the 19th century, and exploits the warfare, samurai-based culture, and social change that occurred over that time. Typically, these films have been dramatic in nature, but recent decades have seen a pronounced shift towards comedy. The latter is generally informed by the former: with such a dense collection of dramatic films each year, Japanese audiences are well versed in the tropes and traditions of jidaigeki to easily enjoy it being punctured, lightly ridiculed, and made farcical for humorous purposes.
Samurai Shifters is a jidaigeki comedy in which the most unlikely of samurai is tasked with a seemingly impossible mission: the shogun has ordered an entire clan to leave their homes and relocate to the other side of the country, despite ruinous costs and what appears to be a logistical nightmare of packing, preparing, and travelling. The film is adapted by Akihiro Dobashi from his own novel – indeed it is the second of two Dobashi adaptations from the one year, coming after Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon. It is directed by Isshin Inudo, whose earlier jidaigeki comedy The Floating Castle (2012) was a moderate critical and commercial hit.
In 1682, the shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa ensures that troublesome clans of samurai are kept unstable by regularly demanding they relocate from one part of Japan to another. When the Echizen Matsudaira clan are ordered to move from Himeji to Bungo, a much smaller territory on another island altogether, the Lord Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) is obliged to obey. When the inexperienced and mild-mannered librarian Shunnosuke Katagiri (Gen Hoshino) is placed in control of the relocation efforts, disaster looms for all in the clan.
Gen Hoshino is an appealing lead, and supported by a good screenplay that presents Katagiri in a sharp contrast to traditional samurai. He is modest and quiet, and constantly afraid of causing offence. At the same time his earnest quality makes him an easy protagonist for which to root, and sets him apart from his companions the sword attendant Genemon Takamura (a delightfully over the top Issey Takahashi) and Oran (Mitsuki Takahata) – the bold daughter of Katagiri’s predecessor as relocation supervisor.
As with period dramas all over the world, much of the creative focus of Samurai Shifters seems based on its beautiful costuming, sets, and location photography. It is very well captured by cinematographer Shoji Ehara, with some particularly striking compositions littered among a broadly conventional whole. Overall, the film looks and plays out according to genre tradition, but within that tradition it is certainly one of the more attractive films of recent years.
It also plays fast and loose with genre. While it can nominally be classified as a comedy, it also blends in a touching albeit naive romance, some key scenes of action and sword-fighting, and a surprising amount of drama. Themes of honour and sacrifice are constant bedfellows of jidaigeki, and it is no surprise to see such themes dominate the film’s major sub-plots.
Samurai Shifters does not attempt to significantly innovate. While it is a satisfying combination of comedy, romance, and drama, it is still one of several such period comedies that see release in Japan each year. It knows its purpose, however, and runs with efficiency and plenty of entertainment value. A good cast and screenplay ensure that it hits every beat and pleases its audience. Anyone outside Japan with an interest in either history or this genre of film would do well to check it out.
Grant Watson is an independent film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a two-time winner of the William Atheling Jr Award for Australian science fiction criticism and review. You can find his other reviews at FictionMachine and FilmInk.