“I’ve always believed that dreams and fantasies have infinite power” an eccentric teacher explains though it might as well be a mission statement for the films of Nobuhiko Obayashi. 1993’s family adventure movie Samurai Kids (水の旅人－侍KIDS－, Mizu no Tabibito: Samurai Kids) draws inspiration from the classic Japanese folktale Issun Boshi about a pint sized warrior who floats off to the city in a bowl, but is at heart a gentle coming-of-age tale as little boy grows in self-confidence and vows to protect Japan’s beautiful natural environment from human mismanagement.
As his mother (Jun Fubuki) describes him, Satoru (Ryou Yoshida) is a little different and slow to make friends. The confusion he feels is reflected in the persistent fast cutting that adds a note of tension to the otherwise pleasant family home. Like many small boys he is obsessed with collecting mini treasures for his collection along with frogs and insects which is how he comes across a mysterious creature knocked off a log floating in the river by a flying baseball from the game his sister Chizuko (Ayumi Ito) is playing across the way. To his surprise, the bundle of rags Satoru picks up turns out to be a tiny old man in samurai clothes complete with sword who gives his name as Suminoe no Sukunahiko. Sukunahiko (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as he explains had been on his way to the sea where he plans to “evaporate”. The river only flows in one direction after all and you can’t turn back time, everyone dies eventually.
Having lost his grandfather a couple of years previously (a photo cameo from Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame), loss is something Satoru hasn’t quite processed though he understands that Sukunahiko has his own path to follow even if he’ll miss him when he’s gone. Nevertheless, he feels a responsibility to look after him so he can recover sufficiently to make his journey to the sea. Through his strange friendship with the tiny old man, Satoru begins to learn more of and draw closer to the natural world. When Sukunahiko’s kimono is pinched by a cheeky crow for some reason continually hanging round Satoru’s home, Sukunahiko is forced to fight him and ends up cutting off his beak but later carves the bird a new prosthetic replacement because no to do so would have been “impolite”.
Meanwhile a visit to his father’s hometown brings home the realities of contemporary Japan in learning that the area is soon to be sunk as a giant reservoir to prevent the flooding of other nearby villages. On a school trip, Satoru is quick to take issue with some of his classmates who throw their rubbish out of the bus windows as they pass a dam, reminding them they’re being disrespectful to the town that once existed beneath the water. The climax occurs when the children are camping further up the mountain near what Satoru assumes must be Sukunahiko’s “hometown” at the source of the river. It just so happens that the trip coincides with a fading local festival dedicated to the river god which might account for why it’s raining so much. “It’s celebratory rain” an old man explains, “but when people try to control the water it causes problems like this” implying that the water is “rebelling” against humanity’s attempts to channel it. When he and his sister’s frenemy Miyuki are trapped by rockfall, Satoru has to learn to trust the healing properties of water so that he can repay her kindness in protecting him before eventually helping Sukunahiko return to source in the company of his eccentric yokai-obsessed teacher (Tomoyo Harada) and newly sympathetic sister.
Adapted from a story by Masumi Suetani who also penned the screenplay, Samurai Kids is perfectly suited to Obayashi’s key concerns lamenting that the adults often forget the promises to nature they made while young, Satoru calling out that he’ll protect the rivers and waters of Japan with a warrior spirit like Sukunahiko’s while the Jo Hisaishi score is also reminiscent of the similarly themed movies of Studio Ghibli. Chizuko’s parallel dilemma may be less well explored leaving it unclear whether her tomboyishness is born of discontent over her looks or a part of her essential personality struggling for acceptance in a conformist and heavily gendered society but does at least allow her to find common ground with friend/rival Miyuki who is struggling with something similar stressing the importance of friendship and mutual understanding among the children. It may be the case that the special effects have entered the realms of being classic rather than merely dated but hold up surprisingly well almost 30 years later possessed of their own strange charm yet syncing perfectly with the world around them. A quietly magical tale of loyal yet laidback family cats, parental nostalgia for simpler times, and unexpected friendships between solitary boys and ancient water gods, Samurai Kids is a surprisingly poignant children’s adventure with an important message in its fierce love of a disappearing natural beauty.
Short clip (no dialogue)