Samurai Kids (水の旅人-侍KIDS-, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993)

“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)

Murder of the Inugami Clan (犬神家の一族, Kon Ichikawa, 2006)

the inugami family 2006 posterBeginning his career in the late 1940s, Kon Ichikawa was a contemporary of the leading lights of Japanese cinema during the golden age though has never quite achieved the level of international acclaim awarded to studio mate Akira Kurosawa. Unlike Kurosawa however, whose career floundered the wake of the studio system’s collapse, Ichikawa was able to go on making films through the difficult years of the 70s and 80s precisely because he was willing to take on projects that were purely commercial in nature. His biggest box office hit was an adaptation of the Seishi Yokomizo novel The Inugami Family which led to a further four films starring the author’s eccentric detective Kosuke Kindaichi. 30 years later, in what would turn out to be his final film, Ichikawa took the unusual step of remaking his biggest commercial success and even more unusually decided to recast several of the same actors in their original roles.

The script remains almost identical to the 1976 version though slightly slimmer. In 1947, pharmaceuticals magnate Sahei Inugami (Tatsuya Nakadai) dies leaving a confusing will which upsets absolutely everyone – not least his three daughters whom he fathered with three different women none of whom he was legally married to. Sahei has elected to leave the bulk of his estate to a young lady, Tamayo (Nanako Matsushima), who is not part of the family, on the condition that she marry one of his grandsons though he stresses that she is free to choose. If she chooses to marry someone else, the estate will be split between the three grandsons and another illegitimate son fathered with a maid whose whereabouts are apparently unknown. With such a vast fortune at stake, it is not long before the first murder occurs.

The most major difference between the 1976 and 2006 versions is, perhaps counterintuitively, the budget. Whereas the 1976 version had been one of the “taisaku” prestige pictures which dominated the mainstream cinema of the era and had the marketing genius of a young Haruki Kadokawa behind it, the 2006 version is a much more modest affair with minimal production values and a noticeably unfussy approach. The 1976 version, like the other instalments in the ‘70s series, also boasted a starry cast including golden age star Mieko Takamine, even employing Kyoko Kishida in a tiny two scene role as a blind koto teacher. Perhaps the strangest and most experimental choice made by Ichikawa in terms of his “remake”, is the one to cast original star Koji Ishizaka as the eccentric detective, reprising his role from the earlier film 30 years later. In fact, many of the other characters whose ages are not important are also played by the original actors including the bumbling policeman (Takeshi Kato) and his sidekick who appear throughout the series (comedy director Koki Mitani makes a noted cameo in the spot occupied by Seishi Yokomizo in the original adaptation).

The recasting adds to the level of uncanniness created by the dissonance between the opulence of the 76 version, and the austerity of that from 2006. This time around, Ichikawa shoots in 16:9 rather than (the then) TV friendly 4:3, but in the scaled back hyperrealist style common to lower budget dramas from the 2000s. The flat digital cinematography only serves to add to the general lifelessness of the drama which features only the main players, the sole crowd scene occurring during a flashback to the repatriation shot to match the accompanying stock footage just as in the 1976 version. Whereas Ishizaka and the other veterans are mainly acting within the broader yet largely naturalistic style of 70s cinema, the younger members have adopted the decidedly theatrical tones common in contemporary indie drama which somewhat undercuts the strange mix of camp fun and serious drama which had defined the Kindaichi series.

In contrast to the ‘70s movies, Ichikawa plays it uncharacteristically safe – opting for many of the same techniques but reining them in, using plain black and white instead of negative, easing back on the gore, and lowering the level of violence. The results are decidedly mixed and though the central mystery has not changed, the 2006 edition proves a much less satisfactory experience that does not so much attempt to recapture the strange magic of the original as throw it into contrast through its absence. The story of the Inugami murders is, like many a Kindaichi mystery, one less of greed and selfishness than the lasting effects of repression, frustrated desires, and difficult loves and as such it is timeless, yet lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ichikawa’s second attempt at bottling it only goes to show that there’s little to gain in slavishly aping the past.


Original trailer (English subtitles)