Set during the Warring States period of Japanese history, Samurai Warrior follows the exploits of Ryu, Gon and Yonesuke, three young men who see themselves as fearless warriors-in-training. They spend as much time as possible fighting mock battles with rivals from neighbouring villages, in practice for the day when they hope to fight ‘for real’. To many, however, they are irresponsible troublemakers who would rather spend their time playing war games than helping their long-suffering families tend the fields. After one of these ‘battles’ with fellow ruffians, the three heroes run up against Jojima, a young warrior who in contrast has real battlefield experience and as such threatens the future of their harmless lighthearted scuffles.
Director Kenichiro Nishiumi is a virtual unknown but his claim to fame is that of being assistant director to none other than Takashi Miike (although I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this is likely to be the next 13 Assassins or similar!). Samurai Warrior is far from being a martial arts epic – especially given that it clocks in at only 65 minutes in length – but it still holds some entertainment value.
The duration and budget sadly mean that this is another one of those low-key affairs that is unable to build much momentum to the plot or offer a great deal of background to the characters. Even though I can’t call this a ‘great’ film by any stretch, I feel it would be unfair of me to call it bad either; the cheapness actually plays into the hands of the ‘ambitious impoverished youngster’ theme of the story itself and the chemistry between the three protagonists is really quite infectious. These two factors fortunately go some of the way towards making up for its shortcomings. Because of the amateurish choreography, the swordplay in that climatic fight near the end also complements the youthful cluelessness of the characters involved.
A romantic subplot involving a girl from a nearby village offers a little personal drama that’s endearing and amusing in equal measure, although the significance of its underlying messages is frustratingly lost in the sword-wielding hijinks by the end. Again, the approach taken in portraying this is in keeping with the carefree vibe of the film overall, so it’s pleasant enough...just lacking in tension or surprising twists. As with many aspects of this movie, it’s likeable but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
A memorable samurai epic it certainly isn’t, but Samurai Warrior is still surprisingly fun in its own limited way. The age of the actors cast in the lead roles unhelpfully hides the fact that they are just naive kids playing around, but their boyish banter is entertaining and I found myself taking quite a liking to them and their antics by the end. Because the fighting is, until the final showdown, relatively harmless there’s very little gory violence so it’s more of a coming-of-age story than a martial arts one.
I can only assume that the film industry is running short of ideas in terms of film titles though, because the name ‘Samurai Warrior’ is as generic and far from descriptive as they come; that said, it does highlight how the film itself is itself not particularly original so perhaps it’s inadvertently appropriate after all. Quite honestly, the main reason I’d recommend it is for its comedy and somewhat unusual choice of subject matter; that is to say, films about samurai are commonplace but stories about the people who would otherwise be in the background of such stories are far less so. If conventional samurai fare is too straight-faced, violent and demanding in terms of time you could do a lot worse than this, but beyond that and its probable status as ‘beginner director stepping out on his own’ it’s fairly forgettable.