- English Title: Samurai Shifters
- Japanese Title: Hikkoshi Daimyo / Moving Lord
- Director: Inudo Isshin
- Screenwriter: Dobashi Akihiro
- Released (Japan): August 30th 2019
- Runtime: 120 minutes
A different take
If you were to be presented with a samurai movie, what would you realistically expect to see? Violence? Action? Suspense? This is certainly what I have come to expect — especially when the word is in the title. Well, Samurai Shifters is none of those things; but don’t let that put you off by any means.
Instead, Samurai Shifters is a light-hearted, comic infused storytelling of one Lords’ misfortune of having to relocate his entire clan to a new domain. It’s a refreshingly new direction that humanises the samurai in a way many other films and media doesn’t depict; almost dissolving their long-held mythical image that surrounds them.
The films’ setting takes place during the (relatively) peaceful period amongst the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate; consequently, the first time a sword strikes an opponent is about three-quarters of the way into the film. If you’re looking for an action-packed masterclass in swordsmanship and gore … probably give this one a miss.
Before I get too far into the ins-and-outs, here’s the full synopsis.
It has been decided by the shogunate in Edo that Matsudaira Noanori’s clan has to relocate to another domain— again. With the need to appoint a new relocation officer in charge of the move — a position that is undesirable for any samurai — the socially awkward librarian Katagiri Harunsuke (Gen Hoshino) is forced into the role. What’s more, this time is going to be the hardest yet due to a cut in land and income, in addition to having no money to begin with.
In order to pull off this near impossible feat, his close friend Takamura Genemon (Takahashi Issey) and the help of the former relocation officers’ daughter Oran (Takahata Mitsuki), endeavour to aid Katagiri and save him from ritual suicide should he fail.
Take a look at the English subtitled teaser trailer:
Alternatively, here is the full trailer without subtitles.
On the Face of it
Samurai Shifters is a bit of fun. It’s a film that is easy to watch thanks to the right amount of comedic elements that are intermittently spread throughout — without being overdone or over-used. It’s thanks to how almost every scene is bright, colourful and visually appealing; and, also how the story progresses in a consistent manner with most scenes providing some additional information to the overall plot.
With all that in mind, I wouldn’t say it’s a film that is particularly exciting, or one that goes above and beyond with providing the audience with something new; or with memorable scenes that stand above all others when it’s all said and done. Yet I want to reiterate that this film is easy-viewing and one that doesn’t make the audience work too hard.
And it does this exceedingly well.
Along with the Edo period setting, every scene provided just the right amount of on-screen ingredients to keep me interested. Now, I don’t want to lead you down the garden path here, It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of imagination.
Without going into spoilers, there are a couple of scenes that — looking back — should have been absolutely critical. Scenes that help to understand the events leading to both, the entire premise of the film, and a culmination of events later on. Yet both are completely forgettable (I’ve literally just remembered them as I’m writing).
Ordinarily this would potentially sink the entire film, but also speaks volumes of the strength of its other parts to remain enjoyable without them.
An alternate focus
While the plot is about the relocation of the Echizen Matsudaira clan, and the preparation that ensues to accomplish it; over the course of the two-hour period, it’s the development of Katagiri Harunsuke that becomes most interesting.
It’s the gradual change from a shy, and hesitant loner that nobody knows, into someone that is decisive and respected by his samurai peers. More than that, we get an insight into his thought processes throughout the film, which often conflicts with the norm and expected actions of someone in his position.
This leads on to the film presenting an interesting view on moral choices and strength of character; it’s a theme that is clearly intended to be taken onboard by the audience and a take-away from the film. As the film progresses into the latter stages, it is this theme that is increasingly at the forefront of the narrative and culminates in some poignant moments.
It is a bit of a shame then that some of the other characters don’t contribute to this theme in the same way. Unfortunately, a good number also become quite forgettable; to the point I had rack my brains to try and remember the scene I last saw them.
It’s important to bear in mind as you watch this; that despite the setting, the plot is not a work of absolute historical accuracy. Elements such as a reduction in land and income as well as Daimyo’s being transferred to other domains have been documented throughout Japan’s history; although, evidence of moving entire settlements is non-existent.
The rest of the film, however, does an incredible job of capturing the aesthetics and practices of Feudal Japan. Locations are magnificent, with a lot focused on Himeji Castle and the surrounding area. Seeing traditional houses and architecture, as well as every samurai wearing Kataginu and Hakama in a bright and colourful environment (as previously mentioned) is a feast for the eyes.
Being set during the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Edo period), means that the samurai take on a much more administrative role. It’s interesting to see this side that showcases the fact they were more than just warriors. It’s also a little chance to see into the social hierarchy and the value that is placed upon titles and status — and the resulting effects and actions when disturbed.
As the credits began to roll, I began to ask myself “did I enjoy this film?” rather quickly the answer to that was yes; the fact that I had to ask myself that question however shows there is room for improvement.
It’s the light-heartedness, comedic moments, the attention to detail in showcasing Edo Period Japan, and smooth narrative development that saves the film from some of its other pitfalls.
A deciding factor though on how good a film is, depends upon whether you would watch it again; for me, yes, I definitely would.
Samurai Shifters was shown as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Touring film programme that happens every year. This year it is being held online, and I managed to book to see a good handful of Japanese films that would normally prove hard to get hold of.
Outside of special occasions Samurai Shifters is not going to be available in the UK anytime soon. However, if you are fluent in Japanese and have a decent VPN, its available on Amazon Prime Japan.
If you would like to find some Japanese films that are a lot more accessible in the UK, check out a previous post on the best places to watch Japanese live-action films.