Japanese Film Festival Review: Something Like, Something Like It and Samurai Hustle Returns (Japan, 2016)

The 2016 Japanese Film Festival 2016 might as well have been dubbed ‘the year of the Japanese sequel’. A grand total of six films – by this writer’s count, anyway – are sequels, and only two of those are showed in tandem with the original. Does this matter? Yes, and no. While sequels such as Something Like, Something Like It may be watched on its own, viewers’ abilities to understand the film are challenged by cultural perspectives that are uniquely Japanese, and poor translations. Meanwhile, films such as Samurai Hustle Returns both pose the problem of the ‘culture gap’, exacerbated by the lack of context in the form of an initial film.

Something Like, Something Like It

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Something Like is a slice of life film revolving around rakugo, the Japanese traditional art of comic storytelling. It is a sequel to the 1981 film Something Like It, which gained moderate success at the Yokohama film festival, winning awards for Best Film and Best New Director. The 2016 film follows on decades after the first – Shinden the rakugo apprentice (Death Note’s Kenichi Matsuyama) is tasked by Master Shinkome (Isao Bito) with finding a former rakugo disciple, Shintoto (Katsunobu Ito) to perform at a commemorative event.

Matsuyama, who has a penchant for taking on quirky roles, is a pleasant lead as Shinden, the obsessive-compulsive apprentice whose desire to set things straight has led his rakugo ‘studies’ to stall. Of particular note is Isao Bito, whose Master Shinkome is delightfully sharp-tongued and manic. A highlight of the movie is a scene where Shinkome is utterly at his wit’s end, and turns to grab an apprentice’s hair, howling, ‘I ought to shave your head’. Yumi, Master Shinkome’s daughter and Shinden’s love interest is the main female supporting character in the film, yet is let down by one-dimensional scriptwriting. This film’s lack of a strong female lead highlights the persistent stereotyping of women that the Japanese film industry continues to engage in, even in films that attempt some level of finesse.

The 2016 sequel is the directorial debut of the 1981 film’s assistant director, Yasukazu Sugiyama, who, even after 30 years behind the camera, seems less than assured. The film contains long, wistful stills and cheery soundtracks that follow Shinden on his quest, techniques that are so often the signature of the slice of life genre. Sugiyama peppers them liberally throughout the film in a way that feels staged. For example, in one scene Shinden pauses, physically and symbolically at a crossroads; in another, he walks in one direction only to go back where he came. While these scenes scaffold the underlying story of Shinden’s uncertainty at pursuing the dying art of rakugo, the story is a weak one at best, the nuances of which are lost on an Australian audience, who may well struggle to even grasp the basic premises of the film. Rakugo was not illustrated at all, until halfway through the film, and subtitles did little to alleviate the confusion. The traditional master-apprentice relationship that this traditional art form entails was also not evident  – it was at first unclear whether Shinden was Master Shinkome’s son, and whether the Master’s daughter Yumi (Keiko Kitagawa) was his sister (a very incorrect assumption, as it turned out).

While Something Like, Something Like It overcomes the difficulties of a sequel, translation issues undermine an otherwise pleasant film.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Samurai Hustle Returns

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Samurai Hustle Returns is the sequel to the 2014 film Samurai Hustle. After running all the way to visit the shogun in the first film, Lord Naito (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and his samurais must now make the return trip twice as fast, to combat an insurrection in his hometown. As a film done in the jidaigeki/Japanese era drama genre, Samurai Hustle Returns poses an even greater cultural barrier than Something Like, Something Like It. The complex nature of the Japanese feudal system that is delineated by the different styles of dress and titles without further explanation made these distinctions seem arbitrary to a western audience, who don’t understand the significant difference between a shogun and a samurai. The subtitle quality only adds to the confusion – the use of words such as ‘dotard’ would leave many native English speakers scratching their heads, and phrases such as ‘let’s haul ass!’ appearing on the screen in the context of a period film surely makes things worse.

With Something Like It, the confusion of audiences could be assuaged by better translations and explanations; oppositely, Samurai Hustle Return’s flaws extend far beyond a quick subtitle fix. This action comedy romp teems with characters that audiences had grown familiar with in the first film – to a first time viewer, the fifteen minute ‘where are they now’ segment served only to confuse those who did not know where the seven samurai had been before. The film’s cast only expands exponentially as it progresses. A plethora of bad guys, bad guys owned by bigger bad guys and good guys who Lord Naito don’t know are good guys allowed director Katsuhide Motoki to run haphazard with the plot, leaving this poor writer to identify bad guys by whether they were wearing eyeshadow or not. As usual, all the women characters in this film are captured in every way possible; staring wistfully to a space just behind the frame, or trapped in a tower growing more hysterical by the day. Most striking was Lord Naito’s love interest, Osaki (Kyoko Fukada), who volunteered to sell her freedom so she could make herself useful. While Samurai Hustle Returns has its share of laugh out loud moments, they were far overborne by this film’s struggle for continuity, a challenge that was made insurmountable by everything that was lost in translation.

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Japanese Film Festival is in a special position; one wherein western audiences are open and willing to see a side of Japanese culture that is otherwise unknown. Japanese films have then the possibility of an extended screen life, one which could facilitate respect and understanding for aspects of a culture that is not one’s own, be it rakugo or jidaigeki. This means investing in good quality translations, and picking films (sequels or no) that serve to confuse rather than entertain.