Those accustomed to the deliberate yet powerful film adaptations of Shûhei Fujisawa's novels, namely Twilight Samurai and Love and Honor, will find The Samurai I Loved (aka Semishigure, or In Chorus of Cicadas) excruciatingly familiar. Sadly, in this case, that's not a good thing; the absence of Yôji Yamada is certainly felt, as Mitsuo Kurotsuchi adamantly tries to replicate the tone from his successful samurai dramas with little avail. Though aptly performed and attractively photographed in a similar fashion, it instead makes us appreciate the delicate directorial measures taken by Yamada to keep Fujisawa's novels compelling within their pacing, instead of this drab, drawn-out rhythm.
It revolves around the two lives of Bunshiro, half of the film concentrating on his youth and the other as an adult. He studied the ways of the samurai with his friends as a young student, showing promise as a talented warrior while his friends lagged behind. But when his father is sentenced to commit seppuko (ritualized suicide for an embarrassing act) by the magistrate for wrongful acts and their food stipend removed, his life tumbles down in a state of embarrassment for his family. Forced to eke out a living with his mother, he grows into a talented samurai who, eventually, would find himself in a similar position as his father.
This film is entitled The Samurai I Loved for a reason, of course, which brings up his relationship with childhood friend Fuku. She's forcefully shipped off to serve in a far-off household, only to return in Bunshiro's adulthood as an eleventh hour plot device. At least, that's the way that the sloppily-handled narrative emphasizes their relationship, given very little gravity by all the unmemorable actors at play. Under tighter direction, their love could've been more emphatic and wistful. Instead, she's little more than a secondary element for most of the picture, largely due to the misbalanced handling of Bunshiro's complex life. Somegaro Ichikawa and Yoshino Kimura aren't completely to blame, since they perform their adult roles fine enough to mirror their less-than-stellar child counterparts, but the transition between youth to adulthood never really carries over any sense of evocative vigor.
As with other adaptations of Fujisawa's novels, samurai swordplay acts more as a character growth element that an action beat. Usually, with his bell-shaped narrative flow, it only hits two-or-three action pieces per story. The Samurai I Loved floats along with the same ebbs and flows, but they're handled in a fashion that's simply not interesting. Though the conclusion elicits shades of Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom in its semi-claustrophobic bustle, the editing and acting present in the scene feels both forced and bland. Granted, the samurai action isn't the draw to the story; however, there's an immediacy evoked with Yôji Yamada's sparse sequences -- often the final duel at the close of each film -- that rustles up excitement around both the internal and external battle to give it punch. That's simply not present in Mitsuo Kurotsuchi's picture.
Fujisawa's core story manages to be the only thing keeping The Samurai I Loved cinematically afloat, suffering from an exuberant two-hour-plus runtime, weakly drawn characters, and forgettable drama encompassing period theatrics. The story structure actually supports the mediocre surroundings much better than you'd expect, containing a healthy level of conspiracy and familiar turmoil. Through all the Terrence Malick-like visual imagery with snakes slithering and the usage of cicadas, it tries to paint a graceful story. Instead, Mitsuo Kurotsuchi's film suffers from the exact adjective criticisms that often get misdirected towards Yôji Yamada's trio of samurai dramas -- sluggish, somewhat bland, and only mildly satisfying.
Video, Audio, and Subtitles:
AnimEigo have presented The Samurai I Loved in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that suitably cradles the attractive cinematography. Much like Yôji Yamada's pictures, it carries a similar yellow-tinged feel with many scenes that lends it an aged feel that's pleasing. Detail levels are kept at a minimum, but several of the sequences with dense texture -- like the scales against a snake and sand granules -- are kept fresh with plenty of crisp lines. Some blocking does occur, however, in darker sequences, and many others can be rather blurry. Still, everything looks fine in this natural image.
Along the same lines, The Samurai I Loved comes equipped with Japanese language tracks in both 5.1 and 2.0 options. Both tracks are pretty like-minded, with very few dynamic elements stretching to the back in the 5.1 surround track. Dialogue remains clear and free of distortion, while the musical accompaniment stays properly to the background. The clanking of blades and rushing of water all sounds up to task, doing a fine job of supporting the picture.
As per AnimEigo's modus operandi, they've done a stellar job with the subtitles. Color coding them per speaker, they've made both Yellow and White subtitles available for the discerning. Furthermore, their Captions Only / Dialogue Only options are also made available, Captions referring to the definition-style references made throughout the film to difficult-to-understand vocabulary.
Along with keeping their subtitle features in-line, AnimEigo have also included their standard, text-based Program Notes and Cast/Crew Biographies. In addition, they've also included a Director Interview (10:29, 4x3) with Mitsuo Kurotsuchi that discusses his making of the film and Somegaro Ichikawa as a "handsome" samurai. Finally, three Trailers are available, as well as an English Language Promo.
It's difficult to look back at the other film adaptations of Shûhei Fujisawa's stories and not feel at least moderately let down by The Samurai I Loved. Though holding the same tenor and (mostly) the same visual style as the others, the sense of compelling intrigue that his dramas usually draw isn't present here -- as is the robustness present in the light scattering of samurai swordplay. What results is a two-hour sleepy melodrama that, clearly, has a stronger story at its bedrock. Still, it's worth a Rental for the performances and for the story visible underneath, but recommendations for Hidden Blade, Love and Honor, and especially Twilight Samurai come far easier.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site