Following the time honoured route of many filmmakers across the world, Japan’s Isshin Inudo was a successful commercial director before making his 1995 feature debut with Futari ga Shabette iru, which won him the directors Guild of Japan New Director award.
Working solidly for 25 years, his other features include Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, Touch and La Maison de Himiko.
His latest film, comedy Samurai Shifters, a Monty Python-esque satire on ancient samurai traditions and feudal lords.
Starring popular Japanese actors Gen Hoshimo, Issey Takahashi and Mitsuke Takahata, the story tells of a feudal lord who is repeatedly struck by bad luck – forced to move his entire clan across Japan seven times. His latest relocation involves 10,000 people, to be overseen by hopeless samurai Harunosuke Katagiri who surprises everyone by rising to the challenge. Helping him in this unenviable task is childhood friend Takamura, and Oran, the daughter of a former magistrate who knows all too well of the difficulties which lie ahead.
Speaking with FilmInk at the 32nd edition of Tokyo Film festival, where Samurai Shifters is included in Tokyo International Film Festival’s prestigious Japan Now section, Inudo says he doesn’t believe his countrymen will be offended by his making mockery of their ancient traditions.
“There are no taboos about making fun of the samurai. In Japan there is a long history of samurai drama and a lot of people also make comedy about them.”
Notwithstanding, Inudo’s Samurai Shifters also includes several gay samurai which he hopes won’t cause offense. “Actually, in the Edo period, gay samurai were probably more common than in present day. Samurai often were in relationships with each other and there is quite a lot of literature and journals which discusses this. There is one very famous samurai who kept a journal and it was obvious he liked boys.
“There was a long period of war before the Edo period and it was very common for the samurai to bring boys to the battlefield,” says Inudo, referring to the period between 1603 and 1868 when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Certainly, the director was inspired by films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian in making Samurai Shifters. “There were many Japanese comedy samurai movies made between the ‘50s and ‘70s. Growing up, I watched a lot of Monty Python of course and I always enjoyed how they viewed the world.”
Not his first samurai outing, Inudo’s 2012 comedy, The Floating Castle, dealt with an earlier period in samurai history, the Sengoku. “My goal is always to make a fun entertaining movie but, when we talk about samurai movies, there are maybe two generations. One is the Edo period which is after the single administration unified the whole country, which is the Samurai Shifters generation, whereas Floating Castle was set prior to Edo when everyone was struggling for power and there is no one single administration yet.”
Akira Kurosawa’s epic drama, Seven Samurai, he says, is a classic example of the Sengoku period.
For himself, he cheekily took a note from Marie Kondo and her famed de-cluttering empire for Samurai Shifters – making his fictitious samurai de-clutter their homes and throw away anything that doesn’t “spark joy”.
Inudo can relate: “I like to get tidy myself, so I enjoyed that part and wanted to get this across in my movie. Marie Kondo is all about which items to choose to throw away,” says the director who regularly throws away his beloved manga collection.
“I have been chiseling away at my manga collections which I have been collecting for many years. I did it 10 years ago and also five years ago but today I have drastically cut it down to five comic authors. So, those five, spark joy but the sixth one, not so much. I know how it feels.”
He longs to make a movie like Bertolucci’s 1987 epic, The Last Emperor or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. “I am intrigued about depicting the whole life of one person over a long span of time.”
Likewise, he enjoys the novels of John Irving for the same reasons, including Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp. “I like the way the film versions have manipulated time and how he writes about a married couple over a long period of time.”
Inudo, 59, believes that comedy can be unifying across countries and cultures. “Although, compared to other countries, Japanese audiences don’t laugh loud so when I show my films overseas, sometimes I am surprised when audiences laugh so much.
“In my movie, Josee, The Tiger and the Fish – I don’t think it is very comedic but now it is very popular in South Korea and I visited recently for some screenings and the audiences were laughing so hard. Japanese audiences are a tough crowd. Even if they find it funny, they won’t laugh.
“In Japan, there is this culture to behave yourself in public, so we’re told to be quiet at the cinema. Perhaps we need to loosen up a little,” he suggests.