For my third Japan Cuts screening of 2019, I saw Samurai Shifters, a period comedy about a clan that is forced to repeatedly relocate across the country (a common practice during the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate, according to the opening narration). Rather than the typical supernaturally-skilled swordsman, our protagonist is a meek, neurotic, antisocial librarian. Despite his conspicuous lack of expertise (or perhaps because of it; in the eyes of his self-serving superiors, he must look like a pretty convenient fall guy), he is appointed to supervise the logistics of transporting thousands of retainers and their families to their new domain. It’s a daunting task that entails raising funds, discarding unnecessary cargo, and dismissing excess personnel—and the penalty for failure is death! Fortunately, he has the steadfast support of his late predecessor’s clever, resourceful, and absolutely gorgeous daughter.
While it obviously differs from traditional jidaigeki in terms of its tone and style, Samurai Shifters actually shares a great deal of thematic DNA with such genre heavyweights as Sanjuro, Harakiri, and Three Outlaw Samurai, exploring corrupt systems of power and the ordinary people that they exploit. It’s irreverent, subversive, and a whole lot of fun—not even the occasional technical hiccup (Japan Society desperately needs to invest in a more reliable projector) could diminish its quality.