The post-modern revival of old genres, spiced up with a healthy dose of self-referential, wink-wink irony, became characteristic of mainstream American cinema in the second half of the 90s. Quentin Tarantino's revisionist takes on the crime genre with Reservoir Dogs (1991) and Pulp Fiction (1994) paved the way for the re-emergence of the slasher film with Scream (Wes Craven, 1995) and the high school comedy with Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1994); two genres thought to be dead and buried after having enjoyed widespread popularity in the early 80s.
In the wake of Scream and Clueless an onslaught of sequels, imitators and plagiarisers followed, all proudly sporting an air of post-modern, self-referential irony. What started as an intentional and timely combination of tribute and mockery soon became hype, then formula, only to die a swift death soon after.
As Hiroyuki Nakano's Samurai Fiction proves, the post-modern urge to revisit and self-referentially remodel genre with a 90s sensibility did not restrict itself to the USA alone. Being a Japanese film, Samurai Fiction takes as its premise those stalwarts of the country's cinematic history: the jidai geki and chanbara genres. Populated by anachronistic characters that adhere more to the values of Tarantino than those of bushido, the world of Samurai Fiction is a movie buff's world, where things mirror cinema rather than real life.
Being a take on genre, Samurai Fiction's basic plot is as cliché as they come: several parties search for a priceless sword that was stolen from a samurai clan who intended to use it as a gift of peace and loyalty to the shogun. If the sword isn't found and offered to the shogun on time, war will certainly break out in what is now a peaceful land.
Samurai Fiction begins with a countdown from 1998 to sometime in the late 17th century. This is a clever idea which perfectly illustrates the maker's intentions: to look back with a thoroughly late-20th century state of mind. As the story starts, much of the film seems in fact clever. From its black and white images that turn red whenever someone dies in battle, to the smart and talkative characters, and the rock music soundtrack which is a great contrast with the feudal scenery (courtesy of actor/musician Tomoyasu Hotei, who plays the thieving samurai here).
However, coming at the end of the American deluge, Samurai Fiction plays more like a gimmick than a film. Though initially entertaining, when the pace slackens, the comedy falls flat and the (intentionally) hokey sword fights grow stale, the viewer's attention starts to dwindle. After about an hour, director Nakano runs out of tricks and the film runs out of steam.
In the end, Samurai Fiction sadly proves to be little improvement over most of its American contemporaries.