Women warriors have been a feature of Japanese films for decades, from Meiko Kaji’s revenge-bent heroine in “Shurayuki Hime” (Lady Snowblood, 1973) — a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” — to Haruka Ayase’s sword-wielding shamisen player in “Ichi” (2008).
Hardly any of their exploits, however, have been based on any sort of reality. Also, their fans have been mostly men who, for whatever reason, like watching glinty-eyed beauties slice up bad guys.
Tomoyuki Furumaya’s “Bushido Sixteen” is the rare Japanese film about female martial artists based on real-life models and targeted mainly at women. But it’s also less an action film, despite all the on- screen swordplay, than a perfectly cast, sensitively made seishun eiga (youth drama).
Leads Riko Narumi and Kie Kitano are both teenage acting wunderkinds, if with contrasting images. Narumi has often played intense genius types, such as the piano prodigy in Koji Hagiuda’s “Shindo” (2007), while Kitano has often been cast as spunky natural girls, such as the much-put-upon neophyte band manager in Takeshi Kobayashi’s “Bandage.”
In “Bushido Sixteen,” which is based on a novel by Tetsuya Honda, they play with these images for comic effect, but they also play up to them. Narumi’s champion kendoka (Japanese-style fencer), Kaori, is super serious, Kitano’s challenger, Sanae, is surpassingly nonchalant, even when she beats the champion by a fluke in an early scene.
So nonchalant, in fact, that she forgets about it, until both girls enter the same high school and join the same kendo club. Then she finds out that Kaori, who had never lost a match to a girl her own age, is out for payback. Sure enough, Kaori calls out the trembling Sanae in front of the team — and administers a thrashing (or as much a thrashing as you can give anyone wearing heavy kendo gear).
After that, according to seishun eiga formula, the two girls should become bitter rivals — until they become friends. Sanae, however, develops something of crush on Kaori — she admires her discipline and dedication in particular and, despite repeated rebuffs, tries to befriend her.
Meanwhile, Kaori, who has trained in the sport since childhood under her strict kendo-master father (Shigemitsu Ogi), sees a potential in Sanae she is determined to develop. Sanae innocently follows her new friend (or rather frenemy) to her house, with its on-site dojo, and is surprised when Kaori takes out the shinai (bamboo kendo swords) instead of tea cups. A painful bonk on the head soon follows.
This is funny, as are several other scenes of this pair’s awkwardly budding relationship, but they also have real, deeper reasons for bonding. Sanae, though seemingly carefree and always surrounded by friends, has mixed feelings about her divorced, now absent dad, who was a dreamer and loser. She loves his never-say-die spirit but hates his fecklessness. In Kaori, she senses a solidity of purpose that she admires — not only because her father’s lack of it has effectively wrecked her family but also because she misses it in herself.
Meanwhile, Kaori barely knows how to relate to other human beings outside the dojo — and Sanae’s invitation to the normal world of teendom — shopping for shoes, goofing off at a game center and gorging on cakes — initially baffles her. But she is also attracted to Sanae’s free-spirited attitude, including her enjoyment of kendo for its own sake — not because her father has been training her since day one.
Like many a teen sports movies, the story culminates with a big competition — an all-high-school kendo tournament — but the focus stays firmly on its two heroines and their odd, complicated friendship. The ending is abrupt, but it’s perfectly timed, leaving unsaid what does not really need to be said.
Narumi has a few too many scenes playing the grim stoic, staring as though she could drill holes with her eyes. But she also evokes sympathy for the lonely girl behind the formidable exterior, without making her pathetic or, in the comic bits, a joke.
Kie appears to have it easier, since she is playing Miss Normal to Narumi’s Miss Strange, but she also has to give Sanae’s fascination with Kaori credibility, minus any hint of masochism. She pulls off this trick without a hint of strain, while giving the role the right comic spin.
Finally, the kendo scenes are the real, sweaty deal, presented in cuts long enough to convince us that Narumi and Kitano are doing their own moves with force (Narumi), agility (Kitano) and skill (both had only two months of practice to get up to speed).
Given that most action scenes in Japanese films are now quick-cut and CG’ed to the limit, “Bushido Sixteen” is old school indeed. Which suits Narumi, Sanae — and their film — just fine.