Quenched by Camp: Bandits vs Samurai Squadron is a Bloody Treat

| Jake Rudegeair |

Pop illustration of Tatsuya Nakadai as Kumokiri Nizaemon in black robes with bloody katana on a yellow background. Japanese characters behind Tatsuya in red read: Bandits vs Samurai Squadron. Illustration by author Jake Rudegeair.

Bandits Vs Samurai Squadron plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, August 20th, through Tuesday, August 22nd. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

A lot has been written about camp, especially when it comes to film. It’s one of those delicious words that we all seem to understand, but gets so warped by bumps and nodules of meaning that its definition keeps changing. Maybe it’s like that old subjective definition of porn made famous by Justice Potter Stewart: we know it when we see it. But in the right hands, camp can be as wicked and effective as a Masamune katana, whether we fully understand it or not.

Bandits vs Samurai Squadron is campy as hell—and boy oh boy does it work. In the tradition of samurai movies (chanbara, jidaigeki) there’s a lot of talk about “arthouse camp” versus full-on “exploitation,” but the distinction is a fun-sapper. These movies are a blast, even while they’re bursting with pain, blood, trauma, weaponized sex, and tragedy. Hideo Gosha’s campy style coats the film in a thick, balmy layer of mythological cheese (finely aged for 45 years at this point) that encourages a mixture of empathy and healthy detachment. It’s savory indulgence paired with sweet emotional catharsis. Camp in all its g[l]ory is deftly deployed from top to bottom in this absolute bloodbath of a movie.

A Bandits vs Samurai Squadron movie flyer depicting Tatsuya Nakadai as Kumokiri Nizaemon in black robes behind the title in bold red Japanese characters, with twelve headshots above him of the ensemble cast.

Of course, camp requires some buy-in. Don’t expect a film that’s going to immerse you in realism. Some of the best parts of Bandits vs Samurai Squadron include special effects that are glaringly shoddy, giving you a chance to smirk and shake your head at the artificial audacity. The blood spurts and sword swooshes, the baggy, broad performances, and the twangy jaw harp theme music—it all makes for a tasty camp sandwich. It might not be the most nutritious meal, but it’s delicious and filling. And when you’re done, you immediately start thinking about when you can house another one.

The delightful smörgåsbord of performances is led by Tatsuya Nakadai as the fearsome bandit boss Kumokiri Nizaemon. He’s classically stoic and quiet in conversation, eyes swimming with ghosts, only to explode in the film’s many incredible fight scenes with some of the best kiai (samurai battle growls) ever recorded. He’s able to walk that transfixing line between quiet intelligence and raw power that defines so many of the classic protagonists of the chanbara era. His magnetic grace provides the bulk of calories in this one.

A still from the film featuring Kumokiri Nizaemon in the midground and his brother out of focus in the foreground, both in profile, swords drawn.

Pitted against him is Matsumoto Hakuō II, playing the indomitable and strikingly handsome Shikubu Abe, a formidable samurai leader tasked with bringing down the bandit king. He’s just as compelling, with a face that looks like it was chopped out of a hunk of jade. Some disarmingly sophisticated storytelling reveals his character’s moral depth (he’s more than just a pretty face and a deadly sword), as the two titans exchange blows in their harrowing game of cat-and-mouse. Drop in a slew of bodacious supporting character actors and you have yourself a good old-fashioned jidaigeki romp! Even the legendary Jo Shishido of Yakuza movie fame shows up in a supporting role, complete with tortured gaze and incredible artificial cheekbones.

For me, the best camp films always extend an early invitation. They ask you to watch in a particular way, ushering you into the absurdity of their universe. Hideo Gosha accomplishes this from the jump, with schlocky freeze frames and a prolonged walk up a literal tightrope. He’s saying, “Look what I can do,” balancing dramatic irony with theme-park spectacle. The plot feels a little loose and disjointed at first, but before you know it, you’re along for the ride, baby—ready to hitch your empathy wagon to whichever character fills the frame.

And let me tell you, there are some wild characters. From powerful seductresses and cackling magistrates, to green bandit boys and brooding company brutes, to bathhouse assassins and even a few fluffy white doggies. Each individual character thread can feel thin, or even abandoned at times, only to surge back in a dense moment of heroics, betrayal, or an unceremonious beheading. The emotional tapestry is woven with great care, even as a rain machine awkwardly sprinkles only one half of a placid pond or an actor clearly crawls across a floor constructed to look like a wall and shot at an inverted Dutch angle. But the dedication to character whisks the chintzy effects into frosting instead of filler. Melodramatic close-ups and prolonged quails of pain punctuate the scenery like so many bright birthday candles (specifically the practical joke kind that don’t go out when you blow on them).

A close up shot of a woman wearing a blue and white robe with red lining on the inside.

Even with all this yummy analysis, I still don’t really know how Gosha does it. This is a long one, coming in at two hours and 45 minutes, but I never found myself flagging. The interplay between agents on different sides of the conflict, well-placed flashbacks, musical stings, and plenty of epic duels keep the momentum up with calculated contrast.

All too often when we talk about camp the conversation is tinged with a dash of cynicism. It’s as if something silly or absurd can’t have real artistic depth or something true to say about the human condition (although I will admit, this haughty souring seems to be losing steam at the critical level lately). Ironically, camp makes for a damn effective trojan horse, smuggling in the joys and complexities of a great film before you have the chance to lock them out at the first sign of high-pressure blood squirts. Let this one in, and try to enjoy the potent blend of brilliant filmmaking and utterly ridiculous frivolity.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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