Tag Archives: swordfighting

Miike’s remake in color of “Hara-kiri”

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I think that Miike Takashi’s 3-D color 2011 “Hara-Kiri” is a pointless remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s very great (1962 b&w) version of Takiguchi Yasuhiko’s novel Ibun rônin-ki. I was surprised that it was shorter than the black-and-white original (128:133 minutes). Both have prolonged scenes of immobile samurai talking, before the final explosion of violence. I thought that Eita was excellent as Motome, the son-in-law raised by Hanshirô (Ichikawa Ebizô, who is good, but not as coiled or as charismatic as Nakadai Tatsuya in Kobayashi’s version). (Ishihama Akira was also very impressive as the gentle teacher, a samurai who had no experience of battle.)

The basic story is excruciating, but IMO Kobayashi’s movie did not seem also to be excruciatingly, boringly slow. In Kobayashi’s version, Hanshirô is shot after the retainers cannot handle him, and the shogun praises the House of Li for its handling of the ronin suicides. Kobayashi aimed to show the hollowness of the “code of honor,” about which Miike seems more equivocal, though certainly he also shows the suffering of the former warrior elite with the coming of peace (the pax Togukawa that began a decade before the farthest reach of flashbacks in the movie, though there are allusions to Hanshirô fighting in the decisive 1600 Battle of Sekigahara).

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Sakamoto’ Ryuichi provided a strong musical score (as is his wont; Kobayashi had the services of Takemitsu Toru). And Kita Nobuyasu’s cinematography is as good as for Miike’s previous movie, the 2010 “13 Assassins” (Jûsan-nin no shikaku).

Both versions are harrowing (as was the “Human Condition” trilogy with Nakadai directed by Kobayahsi). I prefer “Samurai Rebellion” (“Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu”, 1967), in which Kobayashi directed Nakadai and Mifune Toshiro in an adaptation of another novel by Takiguchi Yasuhiko (with one of Takemitsu’s best movie scores).

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Slow and formulaic tale of samurai honor and retainer perfidy

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Had I seen Hirayama Hideyuki’s 2010 “Sword of Desperation” (Hisshiken torisashi) before seeing the triptych of Yoji Yamada adaptation of fiction by Fijisawa Shohei (“Twilight Samurai”, “Hidden Blade”, “Love and Honor”, each made earlier in this millennium than “Sword of Desperation”), I’m sure I would have been very enthusiastic. There is little that is new about “Sword of Desperation,” not least the perfidy of officials and the stoicness of the protagonist.

One novelty is that after a performance in the courtyard of a daimyo Lord Ukyo (Murakami Jun), his favored mistress, the very manipulative Renko (Seki Megum) is cut down by retainer samurai Sanzaemon (Toyokawa Etsushi). Sanzaemon expects to be executed or order to commit suicide, but is only locked up for a year (with his rice stipend cut), then is brought back by pragmatic chief retainer Minbu Tsuda (Kishibe Ittoku) to guard the daimyo, who is threatened by a more popular step brother, Lord Obiya (Kikkawa Koji),

“Sword of Desperation” could have used some of the sly humor Yamada’s Fijisawa late-Tokugawa samurai movies (or Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro“). It has a big Sanzaemon against a horde of lesser samurai fight that leads (at long last) to demonstration of the “sword of desperation” move. There is also an aim-inhibited romance between Sanzaemon and his niece-in-law Rio (Ikewaki Chizuru), whose fiancé rejected her.

Between the opening slaying and the closing, very protracted battle, the middle is sluggish, though filling in Sanzaemon’s character and the backstory of Renko’s interference in running the domain (into the ground for her family’s profit) that led to murdering a woman.

Ishii Kôichi’s cinematography is vivid early and late and in flashbacks, muted while Sanzaemon is under house arrest (spending his time whittling).

I thought that the familiar Kishibe Ittoku (13 Assasins, etc.) was especially good as the devious chief-of-staff.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Yamada Yôji’s “Tasogare Seibei”/”Twilight Samurai” (2003)

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Although I still think that the samurai/rônin genre went into decline for the last three decades of the 20th century, but I’ve come to realize that my obituary for the genre was premature, mostly because of the sort of trilogy of samurai movies Yamada Yôji made in the first decade of the 21st century.

The last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) are somewhat equivalent to the end of the “wild west,” specifically, the obsolescence of pistol duelists (gunslingers). This closing of a kind of warrior order (albeit one without the rigorous code and fully developed philosophy of bûshido—the way (Tao) of the sword) is the backdrop for most of the great westerns of the 1950s and 60s (The Gunfighter, Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Once Upon a Time in the West, et al.)—or at least most of those not directed by Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann.

In a number of the American westerns about the twilight of the “wild west,” the gunslingers turned south, getting involved in Latin American (mostly Mexican) disputes and revolts (The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Professionals, The Wrath of God, A Fistful of Dynamite, and many of the spaghetti westerns, including A Bullet for the General). In contrast, the samurai had nowhere to go. Their swordsmanship skills were obsolete, with no foreign market—and their association with the xenophobic shogunate that had kept Japan closed off as much as possible from the rest of the world.

IMO, the greatest of the films about samurai aware of the obsolescence of their skills and decline in status in the long pacified empire Kobayashi Masaki’s “Seppuku” (196) and Okamoto Kihachi’s “Kill!” (1968). In the latter, the critique of blindly following the commands of evil masters is explicitly stated by Genta (Nakadai Tatsuya) to Hanji (Takahashi Etsushi) a strong peasant who has sold his small land-holding to buy a sword and seek work as a samurai. Genta is a great swordsman who is fed up with the whole social order and rapacious samurai in particular. In the former, Nakadai played the father of a master swordsman unable to provide for his family and had sold his sword.

The “twilight” samurai Seibei in Yamada Yôji‘s “Tasogare Seibei” (released internationally in 2003 and nominated for a 2003 best foreign-language film Oscar with the literal translation “Twilight Samurai“) has employment, albeit at the lowest salary and prestige rank (50 ryo). The somewhat slow start shows that he has been impoverished by his wife’s terminal illness and the fancy funeral her relatives demanded. Seibei Iguchi (Sanada Hiroyuki)has two daughters (aged 5 and 10) and a senile mother to try to support. So preoccupied with gardening and housework and piecework (making cricket cages) is he, that he has become scruffy and unwashed. He is reprimanded for this and is a joke to most of the other retainers (of some castle in northern Honshu). Enjoying watching his daughters grow up (and teaching them to read to prepare them for a world he expects will change), he doesn’t care about the scorn of other swordsmen turned clerks, who call him “twilight” (in the sense of half-bright).

He does have one (higher-rank) friend, Mitsuru Fukikoshi (Iinum Michinojo). The viewer gradually learns that Seibei’s childhood sweetheart/playmate was Fukikoshi’s sister Tomoe (Miyazawa Rie). Fukikoshi married her off to an even higher-ranking samurai who turned out to be a drunkard who beat her. Fukikoshi arranged a divorce, and Tomoe has returned to live under his roof (where she must defer to her older brother’s wife).

Fukikoshi has received multiple offers to marry his sister. She has been visiting and helping out in the Sebei household and wants to marry him. As much as Seibei Iguchi loves (and has always loved) her, he does not want her to feel degraded and be worn-down by being the husband of an ill-paid and (in the view of most) contemptible very minor samurai.

When Tomoe’s ex-husband comes a’callin’ and challenges Mitsuru Fukikoshi to a duel, Seibei Iguchi insists on taking Fukikoshi’s place. Dueling among the lord’s retainers has been forbidden, and Seibei takes a dangerous by brilliant way to fight the oaf who has abused the love of his life.

He attempts to suppress any discussion of his triumph, but when a master swordsman (played by dancer Tanaka Min in his first speaking role) refuses to commit seppuku, barricades himself in his house, and cuts down some other top-ranked samurai, Seibei Iguchi is ordered to slay the rebel. He attempts to decline the honor, but is bound to obey. This leads to another lengthier, but quite interesting confrontation, and a bittersweet end.

Sanada is nothing short of great in the role of the humble, unambitious, but stalwart Seibei Iguchi (in there with Nakadai in the 1960s rebel samurai films and with such reluctant gunslingers as Gregory Peck in “The Gunfighter”). The film viewer sees what his haughty fellow samurai fail to see (but what Tomoe does see). Both of his duels involve great daring and skill on his part. Unlike most every other samurai film, the duels are realistic. Seibei Iguchi does not cut down dozens of assailants with nary a scratch (as Mifune frequently did; Nakadai also cut down multitudes but did not escape unscathed). His fights are one-on-one with better-armed opponents who are in fighting training (which he has had no time for since marrying).

Seibei’s devotion to his family is very great (though not unparalleled in the 1960s end-of-the-shogunate classic), and the love story (loving Tomoe too much to marry him) is far more developed than in any samurai movie I’ve ever seen (though, Lord knows, there are movies about obsessive love among Japanese of various eras, including “Double Suicide” from the twilight of the shogunate one).

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For me, the visual stylization of samurai movies works better in black-and-white (though the Samurai trilogy of the 1950s was filmed in Technicolor). Nevertheless, the color cinematography by Naganuma Mutsuo ooks like it was impressive, particularly in the river-fishing scene in which Mitsuru Fukikoshi sounds out his friend about marrying Tomoe. The first duel is also fought at the edge of the river. (The final duel is fought indoors without a whole lot of light.) The visual transfer is not very good, alas (the audio is better).

“Tasogare Seibei” swept the Japanese film academy awards (twelve, including picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor, cinematography) and should have received the Oscar that went to “The Barbarian Invasions” (yet another mistake in the long list of Oscar mistakes!).

It runs a bit more than two hours, but after some initial slowness, there is nothing gratuitous. It is very unusual in being narrated by a daughter of the reluctant hero (female perspectives on samurai are few, if others exist! What is shown is not, however, from her perspective). I like her final voice-over, which has bothered some others.

The DVD includes a theatrical trailer, and interviews with director Yamada Yôji and with leading man Sanada Hiroyuki. Yamada (dubbed into English) explains that he wanted to make a re realistic period piece about someone from the lower ranks, and to have sword fights in which there are no instant deaths, but in which the loser is the one who bleeds to death first.

Sanada is fluent in English (having played the Fool to Nigel Hawthorne’s King Lear for an extended run with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and more recently played the sinister Japanese advance man in “The White Countess” and a foe of Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai”). Sanada talks about his experience in a quite varied career (Ringu and many yakuza films) and his martial arts training (and input in the choreography of fight scenes in both “Twilight Samurai” and “The Last Samurai”).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Oshima’s last film, “Gohatto”/”Taboo”

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I found what turned out to be the last film directed (form a wheelchair, following his first stroke) by Ôshima Nagasi,Gohatto””Taboo” (1999) too long (100 minutes) and/or too slow. Particularly annoying are the inter-titles, which mostly state the obvious, though some signal how much time passes before the next scene. I guess the most defensible of the inter-titles is the series that lays out the samurai code. The samurai code did not prohibit passionate same-sex love. Only someone unable to read the inter-titles (in Japanese or in English) and completely unfamiliar with the history of wakashû-dô—the Tao of loving boys, could think that “homosexuality” was tabooed….

“Gohatto” begins very near the end of the Tokugawa era, in 1865. In the ancient Nishi-Honganji temple, those seeking admission to the Shinsengumi militia are being screened. Only two are accepted: a swaggering hirsute Tashiro Hyozo (Asano Yadanobu) and Kano Sozanburo (Ryûhei Matsuda), a tall, smooth-skinned beauty from a rich family. Given the looseness of the costumes and probably too much background of gender-bending Japanese and Chinese films (Twilight, The East Is Red, etc.), I wondered if the beautiful youth was being played by a female (an exceptionally tall one!). He was not.

Kano’s face may look effeminate, but he is an expert swordsman and more than ready to kill. He gets his first chance immediately, being ordered to behead a samurai who has broken the code. The captains of the militia want to test him, and he passes the test impassively. Indeed, everything he and every other samurai does in the film, they do impassively. There are passionate words, but rarely even a flicker of facial indication of feeling. Except for Mifune Toshiro occasionally looking sardonic, this impassivity in killing, in being killed, in bowing, and in being bowed to is true of the whole library of samurai films.

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The beautiful young (bishonen) samurai desired by many, even those not heretofore drawn to that way (tao), mostly dodges the lusts he inspires, In the one sex scene is impassive as a not-at-all-attractive samurai takes him from behind. As in erotic Japanese woodblocks neither is naked. Especially for Oshima, there is very little sex. Blood splatters, so the movie might have some attraction for an American audience.

The wakashû is fairly sinister: when asked why the son of a rich family wants to be in the militia, he answers: “to have the right to kill.” And though he expects to be the object of desire, he is not a devotee to nanshuko-do. The extent to which beauties are responsible for the excessive reactions to them is an interesting one that I will not attempt to answer here. Nor will I attempt to adjudicate whether the havoc is wreaked by Kano, by his suitors, or by favoritism across ranks.

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The film and even its ending seem to be opaque to many viewers. The audience in which I saw the film seemed surprised by the casual acceptance (by non-samurais as well as by samurais) of boy-love and unable to “read” the ending. I think that all the cultural knowledge that is necessary to interpret the visually striking final scene is that the cherry blossom is a recurrent metaphor for the inevitably brief charm of beautiful boys. (At age 18, the forelocks should be shaved off, marking the extinction of boyish attractiveness of a junior samurai. Kano resists this rite of passage, as he dodges other attempts by Captain Hijikata to defuse his specialness.)

Oshima specialized in aestheticized representation of highly charged desires. “Gohatto” is often visually striking, especially in the final scene and in the prostitute sashaying to her appointment, but presumes a familiarity with a vanished society that even many Japanese lack. The least medieval character is Captain Hijikata (the top-billed actor/director/painter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano). The basis of his special interest in Cadet Kano remains open to multiple interpretations.

The movie was a coproduction between Shôchiku, where ˆÔshima got his start as an assistant director and then director, and the French Canal+. All four of his last four feature films were French coproductions. The costume design was by Wada Emi, who had worked with Kurosawa on “Ran” and “Dreams” and would later work with Zhang Yimou on “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” The music was by Ryûichi Sakamoto, who did not act in the film, as he had in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” Ôshima adapted two novellas by Shiba Ryôtarô.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Samurai Banners/ Fûrin kazan

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Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980) was a master of samurai films shot in color, best known for the Samurai Trilogy (1954-56) with Mifune Toshirô playing the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and a 1962 adaptation of Chuchingura (47 Ronin). His very last movie, “Machibuse” (“Incident at Blood Pass, ” 1970) is the only one of his that I know of that fits within the late-1960s “ronin rebel” subgenre. Mifune starred in and produced it.

The year before he produced and starred in what was at the time the most expensive Japanese movie ever shot, “Fûrin kazan” (Samurai Banners),* an epic about a ruthless strategist, Yamamoto Kansuke (Mifune) bent on unifying the country (by guile and by force, preferring the former). The warring feudal principalities of the sixteenth century were the time of the greatest prestige of the samurai. Yamamoto seems little concerned with the samurai code (bushido—the way of the sword). His interest is in strategy.

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He wants to subdue all the neighboring feudal principalities for a child he could be said to have engineered, a son produced by the feisty, independent-spirited daughter and her father’s murderer, Yamamoto’s lord, Takeda (Nakamura Kinnosuke). It is for this boy (the lord’s fourth son) that Yamamoto seeks to conquer the island (Honshu).

The relationship between Yamamoto and Princess Yu (Sakuma Yoshiko) is complex. His devotion is somewhat puzzling to me. Her ambivalence for him is easier to understand, as is her ambivalence to Takeda.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Yamamoto tells Takeda that he must become a Buddhist monk (renouncing sex and shaving his head). This has not the slightest effect of cooling Yamamoto’s bloodletting. Takeda wearies of being a puppet and of Yamamoto’s high-vaulting ambition for the Takeda clan.

Takeda at times wants to rest on his laurels and enjoy his conquests, but when persuaded to move his army (frequently!) by Yamamoto, he is very eager to attack. Yamamoto generally checks these impulses of his sovereign.

Indeed, there is not a battle until after intermission (about an hour and a half in). There is scheming, and murder, and Yamamoto taking over planning the future of Princess Yu and the son she bears as well as the grand Takeda strategy. The movie covers nearly twenty years (1543-1562) roughly half a century before the Tokugawa triumph and unified rule (Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Kagemusha” shows Nakadai Tatsuya playing an older Takeda and a double who impersonates Takeda after he is killed in a later battle.)

The movie has a propulsive musical score by Satô Masaru, magnificent color cinematography by Inagaki’s recurrent cameraman Yamada Kazuo. There are gorgeous panoramic vistas and eye-popping costumes (outlandish helmet, very photogenic armor and kimonos). The movie is a lavish production in which the main characters are not lost.

Indeed, though Yamamoto’s psychology is fairly opaque to me, what he is doing is very clear. Nakamura and Sakuma hold their own with Mifune at his fiercest and most passionate.

The movie runs 166 minutes (epic in length, too!). Despite periodic maps and explanatory titles, the military campaigns and battle scenes are somewhat confusing. And there is a crucial development near the end that I think was missing (rather than that I missed it) in a long-building climax (during the climactic battle at Kawanakajima).

When Kurosawa got funding to make his historical epics (or anti-epics) in color during the 1980s—”Kagemusha” and “Ran”— “Furin kazan” was eclipsed. I also find it less satisfying than Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy—and prefer the quirkier rebel ronin movies of the 1960s (and Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth with Mifune, from the 1950s, “Throne of Blood”).. Still, I think that “Furin kazan” should appeal to those who enjoy epic war movies with unusual love stories mixed into the bloody brew.

The DVD transfers are pretty good. The subtitles are grammatical and for dialogue distinguish speaker with green or yellow translations (plus some supertitle explanations from time to time). There are no extras.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Sword of the Beast/Samurai Gold Seekers

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Kedamono no ken” (“Sword of the Beast,” also released as “Samurai Gold Seekers”) dates from 1965, and was directed by Gosha Hideo. It was his second movie after “Three Outlaw Samurai” (and before the “Samurai Wolf” movies and “Goyokin”). In some ways “Sword of the Beast” is less impressive than the other three films in Criterion’s “rebel samurai” box set (Kill!, Samurai Rebellion, Samurai Spy), but it has very striking visual compositions, an interesting ronin protagonist, excellent action sequences, and more complex women’s roles than any other samurai movie I have seen. Like many westerns from the 1960s and 70s (most notably, Sam Peckinpah‘s), the “rebel samurai” movies from the 1960s are set near the end of an era, for Japan the Tokugawa shogunate. The old (samurai/”Wild West”) order was ending, leaving the technicians of violence perplexed about becoming anachronisms, as their way of life is ending. “Sword of the Beast” is set in 1857, eleven years before the abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate.

At the start, Gennosuke (Hira Mikijiro, who had played smaller parts in the “Samurai Trilogy” and the observer who finally takes a side in Gosha’s “Three Outlaw Samurai” the year before) is on the run, having assassinated a counselor of his clan. In later flashbacks the viewer sees that his quest for reform was used by the man who would succeed to the office and who had encouraged the three assassins through implications that he could later deny having intended (a la Henry II re: Thomas à Becket)

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Gennosuke is a master swordsman, who hacks his way out of at least three ambushes over the course of the movie. Also three times, he is on the verge of a duel with a samurai of intact honor and the two are distracted by crises and fight together instead of fighting each other. As in most samurai movies, many opponents die. The bandits are clearly bad guys, and, though hunted as a beast, Gennosuke turns out to have considerable honor, leavened by pragmatism (or bitter experience) that the samurai on official (ostensibly honorable) missions lack. Jurata Yamane (Kato Go, who was also in “Samurai Rebellion”) and his wife Taka (Iwashita Shima) are betrayed by the clan leader they have served for many years with great zeal and self-sacrifice, and Daizaburo (Suga Kantaro) realizes that he and his fiancée, Misa (Kimura Toshie), whose father Gennosuke assassinated, cannot go home again (to the clan).

Although nothing in comparison to the dark humor of “Yojimbo,” Sanjuro, and “Kill!,” there is some comedy amidst the chases, battles, and agonies about what honor requires.

The characters are rawer (less stylized) than in earlier samurai pictures (e.g., Mizoguchi’s “47 Ronin”). The decaying feudal system was crushing samurai honor (and samurai survival), as was also shown in “Kill!,” “Samurai Rebellion,” “Hara-kiri,” Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin, and “Samurai Spy” (all made during the 1960s). Moreover, in Japan of the 1960s, as in the US, antiheroes were found, imagined, or inserted into earlier epochs by writers and film-makers, who showed the manipulation of unscrupulous leaders of those trying to live up to codes of honor and fealty. The latter are treated as expendable by leaders.

The plot is not simple—except in comparison to “Samurai Spy” and “Sword of Doom.” In addition to the flashbacks, it is complicated by the existence of four groups on the mountain (reserved for the shogun) that has gold.

The mountain locations (with a rushing stream in which much of the action takes place) also parallel the westerns of Peckinpah, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Richard Brooks, and others. (OK, the westerns mostly were set in drier locales, except for Mann’s.)

The music of Tsushima Toshiaki (who scored other Gosha samurai movies) is spare and reminiscent of that of Takemitsu. The sound transfer is excellent (albeit monaural). Tsuchiya Toshitada supplied the superb black-and-white cinematography that has also been transferred with the usual Criterion digitizing care and skill. (IMDB lists no other credits to him.) The subtitles make sense and are easy to read. There are no extras. Well, there is supposed to be an essay by Patrick Macia, but since I rented the movie, I haven’t seen it.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

“Three Outlaw Samurai” (1964)

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I thought that perhaps “Three Outlaw Samurai” (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964, the movie directorial debut of Gosha Hideo (Sword of the Beast) might be 3/7ths as good as “Seven Samurai.” That hope was about right. It is like “Seven Samurai” in that some ronin decide to help some peasants, though in “3” the peasants are seeking relief from an evil magistrate. (In Chinese history, low-status people have always blamed local officials and believed that “if only the emperor knew” he would rectify the abuses. In Tokugawa times, it was “if only the clan lord knew,” he’d make things right and punish the local official..)

The magistrate has refused to accept a petition from the peasants who are on the verge of starvation. Three of them have kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter (Kuwano Miyuki) and are holding her in a mill. The samurai who happens by, Shiba (the very long-faced Tanba Tetsuro), sits back to watch (like Mifune in “Yojimbo”). He provides advice to the captive and the captors, and (more Nakadai than Mifune) takes a beating to save the peasants, trusting the word of the magistrate given from one samurai to another.

Another wandering samurai, Kikyo (Hira Mikijiro, also long-faced, who would star in “Sword of the Beast”) who has been taken in (and fed by the magistrate) is offended by the magistrate’s violation of his promises. The recruitment of the other one, the earthiest one, Sakura (Nagato Isamu), is too complicated for me to try to summarize. The magistrate’s daughter is also outraged by her father’s perfidy

In tandem (all three never fight together at the same time), the honorable (therefore rebel) samurai cut down many assailants hired by the magistrate to obliterate the problem before the lord passes through. I don’t understand why superior numbers are never used to overwhelm an opponent. The skilled swordsmen cut down assailants in rapid succession, but it seems to have been unthinkable to attack from all sides at once. The good guys (that is, the outlaws, each of whom was reluctant to get involved, especially in opposing local authority) do not escape unscratched, but Shiba, who should be the most winded, still has the ability(/will) to run to the lord’s procession after the most extensive battle.

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Although there are extended battles, “Three Outlaw Samurai” doesn’t really seem to be an “action movie.” There are complicated relationships (more even than in “Yojimbo” or “Seven Samurai”) and in the eternal division of plot-driven vs. character-driven, this has to go in the latter category. The mixture of pragmatism, idealism, and swordsmanship of Shiba puts him in the company of the heroes of other “rebel samurai” protagonists from the mid-to-late-1960s, which for me was the golden age of samurai films with complex characters, in many ways paralleling American “adult westerns” of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of both were marked as occurring near the end of the era (the closing of the west, the decay of the Tokugawa Shogunate before it was toppled by the Meiji “Restoration” in 1868).

Tanba Tetsuro is exceedingly good in the central role. For me, the highest praise is comparing his performance to that of Nakadai Tatsuya in “Kill!,” “Seppuku,” and other rebel samurai movies.

The visual compositions are frequently striking (credit and cinematographer Sakai Tadashi, who also lensed Gosha’s “Hunter in the Dark” and “Cash Calls Hell,both of which also starred Nakadai; IMDB only lists one other non-Gosha-directed credit for Sakai). Traditional Japanese houses with their rice-paper sliding panels seem inherently photogenic to me, and ease the way for shadow displays.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

The return of the vulgar clownish Mifune as the “Red Lion” (Akage)

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Akage” (Red Lion, 1969, directed by Okamoto Kihachi, 3 stars) made for the production company of its star Mifune Toshiro, is a cynical historical comedy markedly inferior to “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” (historical comedies in which Mifune starred) and Okamoto’s pragmatic “rebel samurai” masterpiece “Kill!” and “Sword of Doom, and his overly complicated “Samurai Assassin” (which also starred Mifune).

As a stuttering village boy who returns with a red lion’s mane during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Mifune is good, as is Minori Terada, who had just starred in Okamoto’s “Nikudan”/”The Human Bullet” as a WWII kamikaze pilot. Here he plays a pickpocket who becomes a lieutenant in a de facto peasant rebellion, following the “red lion” (Mifune’s character, Gonzo, who dons a red fright wig).Untitled 2.jpg

The fights are not very good. The color photography is interesting, though I think the stylization of black and white works better for movies set within the span of the Tokugawa Shogunate, even the very end of it, as here.

 

(BTW, the title seems designed to resonate with the title of the last Kurosawa movie in which Mifune starred, “Red Beard” (Akahige), which had been quite popular. Mifune’s role seems a throwback to the one he played in “The Seven Samurai” rather than to his then-recent restrained ones, including in Okamoto’s 1965 “Samurai Assassin.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kill!/Kiru!

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I’m not at all sure that I would have recognized that Okamoto Kihachi’s ” Kiru” (Kill!, 1968) was based on the same novel (the ironically titled Peaceful Days by Yamamoto Shugoro [1903-1967], who also wrote the novels that Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” and “Dodes’ka-den” were based upon) as Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” (1962). I mean, there are a lot of movies with ronin (masterless samurai) wandering around and getting involved in local disputes and putting on displays of superior swordsmanship to the local retainers.

Also, Okamoto’s version starts earlier in the story than Kurosawa’s and has two major characters that Kurosawa combined into one—and also two bands of retainers that Kurosawa merged. I might just have thought that the two movies shared the theme of a detached ronin saving a group of anti-corruption samurai. The group of less-than-savvy samurais (seven in Okamoto’s version, nine in Kurosawa’s) are more differentiated in Okamoto’s version. In Kurosawa’s they follow their savior/new leader “like a trail of excrement attached to a goldfish.” They are unified in whatever direction they are running off in. There is considerable disagreement about what to do in Okamoto’s group.

The scruffy ronin (Mifune Toshirô) in “Sanjuro” hides the samurai under the floorboards of a house. The scruffy ronin (Nakadai Tatsuya) in “Kiru,” sends them off to a mountain stronghold. In both cases, the samurai have reported local corruption to precisely the main malefactor, who has asked them to assemble so he can hear what they know in person (the better to have them together to be slaughtered). The ronin recognizes the trap, creates diversions, and arranges the rescue of the chamberlain that the samurai have thought must be the guilty party. In both movies, the ronin’s tactics are clever and produce some slapstick comedy along with some witty flair.

“Kiru” is much more pointed a critique of blind obedience and misplaces loyalty than “Sanjuro” is. In “Sanjuro” the samurai are naive but committed to the samurai code of honor. In “Kiru” the anti-corruption samurai are more self-interested and concerned about self-preservation. The critique of blindly following the commands of evil masters is explicitly stated by Genta (Nakadai) to Hanji (Etsushi Takahashi) a strong peasant who has sold his small land-holding to buy a sword and seek work as a samurai (though the ranks was hereditary).

The two meet early in the movie, as Hanji is attempting to sneak up on a scrawny chicken. Both Hanji and Genta are very hungry. I hope it will not be considered a plot spoiler to reveal that the chicken survives. A whole lot of soldiers do not. There is an early slaughter that is witnessed by Genta.kill.jpg

When Hanji seeks employment by the rapacious ruling clique of the area (Joshu Province, 1833), he is assigned a probationary employment assignment of killing Genta. Hanji’s attempts are quite funny, and after multiple failures Genta advises him to tell the bosses that he has fulfilled his mission. Throughout the movie, Genta discourages Hanji’s desire to become a samurai and points out the aspects of the role that led him (Genta) to abandon it. The denouement of this is very funny and beautifully filmed.

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In “Sanjuro” Nakadai played the honorable and highly skilled captain working for the bad guys (undertaken in “Kiru” by Shin Kishida, who needs money to buy the freedom of the woman he loves), while Mifune had all the fun of quipping, berating his inept protégés, and confusing the bad guys by seeming to help them. Nakadai was a very intense actor with very large eyes, thick eyebrows, and a height ( nearly six feet) that was extremely unusual among Japanese then. Instead of just being tied up as Mifune was in “Sanjuro,” Nakadai’s Genta has an extended beating scene (recalling similar abuse he suffered in the middle film of Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” trilogy). This leads to his final duel in which he is in even worse physical shape than the character he played at the end of Okamoto’s “Sword of Doom” (1967). The final showdown in “Kiru” is far wittier and entertaining than the ultimate confrontation in “Sanjuro.” (OK, that could be considered faint praise, since the final scene in “Sanjuro” is the most serious one in the whole movie, so let me say that the duel in “Kiru” is one of the best fight scenes ever!)

Nakadai’s comic timing is excellent, and it must have been a lot of fun for him to play the role, not least following the difficult role of the evil-minded master swordsman in “Sword of Doom” (Okamoto, 1966) and having played straight man to Mifune’s antics in “Sanjuro.” I think that Nakadai had greater range than Mifune (not that Mifune had a small range!). When I first saw the culmination of Kurosawa’s career in “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” I did not recognize that the leading character in them was the same actor who two decades before had played subordinate roles in Kurosawa movies starring Mifune (and I had not seen any Kobayashi or Okamoto movies). Not only was Nakadai outstanding in 1960s and 1980s movies, but he is still going strong. Although Mifune strikes me as the most charismatic 20th-century Japanese screen actor, Nakadai arguably was the best 20th-century Japanese screen actor. Genta is one of his greatest roles.

“Kiru” has considerable visual wit, too, and cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki produced many excellent (widescreen, of course) compositions. (I’ve already mentioned the final one. It recalls “The Umbrellas fo Cherbourg” shot from above.) Under Okamoto’s direction, he had also shot Nakadai in “The Age of Assassins” the year before, a movie I would love to see, but that is unavailable.

The movies in the Criterion set of 1960s Rebel Samurai movies (that also Kobayashi’s masterful “Samurai Rebellion” with Mifune and Nakadai, Shinoda’s “Samurai Spy,” and Gosha’s “Sword of the Beast”) have reasonable subtitles and good transfers (with very black blacks), but lack special features, which is uncharacteristic of Criterion (though the earlier Kurosawa boxed set of four samurai movies was also light on extras). Making the great and little known movie available (and other movies by Okamoto) still deserves gratitude and praise, however.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Grim Tale of a Very Dark Knight: “The Sword of Doom”

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Some consider Okamoto Kihachi’s 1966 “Dai-bosatsu tôge” (The Sword of Doom) the greatest of samurai films. It is undoubtedly the bloodiest of the 1960s samurai/ronin films, but is not even my favorite Okamoto ronin movie (that is the only other one I’ve seen, “Kill!,” also starring Nakadai Tatsuya). In addition to a lot of carnage and the two great stars of samurai movies (Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya), “Sword of Doom” contains a(nother) great performance from Nakadai), plus striking black-and-white visual compositions by Murai Hiroshi (who also lensed “Samurai Assassin” and “The Emperor and the General” for Okamoto, both starring Mifune) and an outstanding score by’ Masaru Satô (who scored all the Kurosawa movies between “The Lower Depths” and ‘Red Beard,’ including “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”).

It is nearly impossible to discuss my reservations about the film without stomping through plot-spoiler territory, and for anyone concerned about having a movie’s plot “spoiled” by discussion/interpretation of what happens, I would advise skipping the rest of my review, except to take heed of a warning about overinterpreting the ending, since the movie was originally intended to be the first panel of a trilogy, so that the inconclusive ending was not intended as a final statement.

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I think that the English title is quite good. Throughout the movie (at least as translated in the subtitles of the  Criterion DVD, which is part of a four-disc “Rebel Samurai” collection), Ryunosuke, the protagonist of this film set in the last decade of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the movie begins in 1860, the shogunate was toppled in 1868) is repeatedly described by others (including his father or mentor) as “evil.” The other characters seem to be split between those regarding the evil as emanating from the sword and infecting the master swordsman and those regarding the mind of the sword’s wielder as evil. Ryunosuke is definitely not cheery or talkative, and he slays prodigally—but not, in my view wantonly, or with much enjoyment (though there is at least one occasion in which he looks pleased—bordering on a smirk— with his lethal workmanship).

Ryunosuke is grim and unconvivial. Even his technique is exceptionally unshowy: it is dubbed “the silent style.” But, contrary to what the other characters say—including the seemingly sage and savvy master of a sword-fighting academy, Shimada Toranosuke (Mifune)—, it seems to me that Ryunosuke slays people who want to die or who deserve to die (provided that self-defense is a justification for killing someone).

The first killing appears to be inexplicable murder of a genial old man at a Buddhist shrine in a mountain pass. However, the old man was praying for his life to end to avoid burdening his granddaughter. Ryunosuke is like an Angel of Death, answering the man’s prayer, and, arguably, showing compassion, the Buddhist virtue par excellance.

Ryunosuke, who has been expelled from an academy run by his father for reasons that are never mentioned during the movie, is set for a match (with wooden sword substitutes) the next day with Utsuki Bunnojo (Nakaya Ichirô) . Much (inheritance of the school, which Bunnojo needs to support his family) is at stake for Bunnojo; nothing tangible hangs on the results for Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke’s father tells him that he should let Bunnojo win the match. Ryunosuke is not convinced.

Then, Ohama (Aratama Michiyo) Bunnojo’s wife (pretending initially to be Bunnojo’s sister) begs Ryunosuke to throw the fight. His response may be shocking (it certainly is to her), but is not unreasonable. She has asked him to betray his honor, the only thing he cares about, and he challenges her to show that she is willing to do what she asks of him (a stranger with every reason to feel bitter towards the man he is scheduled to fight). Her honor is different in content from his, but if her dishonor is what it will take to save her husband, she is willing.

The next day Ryunosuke slays Bunnojo. However, he did nothing to try to win the match. Indeed, it was judged a draw. Only then did Bunnojo make an illegal (within the rules of the match) attack, in effect after the bell sounded (as in “Million Dollar Baby”). Ryunosuke defended himself from an attack that was motivated by hatred, but he had honored his agreement with Ohama and had made no attempt to harm—let alone kill—Bunnojo.

After that, Ohama warns Ryunosuke that many men from her late husband’s school are lying in wait to ambush him. He refuses to change direction, ready to die, ready to kill, “trusting” to fate. When the first assailants pop out of the forest, Ryunosuke tells them that they have no reason to have a grudge against him, since he was only defending himself from a lethal and illegal charge by Bunnojo. Again, he defends himself—effectively. The path is littered with corpses, but it is not due to any aggressiveness or malice of Ryunosuke’s.

He then hires himself out as an assassin, and those whom he kills may not be yakusa (gangsters). I will stipulate that the film script does not provide reason to consider them guilty of anything. Nor does is provide evidence of their innocence. Ryunosuke may be judged amoral as a hit man (whose loneliness justifies the bushidô epigram that was an invented by Jean-Pierre Melville for the start of his masterpiece, “Le Samouraï” in which Alain Delon plays a French hit man who defends himself).

There is another killing that shocks many (for those who have seen the movie, I mean the one involving slowly crossing a pond in pursuit). This one also involves killing someone who first tried to kill Ryunosuke (by murdering him in his sleep).

Ryunosuke is supporting Ohama and her child whose father may be Ryunosuke or may be Bunnojo, the man who tried to murder Ryunosuke. The two are far from happy together, but he protects her and gives her a home.

nakadaidoom.jpgMuch of the rest of the movie involves Utsuki Hyoma (Kayama Yuzo), the brother of Utsuki Bunnojo, preparing revenge, focusing on the very technique his brother attempted to use against Ryunosuke. Hyoma is a student of Master Shimada (Mifune), who seems a modest and very correct samurai, but who trains Hyoma for vengeance that is unjustified and that will use the cowardly form of attack Utsuki used. That is, I have my doubts about how exemplary Shimada is. He is, nonetheless, without doubt, an effective swordsman, and has his own scene of slaughtering a gang of assailants (during a photogenic snowfall).

The Ryunosuke/Hyoma match does not come about before the end of the movie (which, as I noted, was intended to be only the first part of a three-part-part tale). After conferring with his boss and being ordered to slay the number-one lieutenant of the group, Ryunosuke and Omatsu (Naito Yôko), a courtesan-in-training (and the grand-daughter from the opening sequence), see and hear menacing shadows, seemingly ghosts of people Ryunosuke has slain. Ryunosuke starts slashing the building to pieces, and soon is dispatching more assailants. It is not clear to me whether the assailants are imagined or are part of the putsch by the second-in-command that was anticipated by the boss. (I incline to the latter interpretation.) The battles are successively longer and pile up more corpses, but I don’t see any arc of accumulating guilt in Ryunosuke,, in contrast to Mifune’s Macbeth in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” for instance.

The ending slaughter has been interpreted as indicating that the outcome does not matter. In a way this is so: a warrior is prepared to die, fighting to the best of his ability. The justness of his side was not a matter samurai a considered, and death was (supposed to be) a matter for indifference. And all aspirations are illusions/delusions in the cycle of rebirths…. Still, the inconclusiveness was not the intended end, but only the end of the first part. Presumably, the second part would have opened with a continuation of the completions of the final slash that was freeze-framed at the end of “Sword of Doom.”

And I would note that Ryunosuke asked Omatsu to be still (not shout or try to run away) so that he would not have to kill her. She does not try to run away, and he doesn’t kill her. (She cries out, but at the shadows/ghosts she also senses.) For me, this is another instance of his not killing if there is an alternative.

The Action

I like the very intense Ryunosuke/Bunnojo match. Ryunosuke’s style is to wait for an attack and cut down the attacker. The attack doesn’t come during the match. When it does come, Ryunosuke recognizes and parries it.

The three extended attacks by waves of swordsmen—two against Ryunosuke and one against Shimada—seem to me to go on and on. It seems that superior numbers did not (or could not honorably) matter. I have seen both Mifune and Nakadai cut down wave after wave of attackers in more than a few movies. The Chinese title of what was released in English as “The House of Flying Daggers, “”ten-sided ambush,” is a metaphor of an overwhelming attack (ten in effect equals from all sides, beyond anyone’s ability to counter). Such an attack never occurs in samurai films (nor is it common in kung fu battles). One or two attack and are cut down, then one or two more, then one or two more, then one or two more, then one or two more… The master fighter has little time between these attacks, which come from multiple directions, but never all at once. After some time watching such a battle, even rooting against the attackers, I want to advise them to change tactics and make an all-out attack from multiple directions.

Obviously, others enjoy carnage that seems to me to go on and on and then on some more. There is a battle at the end of Okamoto’s “Kiru” (Kill!), too, but during it, the main duel is one of great originality, not the long succession of cutting down lone attackers or pairs of them in rapid succession (with a single blow, sometimes a single blow dispatching two attackers). As I noted, some regard “Sword of Doom” as the greatest action samurai film. The action is too repetitious for me (like explosions in John Woo movies), even if the setting and visual style of each of the three big multiparty fights differ.

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I’m more interested in the characters. Nakadai’s exceptionally talented and exceptionally alienated master swordsman is (to me) a very interesting character. Nakadai was an agile action hero, but like other great screen actors (including Mifune, though I was thinking of Gary Cooper) “says” more with his eyes than with his mouth (that is, spoken lines). Nakadai did not have to say what he thought or felt. It was already visible. His performance as Ryunosuke, is one of many great Nakadai performances.

I don’t know whether Japanese audiences say Ryunosuke as evil. I suspect not in that he was a very popular figure long before Okamoto’s movie was made (there have been at least four other movie versions; the character was introduced in a newspaper serial in 1913 and sufficiently popular to continue for three decades, to be turned into a lengthy novel, etc.). What I see in Ryunosuke is not what the other characters say about him. This does not make the movie any less interesting. (What does is the length and lack “of variety of the attacks.) But I consider the plots of both “Sanjuro and “Kiru” more interesting and the tactics devised in them more interesting than cutting down attacker after attacker after attacker.

The Criterion DVD/Bluray has an exceptionally fine audio transfer (from a monaural original) and a fine visual transfer (one should not take that for granted, though Criterion’s record tempts one to). The commentary track laid down by Stephen Prince explains some of the plot condensed from the serial that ran 18 years and was still not done when its author die and is very good on the visual choices, including wide-screen deep-focus. Prince also informs listeners that though Okamoto is known in the west for his samurai movies, they made up a minority of his output as a director. What he did in other genres has just not been imported here.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray