Tag Archives: swordfights

Gosha’s peculiar “Death Shadows”

death shadows.jpg

Gosha Hideo’s Jittemai (Death Shadows, 1986) is a very convoluted, garishly colored movie about gangsters working with the family of the shogun (the Hamada clan) late in the Tokugawa Shogunate and attempts to thwart the corrupt conspiracy by a policeman who licenses criminals condemned to be beheaded to kill bad guys. He severs their vocal chords, though this does not keep the main “shadow” from expounding (via voiceover) at length with a minimum of hand gestures.

Yasuke the Viper (Kawatani Takuzo) had settled down with a reformed prostitute and turned into a doting father when he is recalled to take down Denzo the Fang (Chii Takeo), a gang leader for whom he used to work. Denzo escapes the first ambush… and Yasuke is spared being killed in the second one by one of Denzo’s mistresses, Ocho (Ishihara Mariko), his estranged daughter. In that she has dedicated her life to finding and killing the father who abandoned her mother and her, this makes no sense, but many of the actions and relationships in the movie similarly defy sense.

Competing female swordsmen occur in many (mostly bad!) Hong Kongo (Shaw brothers) movies, but in no other Japanese movie I’ve seen. Ocho’s rival, Oren who had been Denzo’s main squeeze and runs an illegal tattoo parlor. Natsuki Mari, who lays Oren, has a resemblance to Faye Dunaway are her most cartoonish (Mommie Dearest?).

After Ocho has been recruited to finish the job her father started (he was killed trying to protect her and dies in her arms begging for forgiveness) her other main opponent in Genshiro. I’m not sure when (never mind why!) she falls in love with him, but she saves him and then he saves her.

There are many sword fights. Ocho generally relies more on a long multi-colored she swirls about than on her short sword. And there are also four or five dance sequences showing more ribbon swirling to a disco beat with dry ice providing fog. I’d say these are padding, except so is the injection of more and more characters as others are killed off during the nearly two hour running time.

After all the betrayals, only one character is left standing at the end, though the Shogunate dodders on with none of the conflicts becoming public.


If it went more completely for campiness, the movie might be more entertaining (like Shinoda’s pop “Killers on Parade”), though the campiest character, the corrupt policeman Boss Hell (pictured above) is really not all that amusing. It is easy to see why Nakadai Tatsuya, who had been appearing regularly in Gosha movies (hamming it up in “Onimasa”), gave this one a pass, and I’d say so should viewers, though Criterion has seen fit to import it rather than some of the Ichikawa, Kinoshita, and Shinoda films I’d dearly love to be able to see.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Kinoshita’s sword-fighting movie: “The River Fuefuki” (1960)


I don’t know what inspired Kinoshita Keisuke to jump back to before the Pax Tokugawa (to the Sengoku/Warring States Period), making the highly stylized “The River Fuefuki” (1960) in black and white with some tinted scenes and colors splashed across the frames of others like brushstrokes, plus some freeze-frames. One after another of the peasant male youths goes off to the dangerous excitement of soldiering (even though samurai rank was supposed to be hereditary and only one of four lives long enough to achieve some wealth and status).


Kinoshita Chuji provided a soundtrack using a monk’s bell and other non-musical sounds like a mature Takemitsu soundtrack, and brother-in-law Kusuda Hiroshi shot very striking still compositions along with chaotic carnage of battles about which there is rarely –and then only barely — mention of who is the opposing lord. The fight choreography was good with fairly tight focus (no cast of thousands).

The peasant family, from which one son after another (two generations, three from one) rush off, live by one end of a long bridge. Except for the occasional army marching across it, the only traffic on the bridge over the River Fuefuki is someone (usually a family member) going to the house that looks like an insect cage. The quest for revenge that obsesses one of the women is just as damaging to living life as the young males rushing off to be killed.


One of the few Kinoshita movie set in distant past, “The River Fuefuki” is not a samurai movie. There is “swordplay,” albeit the “play” is deadly serious. “The River Fuefuki” fits in the body of Kinoshita work in showing the devestation of families whose sons lives are sacrificed.

In his first movie, “Port of Flowers” (1943), there is, I think, some satire of jingoism in a remote seaport. Though commissioned by the Japanese Army, the villain of “Army” (1944) is a warmonger. Most of that movie focuses on toughening up cannon-fodder, but what is most memorable is the mother’s anticipatory grief as he marches off to war. The villain of “Morning for the Osone Family” (1946) is definitely the warmonger brother-in-law who commandeers his brother’s widow’s house and presses her sons to die for the emperor, something he has no intention of doing himself. He is quick to seize army stores on the day of surrender, to thrive as a black market provider, and starts claiming he was “just following orders” even before any occupying US troops arrive. “Boyhood” (1951) shows a boy slow to understand the lack of enthusiasm for the war of his father. “24 Eyes” also shows an internal exile, appalled by the war Japan was waging. And Kinoshita would eventually (1983) turn to “The Children of Nagasaki,” in which survivors of the second (and in my view gratuitous) atomic bomb blame Japanese leaders for prolonging a war in which there was no prospect of victory.

*I’m not sure when the present in “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) is. There are no villagers dying in distant military adventures in it. Samurais are killed one by one by avenging ghosts (for the rape and murder of a mother and daughter-in-law while the son/husband had been dragooned to some distant conflict) in Kinoshita’s venture into the ghost story genre, “The Yotsuda Phantom” (1949).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray