Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Seven samurai movies that aren't The Seven Samurai

In a certain way, watching the Brattle's schedule of samurai movies last November provided a similar experience to the Harold Lloyd series earlier in the year. I came into that a big Keaton fan and came out with a new respect for the relatively unknown Lloyd; similarly, I came into the samurai series a fan of Toshiro Mifune, but came out quite fond of Tatsuya Nakadai.

I don't like Mifune any less, but I couldn't help but notice that he is, to a certain extent, always Toshiro Mifune. Nakadai, on the other hand, disappears into his roles more. I think this is at least partially because I was far less familiar with Nakadai, but it was still jarring to be opening the IMDB for reference on each of these movies and realize that the same guy starred in four of them and you just didn't realize it at the time. Part of it was that Nakadai was playing older in many cases, and maybe the make-up work was different. So were the beards.

Other observations: The genre as a whole seems to work better in black-and-white. There were a pair of good-looking color movies, but the simplicity of monochrome suits the samurai aesthetic: It keeps the gray robes from looking bland against the natural world, and reinforces the rigid codes of honor, even when the movie is trying to subvert them.

Also, I wonder if samurai films fill the same niche in Japanese culture that westerns fill for Americans. It's a way of life that is obsolete but still in the venacular. Wandering ronin aren't so far off from American gunfighters, and both have strong themes of trying to maintain order despite a strong central government being out of reach. Both fetishize the weapons and their use more than a little. It's easy to make escapist adventures in these millieus, but it's also not terribly hard for a gifted filmmaker to do intelligent social commentary.

The same can be said about martial arts films from the Chinas, with fighting styles standing in for weapons. Wong Fei-hung would be a samurai or U.S. Marshall if he were born elsewhere. I can't, off the top of my head, think what the equivalents would be for other cultures. England has Robin Hood and Arthurian legend, but I'm not sure what the French western-equivalent would be.

On to the films...

Samurai Saga (Aru kengo no shogai)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

Well, why not do a samurai version of "Cyrano de Bergerac"? It's a classic story, filled with grand, doomed romance and the occasional swordfight; every culture has that somewhere in their past, along with ostracizing those who look different. It's far less of a stretch to put Cyrano in feudal Japan than it is to put him in a Colorado resort.

It doesn't hurt at all to have Toshiro Mifune as the warrior-poet with the big nose. Here, Cyrano's name is Heihachiro Komaki. He's a big, burly guy whose broad nose and scruffy appearance distract from his skill with the sword; one wouldn't necessarily expect him to write a good haiku, either. The object of his affection is beautiful young Lady Ochii (Yoko Tsukasa); she is smitten with Jutaro Karibe (Akira Takarada), who feels the same but cannot find the words to woo her. There are plots and schemes and arranged marriages to further complicate things, overcoming which will require Komaki's wit and blade.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu toge)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

Samurai movies are often tales of righteousness and honor, good men struggling to do what is just within a corrupt system. There are elements of that within Sword of Doom, to be sure, but a great deal of the movie is centered around the bad guy. Lucky for us, Tatsuya Nakadai is a highly engaging screen villain.

His character, Ryunosuke Tsukue, is a monster. His first on-screen victim is an old man visiting a mountaintop shrine with his granddaughter Omatsu (Yoko Naito). Soon afterward he is involved in a duel with low-level samurai Bunnojo Utsuki, and Utsuki's wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) begs him to allow Bunnojo to escape with honor and status, offering herself as reward. Tsukue decides to take both the kill and the girl, becoming an assassin for hire under an assumed name. The dead man's brother, Hyoma Utsuki (Yuzo Kayama) vows vengeance, but before he can face Tsukue, he must be trained by a master swordsman (Toshiro Mifune).

Read the rest at HBS.

Kill! (Kiru)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

Look at that title. It seems simple enough, so straightforward that it almost has to be a parody. Right? That's the right track, but few mere parodies are so elaborate in their set-up as Kill!, or as witty in how that set-up plays out. And that's even without acknowledging that Kill! does a fine job as samurai action, even if you're not inclined to laugh at the genre.

Kill! opens with Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Hanji (Etsushi Takahashi) meeting while taking turns trying to chase down a chicken, since it has been a while since either has had much of a meal. They are both ronin, of sorts: Genta has abandoned the samurai lifestyle, sick of the compromise and corruption, while Hanji has sold his farm to buy a sword, even though there is far more to being a samurai than carrying the sword. The local yakuza have no work for them, although a local lord might. It doesn't take long for things to become a mess, with Genta pretending that Hanji has killed him so that Hanji can secure a position, a group of honorable samurai holed up in an old mountain fort, and the leader of the mercenary samurai sent to rout them is only in it for the money to buy the freedom of his beloved.

Read the rest at HBS.

Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

Reluctant heroes are a storytelling staple. It gives the writer a reason to build the tension, develop the villain slowly, set up a variety of ways that the tale could go, even if you know in your heart of hearts that the direction is pre-ordained. It gives the audience a certain amount of identification with the protagonist, because most of us know that our first reaction to a dangerous situation would probably be "don't get involved". And, when they finally do get involved, the audience knows that the bad guys are in for one heck of an ass-kicking. As the name suggests, this film gives us three reluctant heroes.

Sakon Shiba (Tesuro Tamba) is a wandering ronin just looking for a roof to sleep under for a night, but the mill he chooses is occupied by Jimbei and Tasugoro, a pair of elderly farmers who have kidnapped Aya, the daughter of the cruel local magistrate. He gives them enough advice to avoid a bloodbath. The magistrate offers two prisoners their freedom if they deal with the situation (it would not look good to send troops after two old men); one of the prisoners, samurai Kyojuro Sakura (Isamu Nagato) kills a man en route and later switches sides, touched by the farmers' plight. Finally, he sends Einosuke Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), the samurai in his service who prefers to be a threat than an actual weapon, but when Kikyo, too, decides he is serving a dishonorable master, it's time to call in the mercenaries to keep the letter that the farmers have written from reaching the visiting lord.

Read the rest at HBS.

Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (Kumokiri Nizaemon)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

I'm going to be honest here... I can't remember the details of what happened in this movie. I remember the basic storyline, and I remember that it looked kind of spiffy, but a backlog of reviews to write stretching out to three months often means that the details to mediocre films like this one sort of fall out the back of one's head. Normally, I'd try looking for other reviews online and using their plot summaries to refresh my memory, but there don't appear to be any, at least not in English, for Google to find.

There's potential - the opening scroll of text describes two enemy organizations: A gang of thieves led by Kumokiri Nakaemon (the always-great Tatsuya Nakadai), and a ruthless band of samurai police headed by Shikubu Abe (Shogoro Ichikawa). Abe will stop at nothing to lay Kumokiri low, not even putting innocent girls in harm's way, while both try to infiltrate the other's organization. Kumokiri, by the end, plans to disband his gang anyway, after they rob the treasury of the Lord to whom he once swore fealty.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, Bandits is epic-sized, and it's got the elements that often make such a long runtime worthwhile: A large cast of characters, a story that unfolds over years, and enough betrayals and double-crosses that one desires a little space between them, so that a status can become quo before being upended. And yet, it still seems overly-elongated. We don't get to know the characters well enough for this extra time spent with them to be worth it, so they actually seem thinner than normal. There's also not really a strong sense of time passing; we get captions stating the year at intervals, but it often seems like the filmmakers are trying to make the story grander by making it longer. They may skip two years, but we tend to find people right where they left off.

Hideo Gosha can still direct the heck out of an action scene, though, and the ones he gets to work with let him show off his craft. He's given two or three heists, some of which turn into ugly battles, and choreographs his games of cops 'n robbers as good as anyone. He and cinematographer Masao Kosugi make fine use of color during daytime scenes, and during the rest of the time the night fits like a fancy stolen coat.

Almost every entry I did find when looking for information on this picture describes it as one of the best samurai films of the seventies, although that may just mean that the seventies were a pretty dire period for samurai films.

Samurai Rebellion (Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

As great as samurai movies, I sometimes have a hard time getting invested in the stories. After all, these stories often hinge on formal codes and hierarchies that are alien to me. But even if you're as thoroughly ignorant of eighteenth-century Japan's culture as I am, it's not hard to be hooked by Samurai Rebellion - after all, what's more universal a story than a man fighting to preserve his family?

Of course, the family must first be assembled. We meet Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), a middle-aged samurai who has long served the family of Lord Masakata Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura). The Lord tires of his haughty and disrespectful mistress Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), and decrees that one of the Sasahara sons take her off his hands by marrying her. Isaburo initially finds this demeaning, but when son Yogoro (Takeshi Kato) falls in love at first sight, the father relents.

Read the rest at HBS.

Hara-Kiri (Seppuku)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Samurai Cinema)

I never really got the whole suicide concept; I tend to fall into the "all life is precious" and "where there's life, there's hope" camp. Hara-Kiri touches on the situation where it starts becoming comprehensible to me, the "n cannot survive but n-1 can" Cold Equations scenario. You don't have to understand or approve of suicide to be moved by the drama of Hara-Kiri, though: You just need to recognize cruelty and hypocrisy.

As the opening narrative crawl informs us, there was a surplus of samurai in 1630: As the abolition of one clan and general peace among the others left the employment prospects for those without masters dire, many lived in poverty. One such ronin is Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tasuya Nakadai), who comes to the Iyi clan's stronghold to request the use of the grounds and a swordsman to commit seppuku. The retainer who meets him rolls his eyes and mumbles "another one?"; after the clan leader was moved enough by one man's story to offer him a position, many insincere ronin have made the same request, hoping to at least be sent away with money. Retainer Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) warns Tsugumo that there will be no payoff this time, but Tsugumo says he knows, and relates the story of how he came to this position - a story which soon indicates that Tsugumo's plans go beyond killing himself.

Read the rest at HBS.

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