RSS

Tag Archives: chambara

Talk about getting the screw job–you’ve got to see this The Betrayal (1966).

As you all know, Ichikawa Raizo is one of my favorite actors of all time.  His stock only increased after seeing this hard to find film.

The Betrayal is a black and white cinematography classic that should be more often acknowledged as the great piece that it is. The story is about a naively honorable samurai (played by Ichikawa Raizo) who comes to the bitter realization that his devotion to the moral samurai principles makes him a very vulnerable person. He ends up taking the blame for other’s evil deeds, with an understanding that he will be exiled for one year and restored to the clan’s good graces after the political situation dies down. But as betrayal begins to heap upon betrayal, he realizes he’ll have to live out his life as a ronin at best, at worst hunted down and killed.

The movie opens when a samurai enters the Minazuki clan’s school of Issaka Yaichiro to challenge the master to a fight who is currently away. Kobuse Takuma (Ichikawa Raizo) receives him, and the samurai, from the Iwashiro Clan, calls him into a duel. Kobuse refuses, and the samurai leaves. On his way home, however, the samurai is shooting his mouth off and he is followed by two members of the Minazuki clan and in an act of cowardice, the gum flapping samurai is killed from behind. His clan discovers the murder, and calls for the murderer(s) to be discovered, arrested and punished, whoever they may be. A Minazuki clan official, Kobuse’s soon to be father-in-law, devises a scheme to cover up the scandal: Kobuse will take the blame and disappear for a year while the soon-to-be father in law tries to iron things out even going so far as to say that he will commit seppuku to prove Kobuse’s innocence. Only a fool would buy into this scheme, but as a soon-to-be son in law, Kobuse probably felt obligated to agree.

As we follow his year in exile we see Kobuse degenerate from the upstanding disciple that he was into a soused ronin. But the year in exile is not the heart of this film.

The climax of the film is one of the most detailed, well planned and well executed ones I have ever seen. The integration of a variety of devices (a water well and bucket, ladders, wooden boards, carts, ropes, and several different kinds of weapons), makes Raizo’s sword-fighting worthy of Musashi’s legendary status by enduring one of the most epic battles since Musashi’s clash against the entire Yoshioka school. Typically extended movie fights tend to become superfluous after a while, particularly when the hero never tires or otherwise loses his edge due to battle fatigue, but here, after wave upon wave of assaults, Raizo physically deteriorates, starting on his feet and eventually rolling around in the dirt. He becomes parched, thirsting for water, his hair disheveled, his hand so tense that he can’t let go of his sword even after it is broken and his face is in pure agony. For Kobuse, this is more than a fight; it regresses into an almost reptilian rage to survive.

Even after he is acknowledged as innocent, samurai pride will not permit the carnage to stop. Whether or not he can survive, with our hero’s hard breathing, staggering exhaustion, at times barely able to stand, it is tortuous and agonizing to watch him. The final images of Raizo’s worn-down figure barely still standing above the carnage, with his girlfriend (Kaoru Yachigusa) knelt before him, has less a sense of victory about it than a sense of appalling disgust with a warrior culture that could lead to such a monstrous moment.

A majority of chambara fans (especially those who love samurai for their “exoticism”) probably just watch for the Cuisinart effect, and really don’t care about the nuances of culture and history that may be gleaned from such movies. This is a film that can be appreciated by that lot, and also by those who have a more serious, more academic interest in samurai life on film. Why The Betrayal this isn’t as famous as some other chambara film from the 1960’s is a question I can’t answer. The bottom line is that The Betrayal is arguably the legendary Ichikawa Raizo’s best performance.

 

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Lone Wolf & Cub Five: Or don’t try to pass off a girl as a boy. It could cost you your head.

This is the 5th in the Lone Wolf & Cub series.  It also marks the return of Director Kenji Misumi who directed the first three Baby Cart films.  It combines the films strong period feel, a convoluted affair and a fantastic amount of onscreen schematic violence.  Including some of the best death scenes in the series particularly the deaths of the messengers, each die a spectacular death.  For example, Itto slashes one of the poor saps who falls into Itto’s campfire’s red-hot coals living in agony only long enough to relay a complex message before finally he is finally engulfed in flames.

I guess I should explain the reference to the messengers in the preceding paragraph.  Ogami is being vetted by five messengers who all try to kill him.  That is some original job recruiting by an employer; I don’t think we would have an unemployment problem if more employers took these types of actions in while headhunting.  After defeating all the messengers, Ogami learns he must kill a young girl who is being raised as a boy to become heir of a local daimyo, while the real heir, a little boy, is kept locked away in a castle tower.  I have to ask wouldn’t someone notice along the way that the child is growing into a woman rather than a man?

The assassination assignment includes murdering the senile old lord, his concubine and the girl masquerading as a boy, plus Ogami must also stop a document revealing this sham from reaching the hands of his mortal enemy, Yagyū Retsudō.  While on the job, his son Daigoro is once again separated from his father and proves his courage and sense of honor as he refuses to admit the guilt of a woman pickpocket he promised not to rat on.  With his father looking on and giving his son ever so slight nods approving of Diagoro’s refusal rat on the woman, the boy is beaten, doesn’t talk and has taken his first major step to becoming a samurai.

For Itto it can be said that although Tomisaburo Wakayama plays a very stoic, virtually emotionless character, he does it very well.  This is perhaps due to his years of real martial arts training.  He handles his sword normally without any of over the top moves because of his skills, however, he can pull it off as his movements are focused and intimidating.

Now as a chambara fan, I must confess that the combination of stylized violence and the existential mystical look at both historical Japan and the genre conventions that form chambara, sure come through in this film.  It might not be as groundbreaking as the first two entries in the series; it is after all following well-tested tradition, but it is done with such conviction and deliberation that one has to give it its due.

As with other serialized characters of the chambara universe like Zatoichi or Nemuri Kiyoshiro, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons meets one’s expectations as a pure Lone Wolf movie that doesn’t frustrate one the way Hollywood sequels do.  Master film-maker Kenji Misumi breaks the traditional forms of the period drama that make even a fifth entry of this tried and tested recipe very palatable.

The idea of the five Samurai, each giving Ogami a part of his mission as their dying words is an imaginative one.  The fight scenes were excellent, particularly the underwater fight scene.  While the final battle was not as epic as some of the others in the series, Ogami still fights an entire army single-handedly, as fans have come to expect since the second film.

While some may say Baby Cart in the Land of Demons isn’t as enjoyable as some of its predecessors, I think otherwise.  It’s very solid from a technical standpoint and probably the most beautifully-filmed of the bunch.  The Spaghetti Western cinematic influences are present throughout in the form of tight Leone-esque camera shots and certain musical cues.  At times, there’s also a subtle otherworldly atmosphere, which may or may not be suggestive of Itto and son’s further descent into the depths of hell.  Even the supporting characters in the film are somewhat allegorical in a way: the clansmen of the Kuroda wear demon masks, and the initial five Kuroda representatives that Itto battles in the first act of the film wear veils that feature drawings of the “Beasts of Hell”.

As with anyone of the series see it, you won’t regret it.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review Number 175! I am glad we made it. What are we looking at for this momentous occasion? My favorite Chambara actor Ichikawa Raizo in The Adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro (1964).

Ichikawa Raizo plays Nemuri Kyoshiro in The Adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro (Daiei, 1964) the second in the series based on an “antihero” who was known in the west as The Full Moon Swordsman named after his hypnotic sword style, or the Son of the Black Mass series because of Kyoshiro’s toxic origins, which, in the early episodes, are not revealed.

Nemuri Kyoshiro was a ronin by choice with such great skill that if he wanted to he could serve any lord he pleased.  With a head of reddish-hued hair due to his mixed lineage, he was the son of noblewoman who was raped by a European Satanist on a night of a black mass.

Kyoshiro has both good and evil streaks in him.  If he thinks you are an innocent, good person he can be your champion and a sentimental lover, he also is a killer and a rapist to the vile or vain.  Kyoshiro is a self-styled villain though many want him to be a hero.  If it will keep him from being bored will he live up to heroic expectations.

The Adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro is the number 2 in a series of 12 movies from 1963-1969.  The film starts with Kyoshiro pursuing a female pickpocket and undresses her with his sword.  Stripping women with his sword becomes a bit of a trademark as he does in several films sometimes raping them as well.  Kyoshiro is quite the judgmental chap and when he decides you are a bad woman he’s apt to humiliate you sexually and when he decides you’re a bad alpha male he’ll kill you.  He is a true iconoclast, whatever society most values, he despises.

In this film, a little orphaned son of a samurai makes a living pushing old people up a long set of outdoor stairs for pocket change.  The boy’s father once owned a dojo, but was killed by a challenger who then took control of the school.  The slain samurai was one of Kyoshiro’s instructors and he extracts his revenge in the name of his former sensei and the innocent hardworking child.

As the movie develops, we learn that Akaza Gunbei wants to kill an old financial commissioner who is a champion of the people not rich.  The commissioner befriends Kyoshiro when he starts discussing the problems in Edo caused by the mass unemployment of samurai who are wreaking havoc throughout the city.  The commissioner is wounded by a surprise ronin attack, but Kyoshiro foils the assassination attempt.  Instead of anger, the commissioner feels sorrow for his attacker.  After Kyoshiro saves the commissioner, he stays within close proximity of him as protection that annoys the old man.

A wandering fortune-teller, Uneme, is a spy for one Princess Takahime.  Takahime has secretly ordered the assassination of the commissioner because as the chief financial officer he has been forcing the shogunate to cut back on expenses in particular reducing the Princess’s substantial allowance.

Since Kyoshiro is getting in the way of the Princess’s intentions, he is drugged by the fortune-teller and when he awakens, he is in the presence of Takahime.  She is eager “to have my way with you.”  Having none of it, Kyoshiro insults her by calling her “Princess Pig,” denigrating her position since she’s really only one of fifty bastards of the shogun.  Kyoshiro kills one of her lovers and escapes once more to continue protecting the commissioner.

Nemuri prefers women who are virginal of spirit, not necessarily literally virgins, who offer themselves reluctantly (perhaps as payment for helping someone they love).  He also likes prostitutes who have no remaining illusions, for they are at least honest in their hearts.  Yet in this film Nemuri Kyoshiro contrary to his later portrayals, is capable of a strictly platonic relationship with an innocent noodle-stand girl.  He is just not a man generally capable of liking women for more than physical pleasures.  Those who are too pure he robs of their illusions; those of infamy he gladly kills, sometimes, as in Kyoshiro Nemuri at Bay (Kyoshiro Nemurai Joyoken, 1964), killing villainous women who are unarmed or otherwise defenseless.

Eventually five ronin meet on a foggy evening to plan Kyoshiro’s demise.  One is shuriken artist, another one a spearman and on and on.  After leaving the unwanted company of the Princess, Kyoshiro encounters the spearman who foolishly believes he can defeat Kyoshiro’s Full Moon Cut style by attacking when the circling sword passes in front of Kyoshiro’s own eyes.

Kyoshiro claims that when he starts the full moon sweep of his blade, death is assured for his opponent, so another one of the five attempts to attack before Kyoshiro can begin the Full Moon Cut circle.  These guys start dropping like flies at this point.

The last of the five waits until the circle is entirely traced hoping to penetrate the stance at the end of the circle.  Even though the winner of the duels is a forgone conclusion, the many assault variations add a definite pizzazz to an otherwise elegant action.

Kyoshiro is not portrayed as invulnerable.  The evil Princess Taka sets up an exhibition duel between Kyoshiro and Lord Yagyu.  She has had the duel rigged, but Kyoshiro detects the trick causing an unexpected outcome.  Lord Yagyu was also duped and reports the Princess treachery to the shogun, resulting in her exile.  The standoff is suggestive of Miyamoto Musashi, who in life and in film versions of his life was never pitted against the Yagyu sword, though he almost had the chance.

The Nemuri Kyoshiro series are some of my favorite chambara films.  Perhaps because I am a big Ichikawa Raizo fan (who died at 39 from rectal cancer) his movies have a special appeal to me.  The Kyoshiro series though is unique in the sense that the protagonist is just as evil as he is good.  Of course I don’t condone raping et cetera so don’t get on a high horse yet.  That said, his evil lineage, iconoclastic nature and vast skills as a fighter makes Nemuri Kyoshiro one of the most distinctive and complex characters to ever appear in this genre.  I highly recommend the series and unlike all the bitching resulting from the Kill Bill review and comments, there is no blood and gore in the film to make some people squeamish—you know who you are.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Harakiri (1962) or How I learned to love the bamboo sword.

Harakiri is the commoner’s was of saying “seppuku,” which in Japan is the formal term for ritual suicide by disembowelment.  Harakiri is the common term, which literally means “stomach cutting.” It was an integral part of the bushido code of conduct and was ordered by a superior as punishment to redeem some offence, or chosen over a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy.  To the samurai, it was a sign of honor, courage, loyalty, and high moral character of the individual. Except when performed on a battlefield, it was a very formal ceremony, requiring certain etiquette, witnesses and considerable preparation.  This ritual only makes me think that the Japanese really needed to take things down a notch or two.  There are countless stories where samurai or even lords commit seppuku with a letter or an appeal to a higher authority in order to make sure its contents were taken seriously.  That had better be a pretty serious letter.  Harakiri is a particularly painful and rather messy way of ending one’s days. In this ritual, the “performer” opens his abdomen, starting from left to right and then finishing from top toward bottom. But there is so need to be left for hours contemplating one’s entrails. Another swordsman, acting as a “second,” stands by to decapitate the person at a pre-arranged moment in the ceremony.

 

Enough with the history lesson and back to the film.  Harakiri is a Japanese film directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  The story takes place between 1619 and 1630 during the popular “Edo period” and the long reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate which put an end to hundreds of years of civil war.  There was a flip side though—countless unemployed samurai or “ronin” wandering the country in poverty.  The movie tells of a ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, who was ordered to live so he could care for his daughter, grandson and son-in-law, the son of another samurai who had already committed suicide.  That is a lot of death when there was little war.

 

Our main character, Hanshiro Tsugumo, is trying to find a place to commit seppuku.  One tactic a disgraced samurai tried to use in order to receive a little money, would be request, or threat to commit suicide, with the hope of receiving a handout.  But Kageyu Saito, the senior counselor to the clan, begins to tell Hanshiro what is clearly a warning about another ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, who made the same request, but the house called his bluff and forced him to kill himself. To try and really hit things home, the counselor pointed out that this chap’s sword was a fake made of blunt bamboo, but that didn’t matter as they still insisted that he fillet himself with it anyway, making the death was excruciatingly painful.  In the face of this warning, Tsugumo reiterates his request to commit seppuku.

 

While the proper steps are taken, Hanshiro Tsugumo begins to recite his tale of hard times to the counselor and the rest of the onlookers.  Apparently his lord’s house was a threat to the Shogunate and was destroyed.  His friend and samurai did commit seppuku and left Tsugumo to look after his son, who, it turns out, was the one who had to kill himself with the bamboo sword.  With the responsibility of looking after his family and son-in-law, Tsugumo did not have the option to choose the “samurai” way to end his life, and was forced to live in abject poverty and work at menial jobs far below his status in order to support his family.

 

They were so poor that when his grandson and daughter took ill they could not afford to hire a doctor or any other medical care.  At this point Tsugumo’s son in law went to the clans house hoping to receive charity by threatening to commit seppuku.  But as we know they called his bluff and shortly after his death, his wife and son succumbed to illness and died.

 

As Tsugumo recites his tale, he had, we come to find out, the day before coming to the lord’s house to request seppuku, tracked down their three top retainers who he blames for the deaths of his family.  To really humiliate these three and the clan as well, he does not kill them in combat as he could have but cuts off their topknots—something more humiliating to a samurai that death.  Tsugumo tosses the three topknots at the counselor’s feet and points out the reason those three samurai are not there was not illness as they claim but embarrassment from their unwanted haircut.

 

After finishing his story, Saito orders his retainers to attacked Hanshiro Tsugumo, who fights all of them off alone, killing four and wounding eight while slowly succumbing to his wounds.  Then as a new group of men arrive armed with guns, Tsugumo commits seppuku to avoid being killed by the clan.  The counselor orders his men to cover up this humiliation by sending them to the three samurai and have them either killed or allowed to commit seppuku—and is told in fact that one already has.  The counselor also covers his ass by reporting the damage done by Tsugumo, as the result of “illness.”  Without the cover story, word might get out that a scraggly ronin made them look so foolish or worse “loose face” to the other houses.

 

This film is nothing less than a work of art.  Filmed in black and white, Harakiri’s dark story only becomes that much grittier.  Exposing the façade of the establishments veneer of respectability by their adherence to the “samurai code,” no stone is left unturned to keep the illusion and status quo alive.

 

Harakiri is by far one of my favorite “chambara” (the name given to Japanese action films dealing with the Feudal era of Japan) films.  It is a great movie all around, its story, cinematography and acting are nothing short of superb.  You are missing out if you have not seen this classic.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dangerous paid tribute on her site to Japan in light of the natural disasters. So I hereby interrupt this Burt Reynolds tribute to do the same. Ichikawa Raizo stars in the Japanese classic “The Third Shadow” (1963)—you had better turn on the lights.

The Third Shadow (1963) is set circa 1567 in the mountain regions of Hida and stars Ichikawa Raizo as a peasant’s son named “Kyonosuke” who dreams of becoming a samurai.  Kyonosuke gets his wish not because of his abilities or character, but because he looks almost exactly like their lord Yasutaka, allowing Raizo to play one of the Lord’s doubles.  Well, actually triples in this case, as Raizo is the third of three “shadow men,” but is the one who by far looks the most like Lord Yasutaka.

Sure, as a shadow you get to sleep with the Lord’s beautiful concubines and receive numerous other perks, however the job has its drawbacks too.  In order to be convincing as doubles, the shadows must not only act like the Lord, but also maintain their physical resemblance as well (like limping from a sprained ankle).  Also during the constant civil wars that plagued Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries lords went into plenty of battles.  As part of their bravado, Lords often lead troops into savage conflicts resulting in serious wounds.  As a shadow, if the Lord gets a wound, so do you.  When the Lord loses his left eye during a battle, one of the shadows flees, knowing full well what is in store for them, but when he fails to escape he is brutally killed.  The two remaining shadows (including Raizo) are blinded in their left eyes with a burning poker in order to remain good doubles for their Leader.

When the Lord loses an arm in another battle, only Kyonosuke (Raizo) is in a position to help him.  He now understands this will mean one of his own arms will be chopped off, so he decides to kill the Lord and get out of Dodge to continue his pursuit of a samurai career elsewhere.  Unfortunately Kyonosuke (Raizo) doesn’t get far and must replace the Lord so that no one finds out he (the Lord) is missing or dead.  No one other than Kyonosuke (Raizo) himself knows that he, the Lord’s shadow, killed the missing Lord.
The movie so far has been excellent for its adventure and action.  The film takes an interesting turn and develops into an eerie fight for personal identity, similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), when the lord’s imposter (Tatsuya Nakadai) feels he is dying as armies are wiped out before his eyes, even though in fact he has no real connection with those armies.  Raizo wants out but no one believes Kyonosuke’s raving insistence that he is merely a peasant, not the Lord, and he ends up locked up as a madman for the rest of his life, the Lord’s insanity becoming the clan’s most closely guarded secret.  His dream to be a samurai leads to ironic tragedy in this example of the genre roughly translated as “cruel historicals” or zankoku jidai-geki.

The Third Shadow is a nearly unknown masterpiece with amazing use of shadows and darkness as part of its scenes.  Add a plot that is worthy of the cruelties and identity conflicts of Kafka transposed to the samurai era and you have an powerful film.

If you like Asian cinema like I do and can get your hands on the film make sure to see it.  If you can’t get your hands on the film but have a sincere desire to watch it, let me know and we’ll see what we can do for you.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: