RSS

Tag Archives: japan

Shogun the miniseries (1980) starring Richard Chamberlin, Torisho Mifune, John Rhys-Davies and others. One of the great miniseries of all time.

I was getting a lot of static about the number of Japanese films I’ve been watching lately so I decided to relent.  But I still wanted to enjoy the Japanese tales of the samurai then it occurred to me: Shogun the miniseries.  I was still a child when I remember when my parents watched it and I liked it back then.  So I obtained all 12 hours of the series and watched it without complaint from other because the main language was English though there was lots of Japanese spoken in it.  One of the neat film devices used in the episodes what the lack of subtitles whenever Japanese was spoken as it was from the main characters point of view (Richard Chamberlin as an English ship pilot).  I also decided to get the book and the author (legendary James Clavel) also provided no translation from the Japanese “spoken” in the novel.

During the original airing, the network ran the episodes five days in a row.  The first and last episodes (each three hours) and the three in the middle (each 2 hours) garnered about 24-25 million viewers—an average of about 32-33 nielson rating.  Talk about a marathon, I don’t think the networks would have the guts to run a series like that again.  By that I mean they would probably do one episode a week and break it up into one hour segments.  If that were to happen I believe it would totally take away from the flavor of the series.  The book (about 1200 pages) is even better than the series though both in my opinion are legendary works especially for their time.

The cast:  Richard Chamberlin, who needs no introduction, went on to make the Thorn Birds after this epic, Torisho Mifune, Japans legendary film star for probably 40 years prior to Shogun and anyone who watched Star Trek Voyager knows John Rhys-Davies (cast as Da Vinci in Voyager an often seen guest in Capt. Janeway’s hologram fantasies) playing the flamboyant Portuguese ship pilot Vasco Rodrigues.  There are more of course but these three are the best known.

After his Dutch trading ship Erasmus and its surviving crew is blown ashore by a violent storm at Injiro on the east coast of Japan, Pilot-Major John Blackthorne, the ship’s English navigator, is taken prisoner by samurai warriors. When he is later temporarily released, he must juggle his self-identity as an Englishman associated with other Europeans in Japan, namely Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests, with the alien Japanese culture into which he has been thrust and now must adapt to in order to survive. Being an Englishman, Blackthorne is at both religious and political odds with his enemy, the Portuguese, and the Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. The Catholic foothold in Japan puts Blackthorne, a Protestant and therefore a heretic, at a political disadvantage. But this same situation also brings him to the attention of the influential Lord Toranaga, who mistrusts this foreign religion now spreading in Japan. He is competing with other samurai warlords of similar high-born rank, among them Catholic converts, for the very powerful position of Shōgun, the military governor of Japan.

Through an interpreter, Blackthorne later reveals certain surprising details about the Portuguese traders and their Jesuit overlords which forces Toranaga to trust him; they forge a tenuous alliance, much to the chagrin of the Jesuits. To help the Englishman learn their language and to assimilate to Japanese culture, Toranaga assigns a teacher and interpreter to him, the beautiful Lady Mariko, a Catholic convert, and one of Toranaga’s most trusted retainers. Blackthorne soon becomes infatuated with her, but Mariko is already married, and their budding romance is ultimately doomed by future circumstances.

Blackthorne saves Toranaga’s life by audaciously helping him escape from Osaka Castle and the clutches of his longtime enemy, Lord Ishido. To reward the Englishman for saving his life, and to forever bind him to the warlord, Toranaga makes Blackthorne hatamoto, a personal retainer, and gifts him with a European flintlock pistol. Later, Blackthorne again saves Toranaga’s life during an Earthquake by pulling him from a fissure that opened and swallowed the warlord, nearly killing him. Having proved his worth and loyalty to the warlord, during a night ceremony held before a host of his assembled vassals and samurai, Lord Toranaga makes Blackthorne a samurai; he awards him the two swords, 20 kimonos, 200 of his own samurai, and an income-producing fief, the fishing village Anjiro where Blackthorne was first blown ashore with his ship and crew. Blackthorne’s repaired ship Erasmus, under guard by Toranaga’s samurai and anchored near Kyoto, is lost to fire, which quickly spread when the ships’ night lamps were knocked over by a storm tidal surge. During a later attack on Osaka Castle by the secretive Amida Tong (Ninja assassins), secretly paid for by Lord Ishido, Mariko is killed while saving Blackthorne’s life, who’s temporarily blinded by the black powder explosion that kills his lover.

As Shōgun concludes, Blackthorne is supervising the construction of a new ship, The Lady; it is being built with funds Mariko left to him in her will for this very purpose. Blackthorne is observed at a distance by Lord Toranaga; a voice over reveals the warlord’s inner thoughts: It was he who ordered the Erasmus destroyed by fire, not from a tidal surge, in order to keep Blackthorne safe from his Portuguese enemies who feared his actions with the ship; Blackthorne still has much to teach Toranaga. And, if need be, the warlord will destroy the ship Blackthorne is currently building. He also discloses Mariko’s secret but vital role in the grand deception of his enemies, and, as a result, how she was destined to die gloriously in Osaka Castle and live forever, helping to assure his coming final victory. The warlord knows that Blackthorne’s karma brought him to Japan and that the Englishman, now his trusted retainer and samurai, is destined never to leave. Toranaga also knows it is his karma to become Shōgun.

In the miniseries epilogue it is revealed that Toranaga and his army are triumphant at the Battle of Sekigahara; he captures and then disgraces his old rival, Lord Ishido, and takes 40,000 enemy heads, after which he then fulfills his destiny by becoming Shōgun.

The story has most of the elements of the warring states period and the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to Shogun.  He was one of the lords who pledged to take care of the Taiko, he also won the Battle of Sekigahara so anyone who is even slightly versed in this area of history can see the parallels.  It is a great series, take the time to watch it you won’t regret it.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Episode one of the “Splendid Family”

The episode opens up in postwar Japan with the splendid family at a hotel they go to every year to welcome in the new year.  While the rest of the family waits, the elder son and main character Teppi is running late because he’s taking care of some business at the family conglomerates steel factory which he is in charge of.  He has just signed a deal with a new company because his new technology is 10 times stronger than anything else in Japan.

As the family begins to sit down for dinner and take the traditional annual photograph Teppi makes a just-in-time.  He is scolded by his father, the patriarch of the family, as well as the family “Butler” a woman who arranges many of the family’s affairs including marriages, meetings and other family business.  The Butler also has the luxury of sleeping with the father when he chooses, as he did on New Year’s Eve after dinner.

We then follow the father to the family bank which is the center of the family’s fortune and the conglomerate of companies.  As he is walking to his office, he looks onto the bank floor and sees hundreds people working and expresses concern for them and their families.  We have also learned that the Treasury Department of Japan is following America’s lead in consolidating the country’s banks in order to increase capital availability and modernize the economy.  Manypo (the father) has grown the family bank from being a local city branch to the 10th largest bank in the country.  However, because he is the 12th largest bank he is ripe for acquisition and will likely be merged into one of the larger banks thereby losing his authority and other privileges of ownership.  Out of necessity he looks to his son-in-law (a high ranking treasury official) for a way to employ strategy whereby a smaller bank would gobble up the larger bank.  A risky and complicated proposition.

Meanwhile his son Teppi decides that he needs to build a blast furnace in order to stay competitive in the steel industry.  This is no small task, requiring billions of Japanese yen in order to construct such a machine.  If the blast furnace is built successfully, it will be one of only a few in Japan that is able to make modern steel for cars and other heavy industry.  He approaches his father for the financing of this technological marvel who agrees to take the matter under advisement.  What we don’t know is why father and son have such a cold relationship given that Teppi seems very likable and capable–everything a father would possibly want a son to be.

We start to get hints when one evening the father is out looking at his koi pond and sees a praying mantis stuck in spiders web that is about to be devoured.  He thinks to himself he is more like my father than me.  He becomes even more spooked while the two of them are at the same pond later in the day and Teppi is able to summon the largest fish known as shogun by clapping his hands.

At this point things are still setting up and background is starting to be filled in as to the intra-family relationships as well as some family history that may be dark and swept under the rug begins to surface.  But the stage is being said for a long, interesting and complicated set of maneuvers supposedly among family members that are to be loyal to each other but instead will slowly stab each other in the back.

 

Next time episode two.

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

The fisherman versus the fighters: Ganryujima (2003).

Anyone who knows anything about this site is familiar with our passion for Asian films.  One of the central figures in these films is the famed 17th century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Typically Musashi is portrayed as a dignified and violent, yet philosophical Ronin.  Not in Ganryujima this time he is and psychotic, vulgar, violent and cruel bully, carrying with him the aura of an insane homeless man who is the center of his own megalomaniacal universe.

The movie focuses on the duel with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island.  From the opening scene Musashi is clearly the villain and Sasaki Kojiro is the honorable samurai and Musashi apologist.  Kojiro goes so far as to defend each of Musashi’s cruel actions as a necessary byproduct of the duels he was in.  Ganryujima points out that this duel which made him the undisputed fencing champion of Japan is never mentioned in Musashi’s famous Book of The Five Rings.  The film has a theory why Musashi left this out of his book; that is, he does not remember it because the fisherman taking him out to the island duel knocked him out cold with an oar and that he is mistaken for Musashi.  Since the fisherman has no fencing skills, he ends up killing a befuddled Kojiro in self-defense who is unprepared for such an outlandish bout.  When Musashi comes to, he has temporary amnesia that quickly vanishes—along with his disgraceful characteristics.  Musashi is “re-born” as the Ronin we all know and love.  It is not a great movie; however anyone with any interest in the swordsman really should take a look at this novel view of Musashi.

The film starts after Musashi has defeated Baiken, destroyed the entire Yoshioka School and he has beheaded the ten year old Yoshioka figurehead.  In Ganryujima he is not traveling to the famous island to fight a duel with Kojiro. He is taking a boat ride to die.  The movie makes a game of having him “forget” his swords and having the runs, but by the end of the movie, when his real personality emerges it is obvious this was not a matter of forgetting anything.

While Kojiro waits for Muashi, he explains the real reason for the duel to one of the naïve witnesses; that Kojiro is to die even if he wins the duel and that the unknowing naïve witness is to kill Kojiro should Muashi fail too.  We are then walked through Kojiro’s situation of the clan using the duel as an assassination play because many of the non-mainstream retainers look to Kojiro and the Sasaki family as their leaders in a revolt.  Knowing that if the central government finds out about a revolt their clan will be dissolved, they decide to sacrifice Kojiro.  I’d  just like to say that these Asian people are really into the clan system and I wish someone would tell me why anything can be done as long as it is in the name of the clan it is ok?

After the fisherman kills Kojiro and returns to his hamlet with a barely conscious Musashi, a mass of samurai who have come for their revenge.  Now Musashi does not want to fight but is left with no alternative.  First he beats them without cutting them, but after a few moments it is clear that he will have to kill them all by releasing the beast within himself.  The transition from the dignified Ronin to the animal killer reminds me of Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk.  Like the Incredible Hulk, Musashi butchers his opponents almost gracefully.  This scene alone makes the movie worth watching.

I give this film full credit for its originality; I was totally taken by surprise—which almost never happens.  And while the cinematography was excellent, for some reason it had a made-for-tv-movie feel about it.  For Dangerous its final fight scene (shown in full here) is spectacularly choreographed rivaling any I have seen.  But again, I just can’t shake the made-for-tv-movie feel.  It does not matter.  As I mentioned above anyone with any interest in the legendary swordsman should take the time to view this film.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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

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: , , , , , , , , , , ,

It has been too long since we did a series. Well here is a real blast from the past Lone Wolf and Cub.

The Lone Wolf & Cub series has a cult following (including me).  All but one of the movies was made in 2 years:

Sword of Vengeance (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

A total of seven Lone Wolf and Cub films featuring Tomisaburo Wakayama as “Ogami Ittō” have been produced based on the comic. They are also known as the Sword of Vengeance series, based on the English-language title of the first film, and later as the Baby Cart series, because Itto’s young son Daigoro travels in a wooded baby carriage pushed by his father.

The first three films were directed by Kenji Misumi, released in 1972 and produced by Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama’s brother and the star of the legendary 26 part Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) film series.  The next three films were produced by Wakayama and directed by Buichi Saito, Kenji Misumi and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, released in 1972, 1973, and 1974 respectively.

A word or two should be said about Tomisaburo Wakayama.  While he is known best for his role as the Lone Wolf, he, like his brother, were prolific actors.  Wakayama was also an excellent martial artist obtaining his 4th degree black belt in Judo as well as other martial art disciplines including Kenpo, Iaido, Kendo and Bojutsu, usually learning them when he prepared for filming.  He and his brother came from a family of Kabuki actors that toured Asia and the west.  After a two year tour in the U.S., Wakayama had enough and left his family’s acting troupe to take up the martial arts.  He was subsequently hired by Toei as an actor and the rest is history.  He has had roles in over two hundred films, including a famous scene in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) starring Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas take a look http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jC46eTGpf1M.

Some background & the first movie Sword of Vengeance. 

Ogami Ittō, formidable warrior and a master of the suiō-ryū swordsmanship, functions as the Kaishakunin (the Shōgun’s executioner), a position of high power in the Shogunate.  Ogami Ittō is the Shogun’s enforcer over the daimyō of Japan (lesser domain lords).  When the Shogun ordered samurai and lords to commit seppuku, the Kaishakunin had the “privilege” of assisting in the deaths by decapitating the subject to stop the self-inflicted torture of disembowelment; in this role, Itto is entitled to brandish the crest of the Shogunate, by law acting in the Shogun’s place.  So you can’t screw with him.  I can only imagine what coming home from work every day was like “hi honey I am home . . . long day at the office decapitated three people” and the like—interesting dinner conversation.

Shortly after Ogami Ittō’s wife Azami gives birth to their son, Daigorō, he returns from work to find everyone viciously murdered except his newborn son.  The patsy’s are three samurai from an abolished clan trying to take revenge of their lord against Ittō for his “assistance” with the lords death.  Itto’s knows that this is a scam planned by Ura-Yagyū (Shadow Yagyu) Yagyū Retsudō, leader of the Ura-Yagyū clan, to seize Ogami’s powerful position.  Somebody planted a funeral tablet with the shogun’s crest on it inside the Ogami family shrine, supposedly signifying a wish for the shogun’s death.  When the planted tablet is “discovered” its presence dooms Ittō to traitor status and he relinquishes his post.

The 1-year-old Daigorō is given a choice a ball or the sword (see clip).  If the kid chose the ball, his father would kill him and himself, sending him to be with his mother.  Luckily the child crawls toward the sword.  Itto has now become one of many rōnin wandering the country as the assassin-for-hire team that becomes known as Lone Wolf and Cub, vowing to destroy the Yagyū clan to avenge Azami’s death and Ittō’s disgrace.

While cruising the country Itto does a little advertising by hanging a banner off his back “Ogami: Suiouryo technique” (Child and expertise for rent).  His marketing plan works when he lands a job from a Chamberlain to kill a rival and his gang of henchmen who are out to kill chamberlain’s lord.  The chamberlain decides to test Ittō, but he makes quick work of the chamberlain’s two best swordsmen.  His targets are in a remote mountain village that is host a number of natural hot-spring spa pools.

When Ittō reaches the hot-spring village, he finds that the rival chamberlain and his men have hired a band of ronin that have taken over the town and are doing your usual raping, looting and pillaging.

The ronin discuss killing Ittō, but decide to let him live if he will have sex with the town’s remaining prostitute while they watch.  The prostitute refuses to have any part in it, but then she’s threatened by one of the men, a knife expert, and in order to save the woman, Ittō steps forward and disrobes, saying he will oblige them.

The episode takes one more trip back to the past, for the dramatic beheading and blood-spurting scene in which Ittō defeats one of Yagyū Retsudo’s best swordsman, with the aid of a mirror on Daigoro’s forehead to reflect the sun into the swordsman’s eyes.  To the disgrace of Retsudo.

Then we have the big showdown.  It is revealed that the baby cart has some James Bond type of secrets – several edged weapons, including a spear that Ittō uses to take out the evil chamberlain’s men, chopping one off at his ankles, leaving the bloody stumps of his feet still standing on the ground.  (See Clip).

The movie ends.  Don’t worry folks this is just part one of the series we are going to look at each of them.  Up next, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).

 
2 Comments

Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: