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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.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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Bullitt vs. Ronin for the winner of the best car chase scene around.

Ronin is a 1998 crime-thriller film directed by John Frankenheimer and written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet.  Starring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno as two of several former special forces that team up to steal a mysterious, heavily guarded suitcase the contents of which is never revealed and as we know from SS, the film is known for its car chases through Nice and Paris.

Ronin is known for two car chases the final chase is through the streets and tunnels of Paris, and according to the DVD commentary used 300 stunt drivers.  If anyone has the credentials to put together a car chase in Hollywood it is Frankenheimer ever since his 1966 film Grand Prix, he has been an amateur racing driver.  Much to his credit, though Frankenheimer was aware of the new digital technology and special effects that have evolved over the years, all the scenes in Ronin are live for total authenticity.  Moreover, many of the shots have the actual actors in the cars.  Apparently, Skipp Sudduth virtually all of his own driving, but crashes were performed by professionals.

Ronin’s cars are on the virtual “A” list of automobiles.  Ronin has three vehicles in Car magazine’s Top 40 Coolest Movie Cars:  a BMW 535i (No. 29), a Citroën Xantia and XM (No. 24) and an Audi S8 D2 (No. 9).  Other fine vehicles that are used include a Peugeot 406, three Peugeot 605s and a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9, a very rare Mercedes-Benz W116 variant with a high-powered engine, as noted by Frankenheimer in the DVD.

So let’s take a look at the two major car chase scenes from Ronin:

And

Bullitt is a 1968 American dramatic thriller film directed by Peter Yates and starred Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Robert Duval and Jacqueline Bisset.  The film was a critical and box office hit eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Film Editing by Frank P. Keller.  Bullitt is most known for its car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco, regarded as probably the most influential car chase sequences in movie history.

The chase scene is so well respected that in 2008, the Ford produced the Mustang Bullitt model for the 40th anniversary of the film.  A car manufacturer produced a make and model of a car that appeared in a 40-year-old movie.  If that does not resonate power, I don’t know what does.  The Bullitt nameplate on the steering wheel honored the movie that made the Mustang one of the most popular cars of the 1960s and 1970s and the specific green color was brought back for the anniversary edition.

Bullitt burning rubber in the car chase scene.

At the time of the film’s release, the car chase scene raised many eyebrows.  Emanuel Levy wrote in 2003 that, “Bullitt contains one of the most exciting car chases in film history, a sequence that revolutionized Hollywood’s standards.”  In his obituary for Peter Yates, Bruce Weber wrote “Mr. Yates’ reputation probably rests most securely on “Bullitt” (1968), his first American film — and indeed, on one particular scene, an extended car chase that instantly became a classic.”

The total time of the chase scene is almost 11 minutes.  It begins in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, followed by Midtown shooting on Hyde Street and Laguna Street, with shots of Coit Tower and locations around and on Filbert and University Streets.  The scene ends at the Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane, out of the city.

Two 1968 390 V8 Ford Mustang Fastbacks (325 hp) with four-speed manual transmissions were used for the famed scene, both owned by the Ford Motor Company and part of a promotional loan agreement with Warner Bros.  The Mustangs’ engines, brakes and suspensions were heavily modified for the chase by veteran car racer Max Balchowsky.  The director called for speeds of about 75–80 miles per hour, but the cars (including the ones containing the cameras) reached speeds of over 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) on surface streets.  Driver’s point-of-view angles were used to give the audience the look and “feel” of the ride as the cars jumped through the hills.  Filming the chase scene took three weeks, resulting in 9 minutes and 42 seconds of film.

During this film sequence, two Dodge Charger’s lost five wheel covers and has different ones missing in different shots.  As a result of shooting from multiple angles simultaneously, and some angles’ footage used at different times to give the illusion of different streets.  The San Francisco authorities did not let the filmmakers film the car chase on the Golden Gate Bridge, but they did permit the passage to be filmed in Midtown locations including the Mission District, and in neighboring Brisbane, on the city’s outskirts.

McQueen, an accomplished driver himself, drove in the close-up scenes, about 10% of the chase in the film.  Of the two Mustangs, one was scrapped after filming due to liability concerns and the surviving backup car was sold to an employee of Warner Brothers’.  According to legend, the Mustang changed hands several times, and Steve McQueen at one point made an unsuccessful attempt to buy it.  The Mustang is rumored to have been kept in a barn in the Ohio River Valley by an unknown owner.

Much of the success of the chase sequence is credited to the work of the editor, Frank P. Keller—who took home an Academy Award for his efforts.  The film has garnered both critical acclaim and box office success.  Produced on a $5.5 million budget, it grossed over $42.3 million in the United States, making it the 5th highest grossing film of 1968.

In 2011, Time magazine listed it among the “The 15 Greatest Movie Car Chases of All Time”, describing it as “the one, the first, the granddaddy, the chase on the top of almost every list.”  Steve McQueen’s Mustang places number 2 (behind James Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger) in Car magazine’s top 40 list.

Let’s take a look and see what all the hubbub is about:

To compare the chase scenes between Ronin and Bullitt is like saying you like a Porsche over a Ferrari; that is, objectively they are neck and neck and the winner is chosen by one’s personal preference.  Personally, I think Bullitt edges out Ronin only because the chase is the de facto standard against which all other car chases judged.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Up Next “Ronin” with Robert DeNerio–Movie Buff SS Says It Has One Of The Greatest Car Chase Scenes In Movie History. Well We WIll Just See About That.

Good friend and sterling movie viewer was emphatic that Ronin has one of the greatest car chase scenes in movie history. Naturally I am skeptical. So we will just see about SS’s statement and make him put his money where his mouth is.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Finally A Remake That Lives Up To The Original: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai (2012).

Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai.

Takashi Miike’s “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai” is a retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white classic “Harakiri” reviewed by JPFmovies on March 28th, 2011.  On the heels of a successful remake of “13 Assassins,” Takashi Miike looks more to storytelling than drawing blood with “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai,”  a theatrically faithful retelling of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 black-and-white classic “Harakiri.” Anyone expecting the action packed samurai sword fighting of 13 Assassins is looking in the wrong place.  This drawn-out tragedy is a variation on the old-fashioned samurai-movie themes of honor, sacrifice and retribution and his second salute to the Japanese films of yesteryear.

In 17th-century Japan, a long period of peace has thrown most of the samurai population out on the streets making our protagonist, Hanshiro, the latest penniless ronin seeking an end to a disgraceful life through ritual suicide.

Hanshiro, an older, battle tested samurai, approaches the rich House of Li wanting to use the mansion’s courtyard to commit seppuku.  The clan’s leader, Kageyu begins telling Hanshiro the story of the unfortunate young man named Motome, who recently made the same request.  Motome, however, expected that he would be turned away with a few coins but the Li samurai called his “suicide bluff,” forcing him to cut his stomach open with a dull bamboo “sword.”  They called his bluff to so that word would get around the poor ronin circuit not to go to the House of Li for a handout.

As the story of Motome is told to Hanshiro, the viewer is faced with a downright gruesome visual of Motome’s seppuku, much longer and more detailed than in the original film, Motome’s seppuku is almost torture to watch.  Because technology has advanced in the 50 years since the original movie was made, you feel the ghastly impact of every squirt and squish as the bamboo blade tears at the flesh.  This is a hard scene even for a seasoned film veteran, but it is also the film’s sole moment of violence until the end.

As the movie progresses, Hanshiro begins to tell his story, slowly revealing that he knows all about Motome, who in fact was his son-in-law.  He then tells the crowds of samurai watching this event the tale of how Motome, the proud son of a local official and samurai, came to be struck so low as to try and get three ryo from the House for his sick wife and infant child who ultimately died.  Hanshiro also tells the clan that he has come for revenge, and throws three top-knots on the ground—the ultimate insult to a samurai.  What’s more, is that Hanshiro has acquired these top-knots without killing their owners, subjecting them to unbelievable shame.  Unlike in the original film, the viewer does not see the sword battles between Hanshiro and his prey.  Instead, the fights make a mockery of his opponent’s skills with them lasting just a few seconds.  While it fits perfectly in the remake, it may not appeal to modern audiences expecting every action sequence they see to be better than the last.

After playing with his opponents for a while, Hanshiro eventually succumbs to his wounds but not before knocking down a full suit of armor sacred to the clan, scattering its pieces all over the room.  In both films, this samurai suit of armor looms large, signifying the warrior’s life to which the clan’s retainers’ aspire.  The samurai are speechless when the armor falls and the film closes with scenes of the three samurai that have lost their topknots committing seppuku.

Like in the original film, Hara-kiri questions the “honor” of the samurai completely.  It shows them playing their parts with pomp and circumstance, despite the fact that none of these samurai have seen real combat.  When it comes to fighting Hanshiro, an older (but battle tested), dirt poor, tired ronin who makes umbrellas for a living, he exposes them up for the frauds they are.  In both films, the samurai suit of armor looms large, heralding the warrior’s life to which the clan aspires.  If anything, destroying the armor is far more powerful in the original film: that the retainers and samurai have learned nothing from this encounter and simply cover their tracks to avoid embarrassment.

I loved the original film and I am always weary of remakes.  Having said that, Miike really does an excellent job—even casting actors that are almost identical looking to the characters in the 1962 film, right down to Hanshiro’s facial hair.  Moreover, Miike makes good use of advancements in technology.  The set for the movie is immaculate and detailed to the point of seeing the pattern on the columns.  Masaki Kobayashi would probably be quite flattered if he saw this film—as he should be.  Having seen the original took much of the greatly cultivated suspense out of the film for me.  The first time viewer, however, will have the privilege of being drawn into this Shakespearean tragedy.  Commercially, Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai will not reach the box office receipts that Miike’s previous remake of 13 Assassins did.  But this movie is for a much different crowd.  To enjoy Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai you have to be patient and unfortunately 99% of the movie watchers trained by Hollywood have the attention span of a gnat—which is too bad because it is a better film than his remake of 13 Assassins.

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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