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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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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.

 

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews

 

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Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya (2010) and Dangerous this one has choreography for you.

Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya is a 2010 Thai action movie directed by Nopporn Watin. The film features renowned Muay Thai boxers Buakaw Por. Pramuk, Saenchai Sor. Kingstar, Yodsanklai Fairtex, and Anuwat Kaewsamrit along with its main cast of actors.

The lead character in the film is based on an actual historical figure Yamada Nagamasa, a Japanese samurai/adventurer who later became a governor in the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1590-1630).  Yamada is the true story of how a samurai warrior came to serve as one of the personal bodyguards of King Naresuan the Great.  Yamada’s story is laced with beheadings, broken bones and many bloody wounds; however, he was eventually granted a lordship and served as governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The young samurai, who lived during the Edo period, came to be a soldier in the Japanese volunteer regiment in Ayothaya.  The higher-ups of regiment were using him as a scapegoat to justify the failure of the soldier’s inability to subdue the Thai.  Ninjas try to assassinate the samurai in a dark alley.  Vastly outnumbered, the young samurai puts up a good fight but is seriously wounded.  Four Thai fighters appear just as the ninja are about to be dealt the fatal blow.  The Thai fighters brutally kill most of the assassins while a few escape.  In accordance with their Buddhist teachings, they take the samurai to their village, tend to his wounds and treat him as a guest.  Over time and under the watchful and wise eye of Sir Monk he begins the road to recovery.  The viewer quickly sees that Sir Monk is the people’s spiritual and de facto leader whose wisdom is greatly respected even by the King. 

While Yamada recovers, there is another assassination attempt on his life.  Though far from healed, Yamada again dishes out some serious punishment on his attackers who must also contend with the village Boxers who quickly arrive on the scene.  After the enemy is driven away, the boxers blame and beat Yamada for causing trouble in their otherwise peaceful town.  One look from Sir Monk and the Boxers stop the beating and are hauled into the temple to have a serious word regarding their inappropriate behavior.  While Sir Monk takes the Boxers out to the proverbial woodshed, he tells them that he and he alone has the authority to kill whitey.  An order that will only be issued if Yamada starts to hurt the villagers.

As Yamada recovers, he begins to contribute around the village by doing chores and eyeing their forging process.  When he is back in shape, he attends the Boxer’s practice and foolishly challenges one to a bout.  The eight weapons of Muay Thai – fists, feet, knees and elbows make quick work of him to the point of embarrassment.  One of the boxers suggests that he ask Sir Monk to teach him the techniques of Muay Thai training.  These training sequences are set against the beautiful backdrops of temples and lush forests.  It is interesting to watch the blending of the Thai boxing style with Yamada’s lifelong samurai training especially when he uses his sword.

Yamada’s martial arts background helps him quickly learn the Thai style and at the end of the training, Sir Monk makes him an officially sanctioned warrior with holy tattoos and all.  Sir Monk’s approval permits whitey to join King Naresuan’s personal bodyguards.  Yamada sticks out like a sore thumb as a mostly white clean-shaven man when compared to his dark skinned and the crazy hairstyles of his comrades.

Though he has become a full-blown warrior, he is still not fully accepted by the other Boxers or villagers.  We start to see Yamada begin the extremely secret process of forging Japanese steel and what are unquestionably the best swords in the world alone since no one will help him.  Later we find out that the sword he was forging is for the boxer who has taken extra time to practice with him after hours to help Yamada perfect his skills.  Sir Monk is contemporaneously meeting with his top fighters who are preparing to try out to be the king’s guard and battle a rival nation state in a customary contest.  Here Sir Monk takes the Siamese warriors to task by telling them (and the blacksmiths) that Yamada is by far the best forger in the village and that his swords (which Sir Monk still has) are the most perfect weapons he has ever seen.  As a demonstration of the exquisite artisanship Yamada is capable of Sir Monk throws up a flower petal and as it falls to the ground, it is cleanly split in half when it comes into contact with the samurai’s blade. 

The bodyguard tryouts are nothing short of merciless but whitey makes it through—much to Sir Monk’s delight.  These tryouts are wonderful representations of this ancient and effective style of fighting.  The survivors are sent to engage their Burmese counterparts who have not won this gruesome contest in years.  Here again we are treated to seeing Yamada’s deeply ingrained samurai fencing techniques combined with his new hand to hand combat style.  I believe that one reason Yamada is so effective with his sword against the enemy is that the natives have never contended with a full-blown samurai using the most deadly of weapons.

After returning as victors, Yamada believe he must bring finality to the Japanese question and returns to that dark alley where he was almost killed, again facing an army of ninjas and the head of the Japanese spy ring that wants him eliminated.  He makes mincemeat of the ninjas but is ultimately saved by the fighter he gave the sword to who takes a bullet meant for him—his savior dies at the scene. 

Putting Muay Thai fighters and samurais together is a fantastic idea for a movie.  It also shows that humans can change and redeem themselves, even in the hands of an enemy.  This film is astonishing not only because it shows a path of redemption, but because it features some brutal Muay Thai boxing that is very realistic, striking and primeval: these guys are the real deal champion Thai boxers and I sure as shit would not want to meet them on unfriendly terms.

This movie did a fine job with what many might say was an interesting, though not epic, historical story.  I recommend this film to anyone (that means you Dangerous) who is interested in the choreography of martial arts, as it is real and something I have not seen before.  Watch and if you don’t like it let me know why.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 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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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.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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A Cruel Story.

A Cruel Story.

This is a tale of the Shinsengumi, a band of samurais in Kyoto that are steeped in lore and the subject of many films.  They formed and became prominent as the Tokugawa period was swiftly decaying and their goal was to preserve the Tokugawa government and keep order in Kyoto at any cost.

The Shinsengumi’s have been portrayed across the full spectrum of images from slapstick chumps (some would say) as in the 2004 NHK series to a cruel & barbaric group of ruthless bloodthirsty samurai.  A Cruel Story depicts the group as uncivilized & dirty, some members have even gone insane.  This film is unlike many previous versions where directors try to make the group more palatable by sanitizing their image sometimes a little but mostly a lot.

The players include Kondo a man that assassinated the group’s founder Serizawa to become its leader and the extremely vicious homosexual Hijikata, who was the group’s chief assassin and summarily resolved internal disputes with his sword rather than with words.  One member had the audacity to question the group’s humanity that cost him a half-dozen sword cuts so he could bleed to an agonizing death.

The film follows Enami, who initially idolizes the band and wants to join their ranks so much that he attempts seppuku to prove his worthiness.  He is a hick from the sticks who dreams of becoming a true samurai, but is initially innocent of the barbaric ways the group uses to enforce its policies and carry out its mandate. 

Enami is mortified by his initial taste of the Shinsengumi’s punishing brutality and begins to vomit out of fear and disgust.  However, he is quickly seduced by the dark side and rapidly volunteers to behead a member showing us that one’s fall from grace can be fast and furious.  Nevertheless, there is more than the regression of man to primal violence, as we discover Enami is Serizawa’s nephew, Serizawa having been the past (and assassinated) leader of Shinsengumi.  He wants revenge against Kondo Isami, his uncle’s killer.

For the mid 1960’s this was one of the bloodiest black and white films of its time and is a powerful indictment of the brutality going on in Japan in the name of keeping the West out of the country.  A motion picture you should not miss.

 

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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