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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.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Yes only 6-8 months late we finally get the Hero review written by none other than Bonnie! Savor this review we had to file suit to get this review done.

Hero is a movie so rich in content that I almost can’t bear to watch it.  In my opinion, nobody should sit down and watch Hero from beginning to end in one sitting.  What you should do is get the DVD of Hero and watch a section at a time.  Better yet, watch each section several times.  This isn’t the kind of movie in which the plot slowly unfolds.  Though yes, it is one of those movies where the plot line is gradually revealed to be radically different than the way in which it was previously presented, even that isn’t the point of Hero.  What is the point?  Visual art painted in motion, the artful juxtaposition of cinematography with not only martial art but also the art of etiquette, ritual and ceremony.

Here is the story.

As the movie opens, we meet Nameless, a Prefect (the lowest rank in the kingdom of Qin).  He has come to let the Qin Emperor know that he has defeated, and killed, the emperor’s three legendary assassins, Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow.  The Emperor, naturally, wants to know how Nameless managed to defeat such peerless warriors.  As Nameless tells the story, we see it unfold — first his telling, then the version told by the Emperor, who is shrewd enough to read between the lines, and then Nameless’ correction of the details overlooked by the Emperor.  The question is, did Nameless truly defeat Sky, Broken Sword, and Flying Snow — or did he conspire with them, convincing them to lay down their lives in order to give him the opportunity to get close enough to the Emperor to have a chance at slaying him?  Or was there a conspiracy, but one in which there was dissension in the ranks?

The answer to all these questions, the real crux of the matter, lies in the question of whether or not it was possible for Sky and Flying Snow to throw their matches with Nameless so skillfully that the Emperor’s own troops could be made eyewitnesses to testify on Nameless’ behalf.  Likewise, was Nameless skillful enough to defeat Sky and Flying Snow by apparently, but not actually, killing them — with a sword stroke so precise that it appears to kill, but allows one’s opponent, later, to be revived?

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the plot, because it is so convoluted that, frankly, you should just watch the movie and see it unfold for yourself.  Let’s move on to the actors, who are incredibly awesome.  This is a star-studded cast.  We have Jet Li (five time Wushu gold medalist) as Nameless.  Donnie Yen, who often stars in films with Jet Li, plays Sky – and these two incomparable martial artists deliver what I consider to be the best scene in the film, the duel between Nameless and Sky.  Broken Sword is played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who you should recognize if you have seen Red Cliff, in which he played Zhou.  (If you have not seen Red Cliff, you are excused from the rest of this review – please take four hours RIGHT NOW to go watch Red Cliff.)  Maggie Cheung, an actress who from the age of 18 has been handed role after role in Hong Kong films without even having to audition, plays Flying Snow.  Because Hero unfolds several different plots for your consideration (and the Qin Emperor’s), each of these actors essentially played at least three different roles.

I can’t speak in any kind of an educated way about the cinematography of this film – I’m not an artist – but I have to bring it up, because it literally makes the film.  Hero’s director, Yimou Zhang, should join the ranks of Kurosawa in film history.  Each scene is Hero is up to Kurosawa’s standards – and that is saying a lot.  These scenes also bring to mind the duel between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu in Kill Bill (another Quentin Tarantino film, though I am puzzled about Tarantino’s role in Hero – the credits mention him somewhat ambiguously).

Each scene has a color theme, and the actors wear different colors depending on the plot variation that is being acted out.  The use of color in Hero can only be described as exquisite, and it is something that you almost never see in American films.  (Or rather, I have almost never seen it – but I don’t watch as many movies as the rest of you JPFMovies fans.)

And then there are the truly sweet parts of the film.  Nameless and Sky stopping their fight to give coins to the blind Biwa player, asking him to play on as they duel.  The calligraphy teacher telling his students to keep practicing even as arrows rain down through the school’s roof and walls.  Broken Sword’s decision not to block Snow’s fatal sword thrust, just because he needs to make a point.  The lesson being taught again and again here – let’s not miss it, please – is that it’s not about WHETHER you live or die.  It’s about HOW you live or die.  That’s the point of all the etiquette.  It’s not some cute cultural reference or cinematic device – not ultimately – what it’s about, is dignity.  

Some movies are all plot. Some are all about the character development – and/or the cast. Some movies focus purely on cinematography.  Some movies push a strong moral. This movie does it all.

Finally, I know JPFmovies has been waiting a long time (probably more than six months) for this review.  But now do you see why?  Any sort of proper consideration of this movie takes a person in a million different directions.  How can it even fit in a blog post?  In 800 words or so all I have done is to sketch the outlines of Hero for you.  Can you blame me for taking so long to write this?  (JPFmovies can!)

Go forth and watch this rose of a movie, but just a little at a time, as if you were eating a box of chocolates – I know it’s Christmas, but that’s no reason to stuff yourself.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.

In 1956, Hiroshi Inagaki’s ambitious “Samurai” trilogy, based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel “Musashi,” came to a close with “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island.” Toshiro Mifune first stepped into the role of the impulsive villager Takezo who would steadily transform himself into the master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto two years before. The series’ final film focuses on the remaining gaps Musashi needed to fill in his life which relate to his ascension as a warrior and a lover.

We continue to see the mellowing changes to Takezo, in a very restraint introduction in a fight sequence no less with the Hozion priests where Musashi has a Zen like approach to various situations remaining a formidable force should the situation calls for unsheathing of a sword.  His skills have grown considerably and earns a disciple in the process.  In this installment Musashi turns toward a higher calling by helping poor villages in need of protection against bandits, just like in Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai.

There are still a number of shortcomings of course, and it stemmed from the introduction of characters in the final arc of the story, such as Kojiro’s lover Omitsu (Michiko Saga), who serves little purpose than for her and her family to serve some pride in having Kojiro as a relative-to-be after his appointment by the Shogun. Little is seen beyond the demonstration of class, and for conversational pieces with Kojiro to highlight his inner desire and turmoil. Takezo’s childhood friend Matahachi (Sachio Sakai) also gets conveniently forgotten here, despite my feeling that he should have played a larger role in the lead up to the finale. Instead he’s relegated to a support character without any sort of sendoff.

So what’s my verdict of the Samurai Trilogy? It’s a lot better than I expected.  While it moves at snail’s pace, it does have a couple of short, highly intense, fight sequences that are still able to interest the modern film audience.

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Musashi-NHK’s 2003 49 Episode Series Part 1.

NHK (Japan’s National Broadcasting Co.) 2003 Series on Musashi—This could be my favorite.

“You must cultivate your wisdom and spirit. Polish your wisdom: learn public justice, distinguish between good and evil, study the Ways of different arts one by one. When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realized the wisdom of strategy.”  Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, The Book of Water.

As we know from previous posts, Musashi is often regarded as the greatest samurai of all time. He was undefeated in over 60 duels and has attained the legendary status of Sword Saint (“kensei”). Aside from being an undefeated swordsman, Musashi was also a painter and calligrapher. It seems like he applied his Way of the Sword to all walks of life.

The 42nd NHK Taiga Drama “Musashi” (Taiga Drama is the name NHK gives to the annual, year-long historical-fiction television series it broadcasts in Japan) is based on the famous biography written by Yoshikawa Eiji, “Musashi,” often considered the “Gone with the Wind of Japan.” Yoshikawa’s novel is one of my favorite novels of all time and I’ve read quite a few novels.  So if you get a chance or have some time read it you will not regret it.  Anyways, back to the show.

Like the two other series, Musashi’s story begins just after the great Battle of Sekigahara.  Musashi joined the battle because he always dreamed of becoming a strong samurai. In this series we learn that his father Shinmen Munisai had abused him when he was a child, constantly berating him as a useless weakling.  Such treatment instilled a tough will to become strong and powerful to surpass his father to prove he was no weakling.  The NHK series takes several episodes to show that Takezo was fueled by rage, leading a life filled with bloodshed and carnage. However, as the series progresses, at the end of each episode Musashi learns one valuable lesson after another that life is not a matter of brute strength, but also a spiritual path that involves the perfection of his sword techniques contemporaneously with the mind.

The initial episodes follow Musashi as he travels across the country challenging many fighters and their unique styles of fighting as he undergoes the rigorous training to become one with his sword.  After each episode the show retraces Musashi’s path through modern day Japan showing the viewer historical markers and other remnants of Musashi’s life.  Even better, we start to see Musashi’s unconventional tactics employed to give him an edge in his duels—like showing up two hours late to fights  wwhich infuriated his opponents thereby distracting them from the task at hand and more.

Joining Musashi in his travels are his childhood friend Matahachi, his starry-eyed lover Otsu, his disciple/adopted son Jotaro and the sagacious Zen monk Takuan.  Here NHK takes some interesting turns from both series we have previously watched; that is, it portrays Matahachi more as a comical character bumbling his way through life.  For instance, Matahachi is seen as an inept swordsman, but in the book this is not the case—he is in fact quite competent having fought and survived at Sekigahara. He, like anyone else, just looks bad when standing next to Musashi.  It reminded me of reading the original Sherlock Holmes stories describing Dr. Watson as an intelligent man—a physician. However, Watson is usually portrayed as a bumbling fool in most movies and TV episodes.

The first several NHK episodes also begin to raise the political aspect of the story, namely the struggle of power between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans.  If you have seen the TV miniseries “Shogun” or read James Clavell’s novel, you have heard of Tokugawa Ieyasu.  He was the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan and ruled after winning the Battle of Sekigahara creating a dynasty that lasted many many years.  One issue persistently raised  throughout the series is the samurai way of life v.s. the political life.  The inevitable tension between the paths are represented by Musashi and Yagyu Munenori (another famous samurai). Musashi chooses the spiritual reclusive life free of politics to follow his Way of the Sword and true spiritual strength. Yagyu Munenori, on the other hand, leads a Machiavellian political and worldly life serving the shogun to gain power, rank and respect.  We will see how these two lifestyles play out during the series.

As the episodes progress, numerous themes and issues emerge but I have no intention of revealing them all in this post.  Here we are only going to go as far as our other two movies.

Be that as it may, I really enjoy the NHK series (and in fact have enjoyed every one I have seen).  Because NHK has fifty hours to work with instead of six-ten like the films, they can (and do) take their time to try and tell the tale of such an extraordinary life.

Next, we delve into the appropriate film sequels setting the second stage of Musashi’s journey through Japan.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Installment 1 Musashi the Early Years

“Step by step walk the thousand mile road.” – Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings

We are going to start our series where it probably should start—at the beginning.  All Musashi movies are based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s famous biographical novel Musashi, often considered as the Gone with the Wind of Japan.  It is an excellent work and I encourage everyone to read it.

We will follow all three works one segment at a time, the Original 1954 Mifune film Miyamoto Musashi (or the Original 1954 version); Zen & Sword (1961); followed by Showdown at Hannyazakaz also known as Dual at Devil’s Mask Pass (1962) (it took both Zen & Sword and Showdown at Hannyazakaz to reach the same stopping point as the Original 1954 version) and the first several episodes of the 2003 NHK series Musashi (we’ll call that series NHK), until roughly the same chronological stopping point in Musashi’s tale.

The Original:

 

Toshiro Mifune stars as the foolish young man, Takezo (the town’s wild, orphan kid) who leaves his village when the battle of Sekigahara looms and convinces his friend, Matahachi to join him despite some initial reluctance.  Instead of glory, they barely escape with their lives and Matahachi suffers a significant leg wound.  While evading enemy forces that are bent on killing all survivors, the pair find shelter with two women–an incredibly self-serving sociopathic mother and her daughter who is not yet as jaded and selfish as mom.  Mifune resists temptation and runs from them, while his friend succumbs to their pleas to stay–and in essence throws away his life, fiancée Otsu and his honor.  

Matahachi and his two female companions go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to their village to provide Matahachi’s family with news on his condition.  Matahachi’s family rejects Takezo’s report and has him arrested for treason.  A monk, Takuan, rescues him from death and uses his influence with the regional lord to sentence him to study of the samurai code found in hundreds of great philosophical books.  Takezo’s cell?  A windowless attic where he spends the next three years of his life “becoming a human again.”  Otsu and Takezo have also fallen in love and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant.  In fact Otsu waits the three years, but is ditched by Miyamoto Musashi f/k/a Takezo when she finally meets him again.  Though Musashi does carve the characters “Forgive Me” into the bridge before he left. 

This is a classic movie let’s make no mistake about it, despite  having Mifune in the lead, this is not an Akira Kurasawa film (i.e. Yojimbo) and some may be disappointed that it is a little more stodgy than one of his other films.  Naturally, when one thinks of who should play a Japanese legend – and Miyamoto is known as Kinsei, or “Sword Saint” in Japan – only Mifune comes to mind.  The assumption cuts both ways in that the film focuses on Mifune and ignores many of the other important sub-plots that follow Musashi’s story.  We only get a glimpse of what is happening to Matahachi or the posse that Matahachi’ s mother forms to kill Miyamoto as “revenge” for spoiling her son.  Be that as it may, we will get a better idea of the differences in the next posting when we can compare the interpretation of the Musashi story as it appears through the films. 

The beauty of Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto lies in the spiritual journey Takezo undergoes as a wild man.  He will not be tamed by the lusty ways of women or by nature itself, but Takuan the monk does succeed when he forces the warrior to look inward as Takezo learns that power and strength are not sufficient.  The movie also won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but Americans would have to wait almost ten years to see part 2. 

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Well since Silver is unsure and Dangerous doesn’t know . . . Here we go.

Our next series of reviews is about Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). He was an invincible samurai from Japan’s Edo period and is arguably the greatest swordsman to ever live. Musashi taught himself the art of sword fighting and won his first duel at the age of thirteen when he accepted a challenge “ging” from a wandering samurai to a duel. The samurai posted an open challenge to anyone in the village a challenge that Musashi accepted. Musashi didn’t even use a real sword, he used a wooden one to bludgeon his opponent to death. Before Musahsi was 21, he singlehandedly defeated the most prestigious sword fighting school in Kyoto. And when I say the entire school I mean it. Over his lifetime Musashi won over sixty duels, some of them against multiple enemies, and fought successfully in three major military campaigns, including the defense of Osaka Castle.

Despite his fame and legendary abilities, there are surprisingly few films involving Musashi and we are going to take a look them. Hopefully you will agree that Musashi deserves this unprecedented series of reviews.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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