Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Samurai Thought for the Day #3

One of the most obvious differences I’ve noticed between the earlier samurai films from the mid-fifties to the middle period of samurai films in the mid-sixties is the addition of exaggerated slashing and slicing sounds during the fight scenes. In no small way this “style” became a distraction to some otherwise fine films. To me, at least, listening to the exaggerated sound effects is like listening to the lifeless synthesized drums of so much 80s music or the silly slapping sounds in a poorly dubbed kung fu movie. Except for very rare instances, these sounds are a put-off from the overall production. What were the filmmakers thinking? Were audiences so jaded by the more realistic sound effects that this was a way to artificial instill a sense of excitement?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hiroshi Inagaki and Samurai Banners (1969)

Hiroshi Inagaki is a name that needs to be shouted from more mountain tops. Sadly, his filmology is inadequately accessible in the U.S. Both Wagstaff and I have already sung his praises over the Samurai Trilogy (1954-6), which represents half of what is available on DVD under Inagaki’s name and stands besides The Seven Samurai as an early perfection of form. The other films, Chushingura (1962), Samurai Banners (1969) and, Incident at Bloodpass, are all exciting fresh films in their own rights.

What is not available from his filmology is a laundry list of great sounding titles that hopefully have some availability in Japan and perhaps subsequently in the U.S. Inagaki started directing for Toho in his early twenties around 1928. Throughout the 30s and 40s he did numerous period film trilogies including a previous series about Musashi in 1940-2. Other intriguing titles include: Last Days of Edo (1941) – perhaps an early disaster film?; Signal Fires of Shanghai (1944) – pertaining to the occupation?; Pirate Ship (1951) – with Toshiro Mifune, this sounds like prime action fodder; Conclusion of Kojiro Sasaki: Duel on Ganryu Island (1951) – this film seems to be part 3 of the Musashi story but as a stand alone (with Mifune playing Musashi); Vagabonds in a Country at War (1952) – sounds like a war film with two love triangles…or would that be a love hexagon?; etc. After the Samurai Trilogy, Inagaki made a two film series called (and I paraphrase) the Secret Yagyu Scrolls (1957-8), again with Mifune. No doubt, this series has some good ninja action. Inagaki went on to make dozens more samurai films, a good piece with Mifune, before we get to the charted end of his career: Samurai Banners and Incident at Bloodpass.

Let’s focus on Samurai Banners.This is a large complex story about a peripheral civil war following the Gempei War and the period of unification that ultimately leads to major unification figures like Nobunaga Obu and Ieyasu Tokugawa. This is not a beer movie – and there are plenty of expositive titles and dates and battle maps and like stuff as you would find in films like Midway or Battle of the Bulge. It is artfully and clearly done and should not intimidate the casual viewer. Just be forewarned that it is, in part, a history lesson as well as a compelling character study of its central figure, Kansuke Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune).

Kansuke is a brilliant strategic thinker – coldly calculating, ruthless, deceitful and fiercely loyal to his vision. The film makes no apologies or fronts for Kansukes treachery, nor does it take away from his majesty. When he is first introduced in the film, he is in the process of a well thought out but cruel double-cross that leads him down the road towards becoming Lord Takeda’s main strategy man. As Lord Takeda describes him, with a thankful smirk playing across his mouth, Kansuke is a “terrifying man.” On the one hand he’s the best strategist you have and you are glad he is on your side, on the other hand, his cruelty is an uneasy method to that very success.

In the west, such a dichotomy is something for a film to fret over, but this film leaves the fretting to the audience and shows us everything including his humility, loyalty and compassion without apologies or condemnation. And that goes for the other characters as well. Key figures are shown doing horrible things or having tragic things happen to them that would surely paint their characters entirely in other films, but here those things merely mark a certain passage of time – being baggage they carry throughout, but also a episode that they managed to overcome or get beyond. By the end of the film, characters you thought you would hate because of earlier crimes, you find yourself admiring in light of their virtues and vices.

And yet, as I mentioned, it is an epic movie about one domain expanding its reach over neighboring domains in an effort to become a unifying national power. The domain in question is Kai, and it is ruled by the Takeda Clan. We are not sure of Kansuke’s origins, though he seems to be a ronin of some sort, but we know how he infiltrates the ranks of the House of Takeda and we see him vow to make “Lord Takeda of Kai, the mightiest Lord in the nation.”What we don’t yet know is that he is playing a multi-dimensional game of long-term chess that is light years ahead of his adversaries. Events are happening outside of Kai. The Princess Nene, wife to Lord Harunobu of Suwa, but of Takeda lineage, was a key political tie between the two domains (Kai and Suwa). But she died and now Kai is facing the threat that Suwa may ally itself with Lord Murakami of Northern Shinano…something that jeopardizes Kai’s security. As one adviser describes the situation with Kai’s other neighbors:

“Lord Hojo of Odawara…..and Lord Imagawa of Suruga….these two are not only related to you [Lord Takeda], they’re bound to you by treaties. Lord Saito Dosan of Mino is blocked by these treacherous mountains…so, obviously he won’t be able to move east toward us. East, west and south….if those three directions pose no threat…then we’ll strike North [Suwa]…This is our only chance to attack Suwa in Shinano.”

So Lord Takeda amasses an army of 20,000 and leads it into Suwa and prepares to attack Takashima Castle. Until Kansuke persuades Lord Takeda to negotiate a generous surrender, thus reaffirming ties with Suwa. But, though accepting the surrender, Lord Harunobu of Suwa does not necessarily intend to stay shackled to Kai. In a pandering show of friendship and familial bonds (through the deceased Princess Nene), Harunobu visits Lord Takeda of Kai three times in a month. This makes Lord Takeda and Kansuke uneasy and as a result, Lord Harunobu will not return from his third visit. Kansuke, believing the frequent visits from Harunobu are to obligate a return visit from Lord Takeda, where Takeda will be vulnerable to assassination, urges Takeda to pre-emptively assassinate Harunobu. After Lord Harunobu is killed, Suwa eventually takes Takashima Castle. Through a stroke of fortune, Princess Yu, Lord Harunobu’s father, is captured by Kansuke’s men. Kansuke loves her but is forced by Lord Takeda to hand her over to be his lord's concubine, a particularly humiliating circumstance given that Takeda pretty wiped out the rest of her family. However, there is a silver lining to the misfortune and Kansuke urges Princess Yu to provide an heir for Takeda, thus cementing the bond between Suwa and Kai and ensuring that that her family's blood endures. That all happens in the first hour – the story continues to develop in the remaining 100 minutes.

The new young prince, Katsuyori Takeda, is the figure you would most likely run across in a general history of Japan. He was part of the opposition to Oda Nobunaga’s unification efforts in the latter part of the 16th century. Nobunaga eventually defeated and executed Katsuyori. Katsuyori’s death would mark the end of the Takeda Clan in its 28th generation. But the film takes place several decades before that, when the Takeda Clan gained control of the four domains it would have when it threatened Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa. Thus, this grand epic is but a supporting subplot in a larger event of Japanese history.

Mifune’s performance is stellar as always. How he can sit cross legged on a tatami floor wearing a kimono and yet look completely different from role to role is beyond me. In this film, he sports a gimp leg and a nasty crescent shaped scar on his face. Though crippled, he is nevertheless deadly and menacing. He wears a shiny black helmet with horns that makes him look half hero, half Darth Lord. When he holds up the newborn Katsuyori and declares his complete devotion, he is scary in that he is so intense that he may harm the newborn, and yet, he is comforting because you know that kid will be under Kansuke’s able protection.Inagaki’s direction is also markedly different than his other available movies might suggest. He shows that he is perfectly at home with wide screen compositions. Inagaki is a frequent user of slow unobtrusive tracking shots that pack a lot of information into single frames in a very fluid manner. And yet, he can provide a jarring shot meant to wow the audience. There is a particularly impressive, if somewhat jerky, shot of an army of 22,000 moving from a village through the mountains. Inagaki must have shot this from a plane and then slowed it down – as opposed to shooting it from a helicopter. But whatever the method, it superbly captures the moment and scene in an omniscient manner that has more direct parallels in other mediums outside film, like a large diorama or one of those magnificent cylcoramas you would see at Gettysburg, where the viewer can see everything in scope and detail in a collapsed space of time. This isn’t a bird’s eye view so much as a deity’s eye view. It is through shots like this that Inagaki manages to balance a riveting personal story with the broad scope of the story. Often, in other similar epics, the personal stories feel tacked on as “color” for the dry facts of the events – but here, the personal story drives the larger events. The two are one. Certainly, other great and even better films do this as well, but I say it here and about this movie, Samurai Banners, to inform the reader that it is a film of considerable accomplishment.

The score is also excellent. It is so western at times that you wonder if it is a western. It is the kind of energetic and charging orchestral sound track that is needed to carry such a long film. It will get pleasantly stuck in your head the next day. And low and behold, the film has an intermission. Most films should never even think about running over two hours long – but for the epic, you might as well go as long as it takes to finish the job. And when you exceed two and a half hours, at least have the decency to include an intermission. Structure the movie so that the audience can get their second wind. Samurai Banners honors this “way”.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Samurai Thought for the Day #2

A lot of samurai pictures take place right before or during the Tokugawa period (1600 to 1867). The ukiyo-e print above depicts a much earlier period from the Heike war (1180s). The top image reminds me of the screen shot I posted at the beginning of the samurai posts, which was from the interestingly staged film, Kwaidan. Aside from Kwaiden and Men Who Tread the Tiger's Tale, I'm hardpressed to think of other films that cover this same earlier period. I'm positive they exist - just maybe harder to find on DVD in the U.S. - there's just too much material for film-makers to resist - great sea battles, lots of juicy politics, moving child emperors to and fro, armies pillaging Kyoto. More films about this era need to be accessible to American audiences!

Samurai works in process:

I'm still working on something for Inagaki's 1969 film, Samurai Banners. This film doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's damn good. I'm not sure what the secret Brotherhood of Asian Cineastes would say - but Inagaki is a top tier Japanese director - up there with Kurosawa and Ozu - even if he is more of a studio workhorse. And Toshiro Mifune is excellent. The style of Samurai Banners is completely different than the 1970 Inagaki/Mifune film, Incident at Bloodpass.

I'm also tempted to post something on Samurai Spy - which I recently saw and found very entertaining, if the ninja dressed in white did look a bit silly.

I'd mentioned before about doing some posts on Kill!, Sword of Doom, and Harakiri. But I'm not sure I will cover all those and might save a couple of them for a later date. Nor will we be touching on Inagaki's great Chushingura or any of the 47 Ronin remakes. Those I may save for The Loyal 47 Month! They are all classic movies and deserve attention - but this samurai month is simply not intended to be comprehensive. Or if it was, then I am losing the steam to see it through. And we mustn't forget Samurai Month 2008, right?

Anyway, there should be a few more posts going up this weekend.

Until then, here are a couple of other ukiyo-e prints for this site:

One from the Set of 108 Heroes of the Suikoden Series (ca 1827)

Chûshingura, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers:
The People Involved in the Night Attack (1845-186)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Samurai posts - a slight delay today....

We are in negotiations with some potential contributors/existing staff members regarding upcoming samurai posts. Unfortunately, these contributors are asking for a stipend of 30 koku of rice, which is way above the market price for Liverputty contributions. Once these details are ironed out I will, I mean, these contributors will have their posts submitted. Very likely something will go up this evening, unless, of course, Global Warming delays it further.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lone Wolf and Cub

Lone Wolf puts the Extreme in Extreme Samurai
The competition is not to be sneezed at.....or is it?
At times it feels more like a scene from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, what with the armies of skiiers and all, than a samurai film...his name is Wolf, Lone Wolf.
Surely this is some Japanese version of SPECTRE....
....with ninja tendencies
Katanas are about to be drawn. Wolf will soon be making loud slashing sounds, cutting through men like so many tomatoes....
Odie's Shogun Assassin discusses the amount of blood in the Lone Wolf movies so we do not have to here....
Now the scene shifts from On Her Majesty's to the From Russia With Love boat chase.
And the movie goes on....

Monday, February 19, 2007

Samurai Assassin (1965)

I'm Tsuruchiyo Niiro's surrogate father. I know who his real father is, but I won't tell him - though I've seen how withholding this information has aided the poor bastard in flushing his life down the toilet. Still, I won't tell him. I must not tell him.

I'm Hoshino Kenmotsu. I'm the leader of the Mito faction that is going to assassinate Naosuke Ii. Nothing must interfere with this plot. I'm a big picture kind of guy. The Tokugawa Shogunate is no longer able to handle Japan's security, what with the Russians to the north, the Americans to the East and the French and British everywhere else. Japan needs a new order.

I'm Okiku. When I first met Niiro, I thought he was a little strange. Then, when he stayed drunk at my inn, refusing to leave and causing a disturbance, I thought he was just a mess. A potentially dangerous mess. I tried to get rid of him. Then I heard about the gal that looked like me and that he loved and was denied. From then on, Niiro had my heart.

I'm Tsuruchiyo Niiro. I like sake. I've been cheated out of my heritage because nobody will tell me about my noble birth. I'm pretty handy with a sword, but because I'm a bastard, no prominent house will make me a samurai. I was once studying at a prominent dojo with the hope of letting my skill as a fencer earn me a good position, but that tanked because my heart is too passionate. Now I'm going to do something truly spectacular - something that will win me praise and ensure that I become a famous samurai. We'll just call it a dream until it comes true!

I'm Naosuke Ii. I'm a vital figure in the Tokugawa government. I realize the Mito clan is plotting against me, but I know there is no way on God's green earth that they will kill me. If they do, the entire government would collapse. It would mean the end of the samurai. So it's ridiculous to think that somebody would want to assassinate me. After all, aren't revolutionaries rational people, too? I mean, who would be foolish enough to kill me?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hanzo 2

by Charlie ParsleyA reader might come away with the impression that the Hanzo samurai films give a misogynistic treatment towards women and excessively violent interactions among the men. However, messages throughout the film suggest the contrary. The men that cross Hanzo are physically assaulted as punishment for their transgressions. Hanzo explains that a short period of pain is better than a long period of imprisonment and the scars they will carry from it will toughen them. They agree with him and thank him for this. The women are spared from such physical disfigurement, but they must also be punished for their wrongdoing. Hanzo’s torture for them provides pleasure as well as pain and does not result in disfiguring scars. Once again, his victims are thankful to him for this consideration. Hanzo does not act for his own satisfaction as James Bond would do, he is simply carrying out his duties in a very thoughtful way. A person must look beyond the first impression and peer deep into the bloodstained layers enveloping sex and violence.Hanzo 2: The Snare opens with a CSI styled crime scene. The victim is a woman. When Hanzo and a few of his colleagues discover her, there is a fair amount of exposition between them to set up the story. This viewer appreciates this as it allows more time for the sex scenes.They determine that the woman has recently had an abortion and so they pay a visit to the clinic. It is a place for women, men are not allowed. When women are free of the company of men they are often naked, behaving wildly and communicating with some kind of greater nature spirit. When they are in the company of men they sit quietly and speak softly with their naturalness obviously suppressed. The women’s wild sexuality contrasts with the masculine penchant for violence. The men are enchanted with the women’s sex, and the women admire the men’s fighting.Hanzo has no respect for any of this when criminals are involved. He will confront anyone at any time to carry out his mission of justice. He is skillful with his sword but as we know it is not the only weapon he will use. His choice of weapons and his ability with them could be described here at length, but perhaps it would motivate the reader to view the film and witness firsthand what Hanzo can do. Samurai should continually practice using their swords and Hanzo’s maneuvers are very instructive. Not only can he make a woman’s head spin, he can scare the shit out of men.

Hanzo locates the victim’s family and brings her body to them. Their pain and heartache is apparent, but this does not keep Hanzo from blaming them for their daughter's demise because they have not kept watch over her. The parents admit they had no idea where she had been or what she had been doing. Other characters readily agree that the parents hold this responsibility. In their culture the responsibility of the parents is readily acknowledged whereas other cultures are only recently coming to terms with this.Another situation which seems peculiar in Japanese films is the proclivity for eavesdroppers and voyeurs to peer through half opened windows and holes in walls. Secretive meetings are discovered and sexual intercourse is watched. In an environment filled with thin movable screens and sliding windows it becomes a commonplace occurrence.

Because the weapons in violent confrontations are knives and swords, instead of sharp and explosive gunfire, the battle scenes are filled with bloodcurdling screams. This viewer has difficulty in selecting a preference.Towards the end of Hanzo 2 I have identified a common movie contrivance which apparently crosses cultures. In the final duel scene, the fighting comes to an abrupt halt because clearly one of the combatants has been struck, but due to the expressionless faces we do not know who it is. For a full minute the characters and camera slowly move away until we are allowed to see who the victor is.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hanzo 1

by Charlie ParsleyHanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice from Toho Company Ltd.During the time that the series of films about Hanzo the samurai were made, cultural adventurousness allowed more open expressions of violent as well as sexual interactions. Therefore, the films about Hanzo contain scenes of adult situations.The Japanese film opens with a funky tune from a jazz combo not unlike the tracks from classic blaxploitation films from the late seventies. It is very American sounding music to my ears and I envision taxicabs zipping through the grimy streets of an urban ghetto. Instead, the camera shows us the tiled roofs and pebbled pathways of a Japanese town. Perhaps it is a gritty Japanese ghetto riddled with criminals like any blighted urban area, but the austerity of the architecture in its gentle gray tones and the subdued manner of its people create a quaint and picturesque setting. It is free of neon signage and streetlights and purple Monte Carlos. The porno-style chicka-bomp seems out of place here and yet there it is.And here comes Hanzo the samurai strutting down the street like Travolta, on his way to a meeting of the local samurai. Their purpose is to provide security and legal enforcement just like American police. However, just like American police, they are inclined to accept bribery and overlook certain law breaking activities as it suits their tastes. Hanzo refuses to cooperate with these unjust practices and confronts the head magistrate about this. Honzo is the loose cannon that won’t accept the corruption. He does not accept excuses that pass responsibility of legal enforcement on to other agencies. He intends to follow the true mission of the samurai and shed light on the injustices of his peers and open their eyes to their misdeeds, a very noble although somewhat typical way to begin a rogue cop film.The first task Hanzo sets for himself on this mission is to subject himself to the types of torture that is inflicted upon the criminals that are prosecuted. This relates to the current trend of police officers zapping each other with tasers. The intention is for the officers to experience what the criminals will be experiencing, but perhaps there is more to it than that. When Hanzo emerges from the tortures he has subjected himself to, his fellow samurai observe that Hanzo’s masculinity has been fully stimulated. The funky music returns to compliment the mysterious and wonderful relationship of pleasure and pain, of sex and violence.Hanzo sets about his work enforcing the local laws and pursuing informants that will direct him towards his goals. After his beat on the street, he reenergizes himself in a type of gymnasium-bathhouse. It is specially designed to provide a workout to strengthen the source of Hanzo’s power and determination: his dick. Cue funky music, but this time with a mellow and leisurely vibe. He invigorates it with icy cold water. He toughens it strikes from a wooden stick. He fortifies it in some interesting ways, and he is then prepared to continue his mission.The men that Hanzo captures to draw information from are pierced with knives and swords, resulting in broken noses and opportunities to display graphic depictions of spurting blood. A female suspect is among those Hanzo intends to question. His approach for her is quite different and we know that Hanzo is well prepared for it. Once he has captured her, he uses his weapon to make her talk. Whereas the men will beg Hanzo to stop stabbing them with swords, the woman begs Hanzo to not stop, for when he does stop, her screaming is as loud as the others. He places his meatsword back inside of her, stating: “this will make it easier for you to talk.”The other samurai are aware of Hanzo’s exceptional abilities and they comment on the large size of his weaponry, confirming the suspicions of this viewer who is familiar with this type of artillery. As with all films, exaggeration enhances drama.

Overall, the film has a subdued and spacious quality to it. Most scenes are spoken dialogue without music. This peacefulness highlights the sharp screaming from the scenes of violence when bringing the criminals to justice. It can become quite unsettling when unexpected. Because there is no music during the usual business of the film, when the funky music comes in the viewer knows to set aside the snack bowl and pay attention.This writer learned a few interesting things from Hanzo. In one scene where Hanzo is confronting some criminals, they threaten him with violence. Hanzo then drops his kimono and reveals to them the scars he has from his tortures, explaining that he has no fear of that. I myself have a missing tooth, and I have felt that because I have experienced an abrupt and unclinical removal of such, I am not afraid of a situation where this might happen again.Hanzo is lucky enough to have another female informant to question and she is lucky enough to have Hanzo find her. He has her bound up and suspended in a net above a platform and he tortures her in his unique way. Without going into salacious detail, the writer will simply state that Hanzo’s techniques are breathtaking. I have used the word lucky in the first sentence, but I will observe that Hanzo does not appear to feel lucky or act pleased with his work. He is simply carrying out his duties. The females, however, repeatedly ask him not to stop doing what he is doing, for when he stops, this is the torture. Perhaps it says more about the writer than the characters to use the word lucky.I will conclude with that thought provoking observation. I appreciate why this assignment was given to me because I learned something from it.