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Samurai cinema edition
by Michael Arnold [MA], Tom Mes [TM], Nicholas Rucka [NR], Jasper Sharp [JS]

Singing Lovebirds
Throne of Blood
Samurai Assassin
Red Lion
Baby Cart at the River Styx
Lady Snowblood
The Assassination of Ryoma
In the Thicket


Original title: Jujiro
Alternative title: Crossroads
Director: Teinosuke KINUGASA
Cast: Junosuke BANDO, Yukiko OGAWA, Akiko CHIHAYA
Running time: 60 mins.
Year: 1928

picture: scene from 'Crossways'Returning to the commercially safe jidai-geki genre with several films for Shochiku immediately after the commercial failure of A Page of Madness, Kinugasa's next attempt at pushing the envelope was described by its director as a "chambara without swords" and was heavily influenced by German Expressionism.

In the Yoshiwara brothel quarter of Tokyo, Rikiya (Bando) is in love with unattainable geisha O-Ume (Ogawa), stealing a dress his sister Okiku (Chihaya) is making to present to her. Unfortunately his rival for O-Ume's affections publicly humiliates him by tearing it to shreds in front of the baying crowd at the archery ground where she plies her trade and temporarily blinds him by flinging ash into his eyes. The irate Rikiya retaliates by lunging with his sword at his rival, who promptly falls to the ground. Believing he has committed a murder, Rikiya flees back to the apartment he shares with his sister and awaits his fate.

The first Japanese director to attempt to produce major works outside of the studio system, Kinugasa remains a criminally overlooked figure in world cinema history. Neither his delirious masterpiece of the avant-garde A Page of Madness nor this more structured follow-up are currently available for home viewing anywhere in the world.

Like its predecessor the film is a visual tour-de-force, unfolding in such powerful sequences as the series of hallucinations that accompany Rikiya's nursing back to health by his sister - a disturbing series of superimpositions and dissolves of spinning archery targets and painted geishas parading around the gaudy streets of Yoshiwara's pleasure quarters.

Kinugasa barely waited until Crossways had finished its theatrical run before hopping on the Trans-Siberian Express with a print of the film in the hope of selling it in Europe. Retitled The Shadows of Yoshinara, Crossways thus became the first Japanese film to be screened widely outside of Japan when it opened in Berlin.


Singing Lovebirds

Original title: Oshidori Utagassen
Director: Masahiro MAKINO
Cast: Takashi SHIMURA, Haruyo ICHIKAWA, Chiezo KATAOKA, Fujiko FUKAMIZU, Dick MINE, Ryosuke KAGAWA
Running time: 69 mins.
Year: 1939

picture: scene from 'Singing Lovebirds'I've spent long hours drinking and daydreaming with friends in Japan that "Japanese film" might not have earned such a dark, mysterious and artsy connotation in the world today if more Sadao Yamane films had survived after the war, or if more Kiyoshi Atsumi movies were in international circulation, or if Frankie Sakai had cracked a few more jokes in the US TV series Shogun (1980). While faith in the long history of Japanese comedy film may be a bit too much to ask at this stage, at least it's not impossible for willing spectators to enjoy some of the lighter sides of Japan's cinema heritage. One of the most joyous examples is Makino's wartime samurai sing-along, Singing Lovebirds.

Antique lover Kyosai Shimura (Shimura) is a poor umbrella-making samurai who struggles to make ends meet while his daughter Oharu (Ichikawa) vies for the attention of the handsome neighboring ronin, Reisaburo (Chiezo Kataoka). Reisaburo wants to reciprocate, but when an unexpected gift turns into a scheme to force Shimura to sell his daughter as a mistress to a local suitor (and thus reserve the ronin's attention for another girl), the father can't scrounge up the required 50 ryo and plans for a midnight escape… Most of the plot is carried with a series of delightful and humorous songs which, along with the script, were written in only four days due to a quick schedule change brought on by Kataoka's appendicitis. Kataoka's illness reduced his screen time and Shimura was given the lead, and to this day the film remains convincing proof of the Kurosawa veteran's singing ability. Although sadly without a proper video release today, this fun "cult film" occasionally appears on Japanese cable broadcasts and at international retrospective screenings.


Throne of Blood

Original title: Kumonosu-jo
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro MIFUNE, Isuzu YAMADA, Takashi SHIMURA, Minoru CHIAKI
Running time: 109 mins.
Year: 1957

picture: scene from 'Throne of Blood'Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth is not the most typical jidai-geki around, but it is one of the best. The tale of the paranoid warlord and his ambitious wife, whose lust for power ends up turning against them, is still as powerful as it ever was. Mifune is superb, his final descent in a hale of mutinous arrows a ballet of frantically skewed compositions. Yamada as his lady Macbeth is every bit his equal, projecting blind, malevolent ambition with hardly a move of either body or face. The third main presence in Throne of Blood is that of the fog. Hiding and revealing, guiding and misleading, it shapes fates and events, functioning as the film's one truly untouchable power. An essential film beyond any doubt.



Original title: Onibaba
Alternative title: Demon Hag
Director: Kaneto SHINDO
Cast: Nobuko OTOWA, Jitsuko YOSHIMURA, Kei SATO, Taiji TONOYAMA, Jukichi UNO
Running time: 103 mins.
Year: 1964

picture: scene from 'Onibaba'Finally getting some appropriate attention in the West after so many years, Onibaba is a striking black and white horror film masterly directed by Kaneto Shindo. Set in the tumultuous Japanese civil war era, when rival warlords fought bloody battles while vying for power (using local farmers as foot soldiers, thereby forcing them to abandon their families and land), a mother and her daughter-in-law are forced to lure wayward samurai and ronin to their death and take the armor and weaponry and exchange it for food. When the friend of the daughter-in-law's husband returns, sans husband, and begins an affair with her, the mother goes mad both with jealousy and a sense of betrayal by both the daughter-in-law and the man who abandoned her son. As a result, the mother vows to scare the daughter straight by any means necessary.

Rife with sexual tension and magical imagery, Onibaba feels like a sultry, sleepless night. While the film is rich in metaphor and leaves the audience pondering its message after a suitably elliptical and non-conclusive ending, the film never leaves the viewer feeling short-changed. In fact, it is a fantastically rewarding viewing experience with strong performances, beautiful black and white cinematography, mise-en-scene, and good story construction. While never truly becoming horrific, the movie does satisfy the notion of horror as a social commentary. Whether aimed specifically at old Japan or, most obviously, modern Japan, Onibaba is designed to provoke thought and conversation. This it does quite successfully because Kaneto Shindo quite simply created a modern classic.


Samurai Assassin

Original title: Samurai
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Cast: Toshiro MIFUNE, Keiju KOBAYASHI, YŻnosuke ITO, Koshiro MATSUMOTO, Michiyo ARATAMA
Running time: 122 mins.
Year: 1965

picture: scene from 'Samurai Assassin'Set in 1860 in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, foreign forces are assailing Japan in the form of incursions from Russia, England and America. First Lord of Hikone, Ii Naosuke, who has inherited the position of Tairo (Great Councillor) is eager to let them in, and all without much in the way of consultation with the Emperor. His pro-foreign trade actions anger the anti-Shogunate factions, whose motto is "Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarians!" (sonno-joi), and most specifically that of the House of Mito.

Meanwhile, his mother having died some five years before without ever revealing the identity of his nobleman father, Mifune's penniless ronin Niiro is driven with the ambition of becoming a powerful samurai. Expelled from his dojo after a violent fit of temper, the ill-fated hero becomes embroiled in a plot by the insurrectionary forces of Mito to assassinate Naosuke. The scene is set for the final implosion, and one which will see the age of the samurai over once and for all.

The action sequences ceremonially framed in startling monochrome "Toho-scope" widescreen, Okamoto's gorgeously lensed epic tale of Oedipal schism and the conflict between the forces of light and darkness is indeed the stuff myths are made of, and it is clear to see where the inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars saga stemmed from.

Based on the novel Samurai Nippon by Gunji Jiromasu, the terse voiceover narration that sets the opening scenes of dangerous plots and whispered intrigues in the first quarter are dense in historical detail. From then on the exposition comes as thick and fast as the spectacular scenes of snow swirling around the Sakurada-mon gate of Edo Castle that bookend the potent drama of this classic chambara. But despite such wordiness, Samurai Assassin soon picks up a remarkably tenacious hold on the viewer. Essential viewing.


Red Lion

Original title: Akage
Director: Kihachi OKAMOTO
Cast: Toshiro MIFUNE, Minori TERADA, Etsushi TAKAHASHI, Shima IWASHITA, Kawai OKADA
Running Time: 116 mins.
Year: 1969

picture: scene from 'Red Lion'1868. After the collapse of the 300-year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of Imperial rule, a wave of folly sweeps the nation as existing power structures are turned on their head. The heavy taxes previously imposed on the land workers are slashed and the lower orders rampage through across the country chanting "Eijanaika" ("why not?") whilst performing a wild dance.

Taken on as one of the Sekiho troops made up from the peasants classes and employed by Prince Arisugawa Taruhito to advance with the imperial flag on to the new capital of Edo, boorish horse caretaker and farmer's son Gonzo borrows the Red Lion's mane wig of his chief and, after ten years, finds himself returning to his home village masquerading as one of the highly respected leaders of the army. Rather than arousing the respect his new appearance deserves however, Gonzo's garish wig initially courts ridicule. However, he soon wins over the denizens of his home town after shattering the stern grip held by the corrupt official Komatora, who is just about to sell the village's womenfolk into prostitution to the big city for failing to honour their debts. But for how long will Gonzo's charade remain undiscovered?

One of a number of collaborations between Okamoto and Mifune, what Red Lion lacks in the dramatic weight and pictorial beauty of films such as Samurai Assassin or Sword of Doom, it makes up for in broad comedy, energy and sheer colour. For another take on the social chaos around the time of the transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji periods, you should also check out Shohei Imamura's Eijanaika (1981), with which Red Lion bears several similarities.


Baby Cart at the River Styx

Original title: Kozure Okami: Sanzu No Kawa No Ubaguruma
Director: Kenji MISUMI
Cast: Tomisaburo WAKAYAMA, Minoru OKI, Kayo MATSUO
Running time: 85 mins.
Year: 1972

picture: scene from 'Baby Cart at the River Styx'In the beginning there was Shogun Assassin. At least, for many of us non-Japanese fascinated by the lightning swords of death of samurai cinema. A perennial cult favourite, the composite film made under the auspices of Roger Corman famously cut together the best footage from Japan's Lone Wolf / Baby Cart series to come up with one hell of an exciting hack 'n' slash action film.

Donating the main bulk of footage to Shogun Assassin, Baby Cart at the River Styx was the second entry in the original film series, following Sword of Vengeance and preceding Baby Cart to Hades (both also directed by the superb Kenji Misumi). Even among the other five episodes, River Styx stands out for the almost dreamlike beauty of its visuals, the flamboyant adversaries that cross the hero's path, the surreal succession of locations and of course for its unrelenting carnage. The blood spurts and flows in quantities big enough to fill the titular river as Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro trek across a surreal version of Edo-era Japan in pursuit of a trio of seemingly unbeatable assassins and the man entrusted in their care.

Brutal, exhilarating and absolutely gorgeous, Baby Cart at the River Styx remains a knockout film that has lost none of its might. One of those movies that has the power to convert legions of new fans to the cause of Japanese cinema.


Lady Snowblood

Original title: Shurayukihime
Director: Toshiya FUJITA
Cast: Meiko KAJI, Toshio KUROSAWA, Masaaki DAIMON
Running time: 97 mins.
Year: 1973

picture: scene from 'Lady Snowblood'Proof that the Samurai genre is an equal opportunity employer; Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood is a heavily mixed genre 'Bloody Mary' that employs every technique and stylistic flourish that the chanbara genre had invented by 1973. The film tells of Yuki, a young, deadly beautiful master swordswoman who has dedicated her life to revenge.

After being mistaken for tax collectors, her father and brother are murdered. The killers then enslave Yuki's mother, drag her to Tokyo and keep her as a sex slave. Humiliated by this, she murders her captor and is promptly imprisoned and left to die. While in prison she hatches a plan to seduce and become impregnated by a prison guard. She dies shortly after giving birth to Yuki, but not before praying that Yuki will follow her plan and revenge her family's misfortune and bring their souls to rest. Interestingly, this is all back-story and it is here that the film begins as Yuki slaughters the criminals who destroyed her family...

Shot in ultra-wide, ultra-vivid, high-action whip-pans and snap-zooms, Lady Snowblood uses every technique imaginable to show Yuki raising hell. Most notable are the occasional experimental cinema influenced techniques, including: the uses of still photo-montage; the inter-cutting of black & white and color film stocks; extreme production design stylization and abstracted sound effects. The violence is amazing in its brutality and absurdity with the sword fighting being clean and (always) deadly. Certainly not a film for the kiddies, it encompasses the best of early 70s cinema stylization and experimentation with just enough 'grindhouse' to be hell of a lot of fun to watch.


The Assassination of Ryoma

Original title: Ryoma Ansatsu
Director: Kazuo KUROKI
Cast: Yoshio HARADA, Renji ISHIBASHI, Rie NAKAGAWA, Yusaku MATSUDA, Kaori
Running time: 118 mins.
Year: 1974

picture: scene from 'The Assassination of Ryoma'A close look at chanbara and jidai-geki genre films can actually reveal a very creative heterogeneity of style and content. While the Western gaze usually sticks to familiar names like Kurosawa, Misumi, Katsu, Inagaki and the other postwar directors and movies that have maintained the canon of "Japanese cinema", samurai films stretch back as far as Japanese film itself and continue to develop and change to this day. Kazuo Kuroki's contemporary classic The Assassination of Ryoma is one counterexample to the standard rhetoric. Macho 1970s anti-hero Yoshio Harada plays Tosa clan loyalist Ryoma Sakamoto, the famed historical figure and would-be assassin who, after converting from nationalist, anti-foreign killer to modernist reformer, negotiated between the Satsuma and Choshu clans in the turbulent 1860s.

Instead of celebrating the reformer's achievements, the movie paints Ryoma's last three days in a fairly ambivalent light, showing him and comrade Shintaro Nakaoka (a young Renji Ishibashi) hiding and fooling around with girls (and each other) and challenging the ideal of the heroic modernizer in an atmosphere that recalls the confusion and disorder of the similarly revolutionary (?) 1960s-70s student movements. The 1974 trailer describes the film as Kuroki's "unique jidai-geki," a story of "the friendship and romance of men and women who bet their lives on a dream as they ran through the darkness of the Bakumatsu period." Shinsuke Ogawa and Shinji Aoyama affiliate Masaki Tamura's camerawork carefully captures that darkness with a contrasty, grainy picture à la Daido Moriyama's late 1960s and early 1970s photo collections. The film took the number five spot on Kinema Junpo's top ten list for 1974.


In the Thicket

Original title: Yabu No Naka
Director: Hisayasu SATO
Running time: 88 mins.
Year: 1996

During the Heian period, whilst travelling through deep forest young samurai Takehiro and his wife Masako are waylaid by a robber. Takehiro is tied to a tree and forced to watch his wife being raped in front of his very eyes. But there are other witnesses to the crime lurking in the bushes too.

A surprisingly poetic rendition of "In The Thicket", the Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story that former the basis of Kurosawa's Rashomon, here directed by none other than the notorious Hisayasu Satô (The Bedroom, Naked Blood), one of the legendary "Four Devils" of the early 90s pink film.

Released to the straight-to-video market, Satô's version is not a pink film by strict definition of the term, but that said, the material is rather more erotically played than other versions of the same tale. Given the low budget, the film looks gorgeous however. Akiko Ashizawa's luscious super-16mm cinematography results in some beautifully lyrical sequences, such as the dreamlike coda of the two main characters roaming naked through a desert landscape.

Satô should be praised for spinning the source material off into a completely different direction from Kurosawa's undisputed classic whilst managing to shoe in enough of his trademark grotesquery to ensure his own ghoulish identity is not completely lost beneath the gloss. But the film suffers from a few pacing problems that could have done with some tightening up. As it is, whilst no classic, it is certainly far better than Misty, the NHK co-production released the following year directed by Kenki Saegusa and starring Yuki Amami.



Original title: Shinsengumi
Director: Kon ICHIKAWA
Cast: Ashio NAKAMURA, Kiichi NAKAI, Ryuji HARADA, Tsuyoshi UJIKI, Saburo ISHIKURA, Renji ISHIBASHI
Running time: 86 mins.
Year: 1999

picture: scene from 'Shinsengumi'Another one of the many recent samurai movies that don't quite fit the pattern is Kon Ichikawa's Shinsengumi, an unlikely predecessor to the continuing boom of Shinsengumi films and a uniquely facetious reinvention of the samurai illusion. Dubbed a "3-D spatial cartoon film" (sanjigen teki rittai manga eiga) and based on the story by comic author Hiroshi Kurogane, Shinsengumi is famed director Ichikawa's (Harp of Burma, Tokyo Olympiad, The Key) interpretation of the familiar story of 1860s loyalist rebels using live action footage of line-drawn stick figure puppets.

Ichikawa started his movie career in animation before becoming one of the household names of postwar cinema, but this film probably comes closer to another unique samurai movie - Nagisa Oshima's very 2-D Ninja Bugeicho (1968), which like Shinsengumi was co-scripted by Sasaki Mamoru - than to Ichikawa's early Disney-like cartoons and stop motion animation. The film is easily one of the most interesting Japanese films I've seen in the last five years, but in the end perhaps its challenges to the "samurai" and "anime" genres were too radical for the audience to swallow. The stick figure Shinsengumi warriors disappeared soon after their short revolution at Euro Space in 2000 and, as far as I can tell, didn't make it to video.