Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

4.0 out of 5 stars A respectful remake of a classic film

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

When I heard that Miike Takeshi was doing a remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s 1962 Harakiri (Japanese title: “Seppuku”), I had some trepidation to say the least. I love Miike. I love his over-the-top sensibilities, his ultra-violence Grand Guignols, not to mention his complete mind tweaks. But Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is the opposite of everything Miike.

A slow, careful essay on the pointlessness of honor, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” is up there with Seven Samurai as one of the best samurai films ever made, one of the best Japanese films ever made–maybe one of the best films ever made, period. Kobayashi shows the hollowness of the word “honor,” and how elite classes and bureaucrats use “honor” and “duty” to manipulate and control, while showing none of those traits themselves. The film is a metaphor for Japan during WWII, or America during the Iraq war, or any time soldiers have died pointless, anonymous deaths for a cause their leaders assured them was “honorable.” One top of that, the film is about 85% some guy kneeling and talking, and maybe 15% action at best.

And Miike Takeshi was going to remake that? In 3-D?

I was shocked to see what a phenomenal film Miike created. He took Kobayashi’s film and updated it in cinematography and visual splendor, while staying respectful to the original, true to its themes, and restrained in both tone and execution.

If you have never seen Kobayashi’s film (And if you haven’t, what is wrong with you? I can only assume that you hate great movies.), the story begins with the ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo appearing on the steps of the manor house of a rich and powerful lord. Like many of his class, Hanshiro has fallen into dismal poverty following the dissolution of his clan. He requests the use of the courtyard to commit honorable, ritual suicide and end his suffering like a warrior. From there, a complex story unfolds as the lord tells the story of another young samurai who recently made the same request, to which Hanshiro has his own story ready in reply. It is soon made aware that this is not a chance meeting, and that Hanshiro did not choose this particular lord’s house blindly to make his final statement about life.

Miike’s version, titled “Hara-Kiri- The Death of a Samurai” (Japanese title: “Ichimei” or “A Life”), plays out an almost identical story. If fact, the only noticeable difference was that he pumped up the violence in the suicide scenes in somewhat typical Miike fashion. The effects are never too gory to distract, but he makes you feel the pain and appreciate the willpower necessary to slowly drive a bamboo stake into your own body. He added a few action scenes–some of the things that appear off-camera in Kobayashi’s film are shown in-your-face in Miike’s. And while Kobayashi’s film is in black-and-white, contributing to its stark, bleak nature, Miike made full use of color and pageantry. This pushes the distance even further between the well-fed, wealthy lord and the desolate ronin Hanshiro.

The cast are all top-notch pros of the Japanese film industry. Kabuki actor Ichizawa Ebizo carries the film in the lead role of Hanshiro. Ichizawa does a fantastic job, with the only mark against him being his age. Really, he is too young. It isn’t fair to compare him to Nakadai Tatsuya who originated the role–seeing as how Nakadai is one of Japan’s greatest actors–but Ichizawa lacks some of the dead-eyed weariness necessary that comes with having lived and suffered too long. Even with that strike against him, however, Ichizawa masters the subtle complexities required of Hanshiro. Yakusho Koji (Babel) plays the Lord Kageyu, and is perfectly suited for the role. Yakusho is a familiar face in Japanese film, a Miike regular, and a consummate professional. More of a surprise was Takenaka Naoto (Shall We Dance?, in which Yakusho also appeared.), the ubiquitous clown that seems to appear in nine-tenths of Japanese films, bugging his eyes and cracking wise. Takenaka was all but indistinguishable in his costume playing Kageyu’s advisor. He played the role straight with none of his usual antics.

The only real disappointment to Hara Kiri-Death of a Samurai was the “in 3-D!!!” tagline. This is just a gimmick, no more no less, and does not at all serve the story. This is not an action flick. This is not a large-scale picture. Remaking “Harakiri” in 3-D is like remaking 12 Angry Men in 3-D. It serves no purpose whatsoever. In his favor, Miike kept the 3-D subtle and unobtrusive, using it to add depth-of-field and little else. The film works 100% as well in regular 2-D, and possibly even better because you aren’t encumbered by the glasses.

But I can see why he did it. The gimmick draws viewers, who would normally pass on the film. It worked to get my wife to go see it, who can’t stand samurai films. But she was lured in by the 3-D, then won by the story.

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

4.0 out of 5 stars Astounding art

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

“Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” took me by surprise. I thought the premise sounded cool; Judge Bao is a historical figure from China who, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, has spawned his own folklore. Judge Bao the character has appeared in numerous books, TV shows, and films, wandering ancient China, investigating crimes, and dispensing his own brand of tough-but-fair justice that does not discriminate between people of different classes.

Storywise, the book lived up to my expectations for the most part. It is like the best of Chinese historical films, with intrigue, action and mystery. Judge Bao is like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, with ninjas. (Or perhaps Nero Wolfe would be a better analogy, with Bao’s right-hand man Zhan Zhao making a capable Archie Goodwin.)

But what I wasn’t prepared for was art so brilliant it leaps right off the page and smacks you in the face. Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I saw art this beautiful in a comic.

Chongrui Nie is phenomenal. Looking at “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix”, I have no idea why he hasn’t been recruited by one of the major comic companies. I imagine it takes him a long time to create artwork this detailed, but that is no reason not to hire him for a graphic novel project or something. I really don’t know how he pulls this level of artwork off.

I assume he uses some sort of photo-reference , although there is nothing stilted or lifeless about his work like I have seen in other photo-reference heavy artists. His lines are fluid and show an easy hand, while all of his surfaces are dense and rough as if they were scratched onto a board. There is fluency and attention paid to even the smallest detail. This is the kind of comic art that makes you re-think the potential of what comic art can be.

Archaia Comics has also put together a pretty little package to contain that art. It is a canvas-bound hardcover that is smaller and wider than your typical Japanese comic. “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” was originally a French publication, so I don’t know if Archaia simply reproduced the original or came up with a new design, but either way this is a very well put together book.

Unfortunately, what keeps the book from being perfect is that the story falls away towards the end. The all-important denouement, where Judge Bao reveals his hand and shows that he has seen through the tangled weave of the crime—just doesn’t play out. I am left with plot threads untangled. (Who really killed Red-Cloud?) and some unsatisfying dispersions of justice. I don’t know if the story continues in the next book, but it is dissatisfying for a first-time reader.

The Geisha

5.0 out of 5 stars Memoirs of Momowaka
The Geisha

Anyone who has seen Memoirs of a Geisha should have to watch this film for balance. “The Geisha” (Japanese title, “Yokiro,” which is the name of the geisha house), is a true look behind the white make-up and fancy silks of the flower-and-willow world, and into the people who practice the profession. It isn’t elegant or pretty. Geisha are like ballet dancers who exude grace and beauty while hiding bruised and damaged feet under dainty pink sandals.

The story follows Momowaka (Ikegami Kimiko, House), the daughter of a female-procurer and his geisha lover. Her mother was murdered when Momowaka was a child, and her father (Ogata Ken, Vengeance Is Mine) sold her to the Yokiro geisha house when she was twelve. Under the harsh tutelage of the Mistress of Yokiro Momowaka has grown to become the top geisha in the most famous geisha house in Western Japan. She is perfect in form and figure, but empty inside and cold like a statue. Momowaka frustrates her patrons who find that although they can rent her body they cannot touch her heart. Her father, a blunt and hard dealer in flesh, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He sells his daughter to a geisha house and his underage lover to a brothel with little regret, but at the same time he has single-handedly protected Yokiro from the influence of the yakuza gangsters for years. He has kept the geisha district a haven for pleasure-seekers, but like everyone in the district, he is getting older and his enemies are getting bolder. Even timeless traditions cannot carry on forever.

As you can see by the DVD box, “The Geisha” has won more awards than there are room to print. The Japanese Academy’s 1984 winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and five other Academy Awards. It is, needless to say, a great film. Director Gosha Hideo (The Wolves) is one of the greats of Japanese cinema, and “The Geisha” is one of his best films. He trademarks are everywhere, like vicious fight scenes accompanied by uplifting music, or a slow burning plot that explodes in the final scenes.

There are so many scenes I loved in this film. There is a great bar scene, where a group of geisha share the establishment with a group of prostitutes. Although lower of the social scale, the prostitutes are wild and free, and can drink and dance the Charleston, while the geisha are constrained by their position. The envy mixed with disgust is palatable. I loved how “The Geisha” takes place in Koichi, on the island of Shikoku rather than the more famous Gion district in Kyoto. There was a time when no major city was without its pleasure quarters, and it is a nice reminder that Kyoto does not have a monopoly on geisha.

As always, Animeigo has done a remarkable job with a remarkable film. Their dual translation, showing cultural notes along with the dialog, is necessary for the complex relationships of the pleasure quarters, where everyone is “daddy” or “big sister” or “mamma” or “lord.”

Kamui Gaiden

4.0 out of 5 stars Social politics and ninjas

Kamui Gaiden: Movie

From its very beginning, the story of the renegade ninja Kamui has been political. Created in 1967 by leftest-artist Sanpei Shirato, Kamui was a symbol of Japan’s rigid social classes and rules, and the woes that befall those who try to rage against the machine. Sanpei used Kamui to tell tales of discrimination, oppression and the exploitation of workers. Since the characters first appearance in Garo magazine, Kamui has been adapted into anime and continuing manga series, but this 2009 movie is I believe the first Kamui live-action film.

Directed by Yoichi Sai (Quill, Blood And Bones), “Kamui Gaiden” (translating as something along the lines of “A Supplemental Biography of Kamui,” to distinguish it from Sanpei’s original “Kamui Den”), this version of the Kamui story retains the political nature of the character while thrusting him into an action-packed ninja spectacular. In this film, Kamui is not only an outcast ninja but a member of the hinin-caste. Hinin, which translates as non-human, were the Japanese equivalent of the Indian Untouchables, a caste so low that they had no legal rights or dignity. Discrimination against the hinin caste continues even today, known by the term burakumin.

From birth, Kamui (Matsuyama Kenichi, Death Note) faces horrendous abuse and discrimination, like all of his caste, and his experiences causes him to harden and dedicate himself to becoming strong. He is adopted into the Iga ninja clan, where as a young boy he takes part in the assassination of Sugaru (Koyuki, The Last Samurai), a woman seeking to escape the clan. It is one of their rules; no one leaves the shinobi. Years later, now a ninja of some strength himself, Kamui finds the hunter/prey role reversed as it is Kamui who flees the shinobi and is pursued. He fights and fights, and eventually finds some sort of shelter with a fishing village on an island far from the known cities. There he meets a man Hanbei (Kobayashi Kaoru, Princess Mononoke), who offers him a life of peace and the hand of his daughter in marriage However for a man like Kamui there can be no peace, as Hanbei’s wife is none other than Sugaru, still alive, and both Sugaru and Kamui find that there is nowhere they can run from their troubles.

As befits the character, “Kamui Gaiden” is a pretty dense story. Those looking for some light ninja action might find themselves with a little more plot than they bargained for. You can enjoy the film without the political background of the hinin and Japan’s Edo period caste-system, but some of the finer points might be lost, as well as some of the motivation of the characters. Especially at the beginning, when a young Kamui rages against the children who pelt him with rocks asking “What is so different about me?” and in classic Shakespeare style shots “Prick me, will I not bleed?”

But the film does a good job of lightening its heavy moments with some over-the-top ninja wire-fighting. Sadly, this is something Japan has just never done as well as China, and the fight-scenes are never really more than decent. This is the first CGI-heavy film that Yoichi has done, and that is his weakness. In his films like “Quill” and “Blood and Bones,” he has shown he can do intense human drama, but he is not really an action director. There is a particular rubbery shark in one scene that ruined my suspension of disbelief.

Funimations release of “Kamui Gaiden” is superb, with other 45 minutes worth of extra features including a “Making of” and “Behind the scenes.”

Samurai Vendetta

4.0 out of 5 stars Two figures swept up in the tide of honorable vengeance

Samurai Vendetta

“Samurai Vendetta” (Japanese title “Hakuoki” or “The Record of Light Cherry Blossoms”) is a good film, but one with a somewhat high bar of entry. Imagine popping in a flick called “The Adventures of Little John and Will Scarlet” without having ever heard of Robin Hood. Or think of a movie called “The Woes of Wedge Antilles” and how entertaining it would be to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with “Star Wars.” Or even showing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to someone who has never heard of Hamlet.

Because that is basically what “Samurai Vendetta” is all about. The tale of two minor characters swept up in a famous story.

The saga of the 47 Ronin has often been called THE Japanese story. There are a multitude of filmed versions, and the story is re-made anew for every generation. You would be hard pressed to find someone in Japan who was not at least a bit familiar with the basic details. Filmmakers have long sought out fresh stories set against the back-drop of the famous. Because the story is so well-known, they don’t feel the need to give all the details of what is going on, and expect the viewers to fill in the background details with their own knowledge. Animeigo is up-front about this, and one of the first things you will see is a warning that you should watch a few versions of 47 Ronin before watching “Samurai Vendetta.”

In “Samurai Vendetta,” the two minor characters are Nakayama Yasubei (Katsu Shintaro, Zatoichi) and Tange Tenzen (Ichikawa Raizo, Shinobi No Mono). Both are samurai of considerable talent, who respect and like each other but seem to find themselves continually on opposing sides in conflicts. First, Nakayama’s sword fighting school gets into a rivalry with Tenge’s school, and both are expelled as a consequence of Tenge helping Nakayama with a loose belt before the battle. Next, the two men find themselves in love with the same woman. But these petty rivalries they could overlook due to their mutual respect. The conflict of lord verses lord is something they cannot stand aside on. Tenge stands in the service of Lord Kira, while Yasubei joins the 47 Ronin in seeking their vengeance.

The film is directed by Mori Kazuo (who would go on to direct both Katsu and Ichikawa in their respective Zatoichi and Shinobi no Mono series) and carries many of the hallmarks that would appear in his later films. Two warriors meet, become friends, until circumstances set them on opposite sides of a battle. It is a classic story, given weight by the background of the 47 Ronin story. Anyone expecting an action film will be disappointed. Like most films of this genre, the main battles are inner, as the two friends struggle with the conflicts between their emotions and their duty. For every ten minutes of swordplay there is twenty-five minutes of talking and dwelling on fate.

I personally very much enjoyed “Samurai Vendetta.” I am familiar enough with the story of the 47 Ronin that I liked seeing two of the minor characters plucked from the mass of clashing warriors, and having their story told. It puts a personal spin on two otherwise faceless warriors. But I can see how it would be dreary to someone coming to the film cold. If you want to get the most out of this, you are going to have to do your homework.

Interestingly enough, although the Katsu/Ichikawa match-up seems like a clash of the titans, “Samurai Vendetta” was made before either of those two would star in the roles that made them household words. Even though this is a color film, “Samurai Vendetta” is from 1959, with the first “Zatoichi” and “Shinobi no Mono” films appearing in 1962.

Blind Menace

5.0 out of 5 stars The Mirror-Universe Zatoichi

Blind Menace (Sub)

The blind masseur Sugino-ichi is just like the blind masseur Zato-ichi, with a subtle difference. While both roles are played by legendary actor Katsu Shintaro, when Zatoichi comes upon a woman in need, he immediately sets forth on a crusade to lift her from her plight with no thought of reward for himself. When Suginoichi comes upon a woman in need, however, he rapes her and the discards her into the street, maybe have a chuckle later when he hears how the woman killed herself, saying that it wasn’t such a big deal she needed to die over it.

“Blind Menace” (Japanese title: “Shiranui kengyo”) is the evil twin of the long-running “Zatoichi” series. The film could almost be seen as some sort of twisted parody of Zatoichi were it not for the fact that “Blind Menace” pre-dates the first “Zatoichi” film by two years. It makes you wonder what director or producer saw Katsu in this film and thought “he does that blind bit really good but maybe if the character was a kind vagrant wanderer rather than a rapist and a murderer we might have something here…”

From the opening scenes of “Blind Menace,” we see that Suginoichi was just born bad. He spends his childhood using his blindness to scam people out of money, and he doesn’t grow up any better. As a student of the Shiranui Kengyo (Kengyo being the highest official rank of blind masseur, able to work on the shogun and royal family, the descending ranks being betto”, “koto”, and “zato.”), Suginoichi would still rather get ahead by graft than by craft. He has set his sights on assuming the Kengyo’s rank and position, but would rather have it now rather than suffer through the years required to earn the position. When one of Suginoichi’s casual murders is overseen by career criminal who goes by the name “Severed Head,” an uneasy partnership is forged between the two as Suginoichi uses his massage clients to glean private secrets that Severed Head and his gang can take advantage of. Suginoichi’s greed is not contained by petty evils, however, and he plots to murder the current Kengyo, his master, something which even Severed Head balks at.

Although “Blind Menace” is going to constantly be compared to Zatoichi (and justifiably so, as Katsu clearly used the same mannerisms, facial expressions and style of movement to portray both blind characters) it does stand on its own as a dark and interesting film with a villain as its protagonist. Suginoichi is truly a despicable character, who performs some vile scams that managed to shock me more than fifty years after its release. There is one scene in particular that I don’t want to spoil, but it is a rare gem of villainy that Suginoichi concocts.

Director Mori Kazuo would go on to direct a few entries in the Zatoichi series, including the The Tale of Zatoichi Continues and Zatoichi at Large, one of the most acclaimed Zatoichi films. He does good work here in “Blind Menace,” managing to keep the tone light when Suginoichi is doing his charming best and then suddenly shift to a darker tone as Suginoichi’s true face is revealed.

“Zatoichi” fans might be a little shocked with “Blind Menace” do to the sexual violence and despicable nature of the usually loveable Katsu Shintaro. However, anyone who has seen Katsu’s other films, like the Hanzo the Razor series that Katsu produced himself, will be less shocked at seeing Katsu in this kind of role.

Animeigo has put together a solid release of “Blind Menace,” along with their usual fantastic job with the subtitles (really, the do the best Japanese subtitling in the business) along with program notes, a trailer and cast and crew biographies.

Sleepy Eyes of Death: Collector’s Set, Vol. 1

Sleepy Eyes of Death: Collector’s Set, Vol. 1

5.0 out of 5 stars The Cold-eyed Killer

Ichikawa Raizo is one of the few Japanese jidai geki actors to star in two successful and long-lasting series. Katsu Shintaro was Zatoichi, and his brother Wakayama Tomisaburo was Lone Wolf and Cub, but only Ichikawa was both the earnest ninja from the Shinobi No Mono series, as well as the stone-faced nihilist known as Nemuri Kyoshiro, known in translation as “The Sleepy Eyes of Death.”

Ichikawa’s film series is actually the second attempt at creating films from Shibata Renzaburo’s 1956 “Nemuri Kyoshio” (“Sleepy Kyoshiro” in English) novels. The Toho-produced series staring Tsuruta Koji lasted only for three films from 1956-58. The novels were later “re-booted” in 1963 with actor Ichikawa Raizo, and those are the sleepy eyes we know and love.

Although the character of the “Super Samurai” appears constantly in Japanese film, Ichikawa’s Nemuri Kyoshio is cut from a distinctly different and darker cloth. Shintaro’s Zatoichi is quick to deal out death to wrong-doers, but his kindly nature and inability to wind up with the girl at the end of the movie puts him more in the league of Tora-San that in Ichikawa’s dark hero. By contrast, in the third film in this boxset, “Full Circle Killing”, Nemuri Kyoshiro cruely rapes a girl, and then spends some part of the film defending himself from her attempts to get revenge. Definitely not one of the good guys.

The series grows with each adventure, with the first few films being enjoyable but not ground-breaking, and then with the fourth film literally all hell breaking loose. Nemuri Kyoshiro’s story is revealed, being born of a Christian priest who fell from grace and raped a Japanese woman during a Black Mass to Satan, he is a man who has been cursed from birth. The effects pump up a notch in number four as well, with his “Full Circle Cut” technique suddenly drawing psychedelic tracers in the air instead of the bland circle from the first three films. Number four in this set will give you a good taste of what is to come.

Ichikawa’s death from cancer at the young age of 37 cut short the “Nemuri Kyoshiro” series, although he still managed to make twelve films, the last of which was finished with the use of a stand in. Daiei films tried to continue the series with a different actor, Matsukata Hiroki, but by then the sleepy-eyed killer had become permanently associated with Ichikawa Raizo, and no substitutes would be accepted.

The four films in this set are:

“The Chinese Jade” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho” or “The Murder Scroll”) – Based on actual history, the smuggler Zeniya Gohei and Lord Maeda both attempt to recruit Nemuri Kyoshiro in a desperate battle to recover a statue of Chinese jade. Inside the statue is a slip of paper showing the relationship between the Lord and the smuggler, which could spell the doom for Lord Maeda and his million-koku estate. The Kyoshiro in this first is much more of an idealist than the cold-hearted killer of the later series, and it is interesting to watch his progression. One a special note Wakayama Tomisaburo pops up here as a Chinese Shaolin monk Chen Sun who wants to pit his hand-to-hand skills against Kyoshiro’s Full Moon Cut.

“Sword of Adventure” (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Shobu” or “Match Game”) – The political theme of the series starts here, as Kyoshiro finds himself entangled with officers of the Shogun, specifically the Minister of Finance’s attempts to reform the currency system, and the Princess Taka who sees those reforms as a threat to her extravagant lifestyle. Kyoshiro befriends the old minister, which makes him a target to the Princesses plots.

“Full Circle Killing” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Mangetsu Kiri” or “Full-Moon Cut”) – Kyoshiro is again at odds with the Shogun, specifically his illegitimate son Katagiri Takayuki, whose mother has slowly been killing off all of the Shogun’s sons in order to assure Takayuki’s ascension. Takayuki desires Kyoshiro’s rare Musou Masamune sword, and Kyoshiro desires Takayuki’s pretty fiancé. Both men are more than willing to take what they want by force. Wakayama Tomisaburo reappears here as Chen Sun, although sporting a ridiculous pompadour for some reason.

“Sword of Seduction” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken” or “Seducing Sword”) – This one is the best of the boxset, when Kyoshiro comes into contact with a group of Hidden Christians who have knowledge of his birth. They beg him to protect a woman, known as the “Virgin Shima,” and who the group claims is a blood-relative of Kyoshiro. From here, the idealistic Kyoshiro of the first series is dead, and the sleepy-eyed killer mercilessly beheads Christian priests and cuts down unarmed nuns in cold blood.

Animeigo has shepherded “The Sleepy Eyes of Death” series since the days of VHS and then Laserdisc. The series appearance on DVD has been highly anticipated, and Animeigo has not let us down. All four disks are conveniently packaged in a folding box, and it is hard to believe that this much awesomeness takes up so little room on your shelf. As always, the subtitles are impeccable, with your choice of yellow or white, and a few other options such as “expanded subtitles” which offer cultural notes along with the dialog. There are also an interactive map of Japan, extensive production notes and a booklet with excerpts by Patrick Galloway who wrote Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook.

I can’t wait until the next boxset is released!

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