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.

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Sword of Desperation

4.0 out of 5 stars Well done Fujisawa Shuhei adaptation

Sword of Desperation

A film doesn’t need to be innovative to be good. Sometimes it is enough to do a straight take on a classic genre, to hit all the beats in perfect rhythm and fluently play a familiar tune. “Sword of Desperation” does just that. In the opening scene when loyal samurai retainer Kanemi Sanzaemon walks up to Lady Renko, the favored concubine of Kanemi’s lord Ukyo Tabu, and stabs her in the heart, you know just what you are going get. And that it will be good.

The genre here is author Fujisawa Shuhei (The Bamboo Sword: And Other Samurai Tales), whose work has come to define modern Japanese samurai fiction. Far from any kind of “Kill Bill” action, Fujiwara wrote introspective, melancholy tales that dove deep into the psychology of the rank-and-file soldiers or Edo period Japan. Fujisawa’s heroes are not the leaders and great lords of the castle, but stolid, loyal retainers who must fight a constant inner battle between personal feelings and duty to lords who often don’t deserve loyalty.

Ever since director Yamada Yoji re-introduced the world to Fujisawa with his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) –arguably the finest samurai films since Kurosawa stepped behind the camera–Fujisawa has become the Zane Grey of Japanese samurai fiction. Kurotsuchi Mitsuo directed The Samurai I Loved based on a Fujisawa tale. And now director Hirayama Hideyuki gives us another.

“Sword of Desperation” (Japanese title: “Hisshiken Torisashi” or “The Bird-Catching Desperate Sword”) is a by-the-numbers Fujisawa story (It even takes place in Unasaka-han, the fictional province that serves as the background for most of his samurai yarns). All of the familiar tropes are present; two righteous men being slowly moved into a confrontation that neither of them desires. A gloomy man living his life under a death sentence who suddenly finds a reason to live in an unlikely love affair, but whose sense of duty is stronger than his passion. Political corruption at the high levels, and lords who use their retainer’s high ideals against them, manipulating them like pieces on a chessboard into battles without honor.

And then of course, there is the “Sword of Desperation” itself. Like Fujisawa’s “The Hidden Blade,” the title refers to a secret sword technique known by only one man, an indefensible strike that can only be used at the moment of greatest desperation–the moment of explosive death that we spend the entire film waiting for.

Director Hirayama doesn’t play around too much with “Sword of Desperation.” Fujisawa’s tales are, by their nature, intimate affairs, and Hirayama tries to capture that. He adds a few touches of cinematic flair. The mirroring of the opening Noh performance with the final scene worked very well. His use of the flashback device that fades to black-and-white is effective, but not consistent, leading to some confusion about when you are in a flashback.

A strong cast is necessary for this type of film, and fronting “Sword of Desperation” is veteran actor Toyokawa Etsushi (20th Century Boys) as Kanemi Sanzaemon. Kanemi is a tormented man, whose wife’s death left him depressed and suicidal, until he saw an honorable out for himself by assassinating the favored yet controlling concubine of his lord, the spoiled, weak-willed Ukyo Tabu. Toyokawa gives Kanemi the gravity and presence necessary for the role, and plays all of the faces of Kanemi from groomed court samurai, to scruffy prisoner and wander, to the demon he eventually becomes. Toyokawa is playing somewhat against type in this film, which is probably helped him win the 2011 Japan Academy Award for this role.

Equally strong is Ikewaki Chizuru as Rio, the niece of Kanemi whose love for her uncle is more than familiar. Kikkawa Koji plays a good opposite as Lord Obiya, the righteous noble whose path sets him directly against Kanemi, even though they should be standing together.

If there is any real weakness to “Sword of Desperation,” it is that the film is too by-the-numbers. A straight take on a classic genre can give you a very good film, but not a great one. With his samurai trilogy Yamada Yoji combined Fujisawa’s source material with potent and powerful acting and directing, and set the standard for all others to follow. Hirayama just isn’t the genius that Yamada was. But it seems strange to fault someone for not being a genius. Being very good is good enough.

A few notes on the DVD: Animeigo still does the best subtitles in the business. I know there will never be issues there. The DVD for Sword of Desperation is bare bones, with only a few trailers and some production notes. But still, a nice release.

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.

Noguchi the Samurai

5.0 out of 5 stars Noguchi the Bully

Noguchi the Samurai

With “Noguchi the Samurai,” author Burt Konzak – an instructor in Zen Buddhism and karate from the University of Toronto – applies some fo the principles of Zen Buddhism and Japanese martial arts to the problem of bullying.

The story is very simple. A passenger ferry is being accosted by a bad-mannered samurai, Noguchi, who is pushing around the other passengers. Also on board is an older, wiser samurai Michihara, who steps up to confront Noguchi by saying that if they will take the boat to a nearby island he will defeat Noguchi without drawing a sword. Once on the island, Noguchi leaps out and draws his sword for battle, while Michihara calmly uses the boatman’s pole to push the boat away stranding Noguchi. As promised, Noguchi has been defeated without a sword drawn. Noguchi calls Michihara a coward, but Michihara responds that he used his wits to defeat Noguchi, and that wits are more powerful than any sword. In his defeat, Noguchi is suddenly reformed, and Michihara lets him back on the boat, saying that “In losing you have won something deeper than the sea.”

The text of “Noguchi the Samurai” is very simple and appropriate for young readers. There are about four to five sentences per page, and the book runs 28 pages in total. Every page is accompanied by a wonderful illustration by Johnny Wales. The pictures are cartoonish, but Wales obviously took great pains to keep the details and costumes period-accurate. Many of the pictures have little surprises hiding in them for the careful viewer.

I like the moral lesson of “Noguchi the Samurai,” quite different to the usual “stand up to bullies.” Instead, out-wit them. I don’t know that Michihara’s tactic would work so well in real life, but it makes for a nice parable.

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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.

Sengoku Basara – Season One

5.0 out of 5 stars Over the Top Samurai Action!

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings – The Complete Series

“Basara” is one of those hard-to-translate Japanese words. It is thought to have its roots in the Sanscrit word for diamond, but the word has changed meaning over the years to something entirely different. Historically, it refers to a period of time in Medieval Japan, called the Namboku-cho period, when the Imperial court was split between the North and South courts each struggling for legitimacy. With Imperial control weakened, the common populace of Japan went topsy-turvy, rapidly developing an outrageous fashion sense full of bright fabrics and make-up and extravagant costumes normally forbidden by law. Think of the Roaring 20s with flappers or the Zoot Suits of the 1930s and 40s.

The Basara fashion was officially outlawed during the Sengoku period when the lords began to re-exercise military control over the populace. But the word has survived to the modern day for any over-the-top extravagant display of excess, like in the Basara Matsuri of Nara city.

Which brings us to “Sengoku Basara.” The anime perfectly captures the feel of basara, that over-the-top extravagant display of excess, but this time imprinted over the main warlords of the Sengoku warring states period. (The irony here is that it was those same warlords who put an end to basara…).

Based on the Sengoku Basara video game series, the anime brings to the battle the opposing armies of Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Oda Nobunaga, each of them vying for control of Japan. The names are about the only thing these characters have in common with the historical figures. Takeda Shingen is the “Tiger of Kai,” with a fierce red headdress and the ability to leap high into the air and come crashing down with his massive spear. He rides his horse standing on the back of the saddle. His right-hand man, Sanada Yukimura, is also a red-clad leaper with two spears capable of tossing soldiers aside like a leaf-blower plowing through dry autumn foliage.

Even with all the superpowers flying around, you might think that “Sengoku Basara” is going to stay somewhat historical. You are wrong. When Tokugawa Ieyasu brings forth his greatest general, Honda Tadakatsu, he doesn’t come riding in on a horse, but flying through a plasma-fueled jetpack and with a massive drill for an arm. At that point you know; all bets are off.

I loved “Segoku Basara.” It is that great kind of shut-off-your-brain anime that delivers action and intrigue and comedy and pathos and some really great characters. Basing the series on historical events got me huffing at first, but I realized historical accuracy is far away from the point of the series and I just told my thinking brain to shut up and had a great time.

The first few episodes are rapid-fire action, but things eventually calm down to get to some deeper personal conflict and characterization. The series has a nice balance between the quite episodes and the loud ones. And with “Samurai Basara,” the loud episodes are really, really loud.

This release from Funimation has the complete First Season, with thirteen episodes on two DVDs. Season Two brings in the one person obviously missing from “Sengoku Basara,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I will definitely be there for the fireworks to start.

Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Blind Man’s Bluff

Zatoichi 21 – The Festival of Fire

 
In a series as long as Zatoichi (26 films in total) you are bound to have some hits and misses. By any standards “Zatoichi: The Festival of Fire” (Japanese title: “Zatoichi abare-himatsur” or “Zatoich: The Raging Fire Festival”) is a full-fledged home run.

First, let’s talk about that cast. Aside from Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro, you have the amazing actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, The Sword of Doom), the flamboyant Peter (best known as the jester Kyoami in Ran, or the voice of Rem in Death Note II: The Last Name) and making his final film appearance Mori Masayuki (Ugetsu, Bushido, The Bad Sleep Well). Back in the director’s chair is original “Zatoichi” director Misumi Kenji (The Tale of Zatoichi). That is some serious talent coming together for a “Zatoichi” flick.

Plot-wise, it is a classic set up. Zatoichi rescues a beautiful young woman who has fallen on hard times and was forced to sell herself. Her jealous ex-husband however, (Nakadai) follows her killing anyone who has touched her, finally killing the woman herself. He thinks that Zatoichi is one of his wife’s purchasers, and so dedicates himself to slaying the blind masseur. Zatoichi, on the other hand, has other things going on when he comes across the promotion ceremony for a new yakuza boss and promptly inserts himself. The boss (Mori) is a blind man like Zatoichi himself, and serves as Zatoichi’s opposite, immune to his usual tricks. Complicating matters even further is a young pimp (Peter) looking to get himself in good with the mob boss while still remaining essentially a pure heart. As you can guess, swords are drawn, alliances are created and broken, friends become enemies and enemies friends, and Zatoichi’s cane sword will run red with blood before the final credits roll.

There is lots of good stuff going on in “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire.” Nakadai’s character is almost a re-play of “Sword of Doom,” a man so dead inside he kills without joy or remorse. His desire to kill Zatoichi is not based on revenge or passion, as he has killed too many over his wife’s betrayal. Being the last on his list, Zatoichi is all that keeps him going, and he knows when he has struck the blind man down the next act will be to take his own life. Mori is a classic character as well, charming and sensitive on the surface but hiding a black heart. Being blind himself, he is immune to Zatoichi’s tricks, as he shows them when the two set down to gamble at dice.

Animeigo has done their usual top notch job with this release. Not a lot of extras or anything, but they have the best subtitles available for Japanese films, and always treat every movie with respect and care. “Zatoichi: Festival of Fire” is also available as part of the Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman DVD Collector’s Edition Box.

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