Hondo City Law

5.0 out of 5 stars Judge Dredd in Japan

Hondo-City Law

Take classic Japanese samurai epics like Lone Wolf and Cub, mix them into futuristic anime like Akira, then stuff the whole thing into Judge Dredd’s 2000 AD world of Mega Cities and Judges, and you have Hondo City Law.

Japan’s futuristic Hondo City – named for unfathomable reasons other than it “sounded Japanese” — was created by John Wagner in the Judge Dredd story “Our Man in Hondo” (included in this collection), along with the samurai-judge Inspector Totaro Sadu. Sadu and Hondo never appeared again until up-and-coming writer Robbie Morrison was offered the chance to write some stories for 2000 AD. Morrison resurrected one of his favorite stories from the past and created the story arc of rogue-judge Shimura and his protégé Judge Inspector Aiko Inaba.

As Judge Dredd was based on Clint Eastwood, Morrison based his Japanese Judge Shimura on acting legend Mifune Toshiro (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo), and gave him a villain in the form of the cyber-cult Deus X who believe it is man’s ultimate destiny to merge with machines. Shimura is a blend of old-fashioned and futuristic, carrying a hand-forged Wakizashi short sword and laser shuriken. Unlike Judge Dredd, Shimura believes more in justice than the Law, and is able to see where the two differ. He trains Judge Inspector Aiko Inaba, who is torn between her loyalty to Shimura and her responsibility as a Judge.

I was a huge Judge Dredd fan back when Eagle Comics was publishing the American editions, but it has been awhile since I dove into the Mega Cities. The world has evolved, and there is a lot more depth and characterization than I remembered. Judge Dredd’s viewpoint was black-and-white; there is the Law, and lawbreakers must be punished. But this Judge Dredd is a more nuanced character, willing to work with someone like Shimura who operates outside the Law. As Dredd says, “Hondo City is not my city, and not my laws.”

Morrison got everything spot-on with Hondo City Law. I lived in Japan for several years, have seen more than my fair share of Japanese action flicks, and I tend to be hyper-critical of Western writers imitating only the superficial aspects of Japan without the depth. Not here. Morrison’s stories were brilliant, and my only disappointment is that this is not Hondo City Law: Volume 1. I very much want more stories.

The art is equally impressive. There are four artists here, all of them different, all of them good. Colin MacNeil illustrates the original Hondo City story in fully-painted loveliness. Two of the stories, “Shimura” and “Babes with Big Bazookas”, have early Frank Quitely art that is just phenomenal. I found that I actually liked this Quitely art better than his current stuff which has become heavily stylized. Andy Clarke does “Executioner” and “Deus X”. This was the first time I had seen Clarke’s art, and I loved it. He has a realistic style similar to Travis Charest. The last story, “Hondo City Justice”, was drawn by Neil Googe and was my least favorite. He used a “manga style” that was fitting to the subject matter but was out of step with the style of the other Hondo City tales.

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Zatoichi 20 – Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo

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5.0 out of 5 stars Clash of the Titans

The fact that this movie exists, and that it is actually good, is a rare surprise. When two characters are as popular and famous as Katsu Shintaro’s Zatoichi and Mifune Toshiro’s Yojimbo, the temptation to throw them together into a single film is often too great to resist for movie studios, but the results are usually a disaster. They are gimmick films at their hearts.

Fortunately, this one was done right. The 20th installment in the 26 film Zatoichi series, “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” (original title “Zatoichi to Yojimbo”, meaning “Zatoichi and Yojimbo”, the “meets” was thrown in there for Western audiences), teams up two of the titans of the samurai genre, three if you count director Okamoto Kihachi (The Sword of Doom). There is an easy comradeship between them, and Mifune’s star power does not overshadow Katsu’s lead.

The story is pretty typical of the series. Zatoichi is weary; he has broken his famous cane sword, and seeks refuge in a village he passed through some years ago. In a nod to the original Yojimbo film, the once-peaceful village finds itself in the middle of a gang war where two rivals fight for control of the town. Zatoichi’s appearance makes him a wildcard, as both sides bid for his service. But then into town comes a rough and ready character and apparent drunkard willing to also sell his sword to service. The two play off of each other, circling around for the inevitable battle. Of course, there is more to the story: The beautiful prostitute Umeno (Wakao Ayaka Red Angel, Manji) is capturing both rival’s hearts, a secret stockpile of gold is to be found and fought for, and a third rival comes to town in the form of Kishida Shin (Kill! ) as gunslinger Kuzuryu, the nine-headed dragon.

Admittedly, the plot isn’t going to win any major awards, but one doesn’t really watch the Zatoichi series for the plot. They watch it for Katsu’s easy charm, and the fun familiarity that only comes with a long-running series. Mifune’s drunken swaggering is a great counterbalance to the Zatoichi character. This isn’t exactly the same character from Kurosawa’s classic films, but close enough. There is one nice in-joke, where he is referred to as Shijuro (forty-year-old), setting the character ten years after Sanjuro (meaning thirty-year-old). The showdown between the two isn’t quite as dynamic as I was hoping for, but the ending was very satisfying.

Mifune and Katsu would meet again just a few months later after the release of “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo”, in the Inagaki Hiroshi flick Incident at Blood Pass. Mifune would again reprise the Yojimbo character for this film, although Katsu was a mountain-bandit Gentetsu. Mifune clearly was not opposed to a good team-up, as he would meet The Magnificent Seven actor Charles Bronson a year later in the Western Red Sun.

Chushingura

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4.0 out of 5 stars Loyalty

Based on actual events, the story of the loyal 47 ronin is probably the most dramatized story in Japanese theatrical tradition. Appearing originally as a bunraku puppet play, it was soon followed by a fantastically successful Kabuki adaptations and more than eight cinematic versions. Its enduring popularity is based on the core Japanese values it represents; loyalty to a superior, at the cost of all things including life, love and personal happiness. Like the Western King Arthur and Robin Hood, the 47 ronin have passed from history to legend.

This version, “Chushingura” (Full Japanese title is “Chushingura: Hana no maki yuki no maki,”) is a sprawling 3 hour epic from the Japanese master of legendary films. Director Hiroshi Inagaki, probably best known in the West for his 3-film Miyamoto Musashi masterpiece “Samurai I,II and III,” brings his unique eye to the familiar story, blending a quiet human touch into the massive picture. He has assembled the all-stars of the Japanese chambara (“swordfight”) genre. Tatsuya Mihashi (“Tora Tora Tora,”) Takashi Shimura (“Seven Samurai,”) Yuzo Kayama (“Red Beard”) and of course Toshiro Mifune (“Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” too many films to mention…), each name on the roster is one of the best, each with at lease on Kurosawa-credit on their resume, if not more.

The story unfolds at a long, dense pace, leaving you wondering along the way which of Lord Asano’s 60-plus samurai will remain loyal, and which will give into fear. By no means is this an action film, but a didactic tale stuffed with politics and the disintegrating nature of modernization and the loss of traditional morality and ethics. However, the film is a long slow fuse, building to the dynamite that is the rightful vengeance of the loyal 47. The final battle in the snow is a beautiful ballet of swords and blood.

Unfortunately, the DVD does not live up to the promise of the movie. It is a bare bones disk, with a decent widescreen presentation and nothing else. Due to the historical and important nature of “Chushingura,” there is room for so much more. However, beggars can’t be choosers, and having the movie alone is a treat. Maybe someday a better release will come along, but until then it is enough to watch the unfolding drama of 47 men willing to die for what they believe in.

Red Sun

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5.0 out of 5 stars Gunslinger and Samurai

I am amazed that I have lived so much of my life without even knowing this flick existed. This is the sort of thing I should have seen years ago, and watched over and over again. Think about it. A Western staring Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven) and Mifune Toshiro (Seven Samurai), facing off against Alain Delon (Le Samourai). As a little icing we get Ursula Andress (Dr. No). Bliss.

Getting these four international actors together in the same plot isn’t as strange as you think. Mifune is Kuroda Jubie, a guard for the Ambassador from Japan who is currently en-route to Washington D.C. where he is to deliver a magnificent sword as a present from the Emperor of Japan to the President of the US. Their train is robbed by Bronson, playing outlaw Link Stuart, but he is betrayed mid-robbery by his partner Gauche (Alain Delon) who takes the gold-encrusted sword. Joining together in a wary truce, Mifune and Bronson hunt Delon to recover their lost honor and stolen treasures. Andress is Delon’s woman, but someone who can easily be convinced to switch her loyalties if the price is right.

What is so amazing about this film is that, aside from its impressive international cast, is that is just a really good movie. What could have been played for laughs, as happened in the much later Shanghai Noon, is instead treated entirely straight, and a subtle story of honor and revenge is laid out with patience and perfection. Although technically a “Spaghetti Western”, none of the tropes are brought into play, and everything is handled with respect and intention. Mifune is not Bronson’s wacky sidekick, and Delon is no French buffoon.

As an interesting note, this is the first film I have seen where Mifune speaks English. It was quite a surprise, and he does an able job with his lines, although they are not flawless. His character here is a straight-laced servant to his lord rather than the dangerous rouge from Yojimbo, and the scenes between him and Bronson are fantastic.

This DVD presentation is a little lacking. It is strictly bare-bones, and the video looks to be a PAL transfer. It would be nice to see this gem get a deluxe Region 1 release, but until then I am just happy to have it in any format.

Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor

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5.0 out of 5 stars New Model Army

The shinsengumi are unusual heroes. Not only did they lose their battle, which can sometimes be seen as honorable as in the case of the defenders of the Alamo, but they fought for the wrong side entirely. The group supported the military Shogun government against the efforts to restore Imperial rule which eventually led to the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan. No doubt they would be little more than a footnote in history if they just weren’t so darn cool. And of course the uniforms.

There are dozens of movies about the shinsengumi, but this is the only one starring Mifune Toshiro. Mifune slips easily into the role of leader Kondo Isami, a farmer-caste born warrior who rose through the ranks by his strength and skills. Recruiting amongst the ronin and non-samurai warriors, Kondo and his co-commander Hijikata Toshizo (Kobayashi Keiju, Battle of Okinawa) develop a stern code of rules that keeps the rough crowd in-line. Completely devoted to the samurai ideals, even though many of them are not samurai themselves, including leader Kondo, the shinsengumi wage a lost battle against the overwhelming forces of the Emperor. Even losing, however, they do it honor and without compromise, so that their deaths continue to ring through the ages.

This was director Sawashima Tadashi’s last film, and he played it right for the heroic machismo. Although they do dwell somewhat on the outdated morality they are defending, showing off their cool uniforms and strict code there is no mistake who the heroes are in this conflict. Other films, like Taboo and When the Last Sword Is Drawn, delve deeper into the dubious morality of the conflict and the group, but not this one. Sawashima just plays it straight, and with the charismatic Mifune in the lead that is exactly the way to go. Sometimes it is alright to cheer on in film those you are secretly glad lost in real life.

As usual, Animeigo put together a great DVD for this classic flick. One of the most difficult parts to grasp about “Shinsengumi” is that it is a famous historical story, and the director doesn’t feel the need to explain who each and every character is. It is like watching a Revolutionary war picture and having a “General Washington” appear. There is no need to explain that this is the future first president of the country; we all know that. Same thing here. Characters appear without explanation because they would be familiar to every Japanese person. Animeigo’s unique “captioned subtitles” helps deal with this by popping up historical facts and character introductions. There is also a brief introduction to the history of the shinsengumi included as an extra feature.

Japan’s Longest Day

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5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing less than the fate of an entire nation
Like many Americans, I always had the idea that Japan’s surrender was pretty immediate following the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. However, Fat Man was dropped on August 9, and the country did not officially surrender until August 15. That is six days of doubt, debate, folly and insurrection.

“Japan’s Longest Day” (a direct translation of “Nihon no ichiban nagai hi”) is not actually the story of a single day. It begins shortly before the first bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, and finishes at the Emperor’s surrender speech on August 15. The bulk of the story, however, takes place during the long dark night of August 14, when the fate of the entire nation truly hung in the balance. If things had gone only slightly differently, there might be no Japan today, at least not as we know it.

It is a testament to the skill of director Okamoto Kihachi (Battle of Okinawa) that even when the story is a matter of historical record, “Japan’s Longest Day” is still full of tension and drama. Okamoto even manages to stick pretty closely to history. In this case, the real thing was enough.

The story has been done before, most recently seen in Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun, but never with such scope and drama. Each of the major players is given a full story arc, including the leaders of the failed insurrection that attempted a military coup de tat in order to prevent Japan’s surrender. How they could do this in the face of more atomic bombs seems like madness, but it is madness such as when Father of the Kamikaze Onishi Takijiro begs for just twenty million more suicide troops to fling against the American army.

As Toho Studio’s 35th anniversary production, “Japan’s Longest Day” stars pretty much ever one of the greatest actors from Japan’s Golden Age of cinema. Kurosawa Akira favorites Mifune Toshiro (Seven Samurai) and Shimura Takeshi (Ikiru) share screen time with Ozu constant Ryu Chishu (Tokyo Story). Even the legendary Nakadai Tatsuya (Portrait of Hell) joins in as the narrator. I can’t think of any other Japanese film that has this much talent gathered together.

Animeigo’s production of “Japan’s Longest Day” is not as exciting as some of their more recent releases. Their superb subtitling is still here, but the bonus features are limited to production notes. Even so, this is a fantastic DVD.

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