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wonder... do you think the Japanese dig classic Westerns as much as we,
the American Fanboy, dig Samurai films? I sure hope so because turnabout
is fair play... even in film culture. At this point in film history,
Samurai films and Westerns owe a lot to each other, but as you'll see by
a selection of really cool Samurai DVDs that have come out in the last
few months, many other genres have inspired Samurai flicks as well.
the Razor (Box Set)
1972-74 (2005) - Toho (Home Vision Entertainment)
Katsu Shintaro didn't just play a cunning blind swordsman known as
Ichi. Oh, no. He was a helluva character actor, and one of his most
notable character creations was Hanzo, the long "arm" of the
law. The box explains the character best "Dirtier than Harry and
Shaftier than Shaft!" To discuss the films and then go into how
enjoyable and well done I personally find them to be will get me on
the lists of just about every feminist out there. So before I shove my
foot fully down my throat, let's say right off the bat that the Hanzo
Trilogy (which includes Sword of
Justice, The Snare
and Who's Got the Gold?) is a
wholly adult offering and concerns some very, very despicable acts of
violence towards women, acts that should never be accepted in any way
shape or form. Yet, and here's where I create a world of female
enemies, in the context of these films, what Hanzo does makes some
sort of "sense." Uhg, I'm in trouble now and boy do I know
it. I should stop while I'm ahead, but I'm not known for my tact. So
let's look closer at the three films in this set...
Sword of Justice
In 1972 Hanzo Itami, master swordsman and incorruptible lawman, is
pulled from the pages of the manga by Lone
Wolf and Cub creator Kazuo Koike and given life on the silver
In this, his first cinematic appearance, we learn just how
incorruptible Hanzo is when he refuses to make a ceremonial oath as a
Shogunate constable because he believes all the other officers he works
with on the "force" are corrupt. He doesn't feel that he can
make the same oath as they do morally and so he flat-out refuses. Why
are the other cops corrupt? The simplest answer and Hanzo's answer is:
because they forsake the poor for the rich. His decision raises the ire
of his higher ups, and may be the end of his career and possibly his
life. With mouths agape and fingers wagging, Hanzo moves on to the meat
of his adventure and we next meet two former criminals under Hanzo's
employ who run errands for him in exchange for their freedom. Together,
the three of them start to uncover information about a killer on the run
in Hanzo's town, and a certain lady who has a connection to him. She's a
bad egg, and Hanzo has a special interrogation technique to learn what
she might know about this newcomer and his conspiracy connection to the
same higher ups that Hanzo pissed off earlier.
The Snare (1973)
In pursuit of two criminals, Hanzo stumbles into the procession of
Shogunate commissioner of finance Lord Okubo, who immediately demands an
apology for interrupting his passage, which Hanzo refuses to give. This,
of course, pisses off Hanzo's higher-up and it takes a dead girl, a bald
female monk in need of interrogation, a botched abortion and a sex ring
conspiracy linked to those higher-ups to bring Hanzo to the top and
everyone else to the bottom.
Who's Got the Gold?
Onibi and Mamushi (the two criminals that work for Hanzo) are out
fishing in a pond and come face to face with a female ghost who runs
them off. Hanzo ain't afraid of no ghosts and he shows up and
immediately learns that the ghost is all flesh and blood woman (guess
how he figures that out) and that she's part of a conspiracy that's
sucking gold out of the treasury and into the haunted pond. Bet he links
it to higher-ups he pissed of at some point during the film.
Yeah, yeah, Hanzo isn't high art,
nor does it stray too far from the structures established in the first
film, but that's always been Katsu's strength as a storyteller... he
knew what worked and gave his audiences exactly what they wanted and
But, aside from the eye-widening story elements (rape as an
interrogation technique with the end result always being the woman not
wanting Hanzo to stop and sticking around to cuddle afterwards and let's
not even go into how Hanzo trains his most important muscle!) and the
great characterizations by Katsu, the thing that stands out more than
anything in these films is the heavy blaxpoitation vibe going on. From
camerawork to the bass-heavy musical score, urban films of the 70s
surely influenced the making of this film.
If you're open to them and can take them for what they are, the Hanzo
the Razor films are campy fun and are served quite well on
DVD. The anamorphic widescreen transfers are spotless, the sound in the
original mono is hiss free and dare I say quite groovy and the extras
are what we expect from a Home Vision samurai release: trailers and
liner notes. If you or the one you love, are into samurai films I highly
recommend these films. Just don't enjoy them as much as me, and you
won't have to defend yourself as a pervert.
1990 (2005) - Shochiku Co. (Home Vision Entertainment)
Japanese Samurai movies aren't just popular here in the states,
surprise, surprise, they're actually quite popular in Japan as well.
Who'd have thunk it? If you need proof, look no further than modern
Samurai Films Yoji Yamada's Twilight
Samurai and this film: Ronin Gai,
a full on love song for the genre.
Although not as fan friendly as Twilight,
Ronin Gai has a rather nice
pedigree. Directed by Kazuo Kuroki and famously conceived to
commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of Shozo Makino (the man
credited as being "father of Japanese cinema" and bringing
Japan out of kabuki and into Kurosawa), Ronin
Gai is also the last film in the colorful career of one
Shintaro Katsu who you just got done reading about and know how much
we at the Bits love. Considering this is the swan song of one
of Japan's most beloved actors, it's worth having in your library
right there. But I'll sell it some more.
Covering just about every spectrum of film culture: comedy, drama,
epic, love, Ronin Gai follows a
cast of Samurai Film stock characters. There is the shadowy Yojimbo-esque
ronin named Gennai (Yoshio Harada), the beautiful prostitute he loves
(Oshin), the samurai clans member with a dark past and desperate means
(Doi), his sister Obun and Bull, played by Katsu who is but a shadow
of his former self, reduced to humiliating himself to the highest
bidder, yet very protective of the prostitutes who work at the local
some local prostitutes are murdered at the hands of Shogunate soldiers
who are making it their job to cleanse the land of sin and sinners, the
above cast is slowly pulled into doing something about it when Oshin is
scheduled for public execution. That's when this film stops looking like
a Samurai costume drama and becomes the blood-splattered badass we are
all hoping for.
The first hour is a bit, uhm, slow and plodding. It takes some time to
set everything up and make us familiar with the characters and get
things to exactly where they need to be to end it the way fans will be
happy with. The characters are nice and the film fan homage's throughout
are fun to spot (count the shogun's retainers, how many are there? One,
two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . seven samurai!). But the end is
amazing and makes it well worth the wait.
Ronin Gai looks pretty damn good
on DVD. It's anamorphic and the color representation is beautiful. Sound
is presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and extras are
your standard Home Vision type with the theatrical trailer and liner
Sword of Doom
1966 (2005) - Toho (Criterion)
This one is quite the fan favorite. But the fans of this film might
be the real fans of Japanese cinema, not just of Samurai Films. When I
announced in my last column that I'd been looking at a bunch of
Samurai Films, I received a huge stack of "can't wait to read
what you have to say about Sword of Doom"
e-mails. Will I praise it based solely on its Samurai laurels or will
I break it down as the historical drama it is? Well, here I am and
guess what? I love this film for both reasons. I love, love, love Sword
of Doom. It's truly a great flick. And it's huge that
Criterion put it out on DVD for all of us to savor over and over
The utterly soulless Ryunosuke Tsukue (played with a deadness I've
never seen before by Tatsuya Nakadai) is a swordmaster who will kill
without a moment of hesitation for whatever reason he feels. He's a
bad seed through and through. Yet he's not an evil man. He's
ambivalent towards every thing. He doesn't care enough about anything
to be good, evil or even middle of the road. He just is. And
ultimately that's what this film is about: extremism and ambivalence.
After cutting down a sick old man who just prayed not to be a burden
on his daughter, Ryunosuke is confronted by the wife of the man he's
about to face at his sword school's fencing exhibition. She wants him
to lose an upcoming duel. He says it will take more than pleading for
him to consider it. The man's wife offers herself and he takes the
offer, but during the duel, her husband offers an illegal move and
Ryunosuke kills him for his transgression.
opens up a can of worms in the form of Hyoma, the man's brother. Hyoma
is now looking for revenge, and he seeks out the tutelage of Toranosuke
Shimada (played by legendary Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune). Shimada
simply tells Hyoma that Ryunosuke may be an unbeatable foe... on any
level. But maybe, just maybe... with time, practice and by utilizing a
special sword style, he might have a chance.
Of course, there's even more going on underneath the full-blown samurai
action, and to fully understand you have to school yourself a little bit
on Japanese history circa the 1860s when the samurai themselves were on
their way out as a culture and with that came in-fighting against
themselves, push back against incoming Western forces, question of
Emperor loyalties and factions with anti-shogun sentiments. It was a
turbulent time, a time when extremism and side picking ruled and
Zen-like ambivalence would get you killed. You cared about something or
people would make you care. And when it's all said and done, the idea of
who is the true master, the sword or the sword-wielder, comes into
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, Sword of Doom
is based on a serialized and uncompleted story written by Kaizan
Nakazato over a thirty-year period. The story has been brought to stage
and screen many, many times by directors including Hiroshi Inagaki (the
Samurai Trilogy and Chushingura
(1962)). But here Nakazato's message and symbolism gets the
full-treatment, and even though the epic nature of the story is left in
tact (there are many dangling issues left to dangle) Okamoto makes this
film his own even in one film installment. Part of that accomplishment
is thanks to cinematographer Hiroshi Murai whose specific vision for
this film goes a long way in telling the story cinematically.
Sword of Doom is presented on DVD
in anamorphic widescreen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks
as exceptional as you'd expect from Criterion. There are moments of
grain and some shimmer here and there, but this is an older film and
that's to be expected. The sound is Japanese mono and sounds very good
as well. Extras include only a liner note booklet. All in all, a great
samurai film and a great presentation.
1965 (2005) - Toho (AnimEigo)
Speaking of Kihachi Okamoto, he's back and he's just as badass with
his other ultimate Samurai Flick. Samurai
Assassin! What's better than Toshiro Mifune with a sword?
Since I don't have kids, I have to say... just about nothing.
Samurai Assassin is another film
that takes place at the tail end of the Tokugawa era much like The
Sword of Doom. Here, a group of assassins wait outside the
Edo Castle gate where they plan to kill a powerful lord. Among their
ranks is Toshiro Mifune as down on his luck ronin Tsuruchiyo Niiro,
the bastard son of a respected samurai whose only want in life is to
become respected himself and with respect may come his illegitimate
father vouching for his pedigree. We also meet Keiji Kobayashi as
Einosuke Kurihara, a well-respected samurai representing the life
Niiro wants. As this group waits in the snow, many things come out and
suspicions build when it becomes clear one of these men is a mole. But
Based on a true historical incident and filled with complex
characters, gorgeous cinematography and some truly heart-thumping
sword fights, Samurai Assassin
is one of the best Samurai films to ever cross the silver screen and
an all-time favorite among connoisseurs of the genre. The acting is
also top notch, but you could have guessed that with the name Mifune
spelled out above.
is yet another nice film treatment from the vaults of AnimEigo. The
video is anamorphic widescreen in a very nice black and white transfer
with some grain but nice detail. It's not as good as say, the Zatoichi
films, but it's still a first rate job. Audio is standard mono with two
sets of subtitles: full and limited. Full drops the historical and
cultural data on you, with explanations of "slang" terms of
the period and Limited is straight dialogue. Extras include a selection
of AnimEigo trailers and their famed historical data sheet housed on the
Of all the films in this column, this is the one I stand by the most.
It's a great film that's fun, easily accessible and well-worth putting
into your library.
at Blood Pass
1970 (2005) - Toho (AnimEigo)
Incident is a pretty fun film on
so many levels. First, it was hatched out of an agreement for stars
Mifune and Katsu to each appear in the other's character vehicle.
Mifune would appear as "Yojimbo" in an Ichi
film (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
specifically) and Katsu would appear in a Mifune "Yojimbo"
film - this one. Second, it would mark the last film in the unofficial
Yojimbo series of films (I say
unofficial because the nameless ronin who describes himself as a
bodyguard or yojimbo in these Mifune films aren't necessarily the same
character, like Eastwood isn't always the same character in Leone's
Man With No Name Trilogy, which
was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo).
Lastly, it's just a fun film, plain and simple.
Incident at Blood Pass is an
American Western, through and through. Instead of hats we get
top-knots and instead of guns there are swords. The music feels like
something pulled out of a John Ford film and the wide vista shots make
Japan look like the American West. It's actually very cool.
The story concerns Mifune being asked to meet a messenger. The
messenger will give him a note with a single character on it. If it's
the Japanese character "Mountain", he'll go to location A,
if it's "3": location B. He has no idea what he's supposed
to do at either of those locations and when he asks he is simply being
told he'd know what to do when he sees something happen. So he goes
and something, of course, happens.
something occurs at an inn on the end of Sanshuu Pass. The Inn is run by
an old man and his bored granddaughter Oyuki. Yojimbo arrives with
Okini, a woman he saved from an abusive husband and drops her off now
that she's safe. She takes a job at the Inn and through her we meet the
fallen doctor Gentetsu (Katsu) and gambler Yatarou. That's when a slimy
Shogunate constable and his quarry stumble in, both half dead. Yojimbo
and a hesitant Gentetsu nurse them back to health and that's just about
when the film really kicks in and all hell breaks loose.
The film is all about the characters and the characters are all great.
Not one is a simple cardboard cut-out Samurai Film stock character. They
all breathe and fight for life in your mind. Not the best Yojimbo
film, but one you'll wish Leone might have remade with Eastwood.
The film looks pretty damn good in anamorphic widescreen. It's, again,
not as good as the work put into the Zatoichi
films, but maybe that's just a problem with the masters provided
AnimEigo. Sound is mono and like Samurai
Assassin subtitles are offered in Limited and Full. Extras
are trailers and digital liner notes.
Incident at Blood Pass isn't the
greatest Samurai film but it's a good one. And you know us, a good
Samurai film is better than most other films.
There were two other titles that could have been put into this column,
and didn't make it for a variety of reasons. AnimEigo released Samurai
Banners this week and you can purchase it from their
website. I didn't
get a copy yet, but the minute I do, I'll spin it and let you know what
I think. And I simply didn't have enough time or space to give the
justice Criterion's release of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha
deserves. It's a huge, huge disc, well worth both my time in reviewing
it and your time in adding it into your library. I'll review that all by
its lonesome when I get back from San Diego, as well as amend my Twilight
Zone review with Season Three
which I picked up recently. Look for those updates sooner than later.
My next column will focus on Ghost in the
Shell now that Volume 7 of Stand
Alone Complex will be out in two weeks, so look for that
before the end of July.
Until next time, keep spinning those discs!
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