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page added: 8/20/12



Kenji Misumi: Part 1

DVD review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Filmmaker Kenji Misumi may not be a name that instantly comes to the forefront of your mind when you start thinking about Japanese cinema, but when samurai movie fans start to consider their favorite films of the genre - one name will pop up more than any other. Can you guess whose? If you said Kurosawa, I'm a pop you. The name is Kenji Misumi and he's been the director of some of the best entries in the Lone Wolf and Cub/Shogun Assassin/Baby Cart series, the Zatoichi film and television series, Hanzo the Razor and the best of the hard-to-find Sleepy Eyes of Death series: Sword of Fire.

Responsible for some of the things we love most as modern fans of classic chambara (samurai films), Misumi gave us the stylized montage editing, the stark impressionist cinematography and of course the blood geysers. I'm in no way any kind of expert on the many incredible filmmakers and artists that have made some of my favorite Japanese films, but of what I know about him on just a cursory level: Kenji Misumi's life and career is remarkable. The lack of biographical material considering the films he left us is equally remarkable. Do yourself a favor and take a moment to read Robin Gatto's write-up in Midnight Eye about Misumi; his life and career. It's a good read.

But the reason we're gathered here on this digital page is not to celebrate the man. We're here to bask in some of his films, and it just so happens that his final 5 films have recently been released on home media. Well, kinda. I'll explain that in a second.

First, I think we should flip the script and discuss Misumi's last film, and one that has not seen release in the United States until now. And that film is pretty spectacular.


The Last Samurai (DVD)

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The Last Samurai
1974 (2012) - Sh˘chiku (Neptune Media)
Released on DVD on June 26th, 2012

Dolby Digital

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B


There have been lots of comparisons made to Japanese samurai films being analogous to American westerns; and it's a fair comparison. But in this case, Misumi's The Last Samurai has more to do with a major Civil War epic. The Last Samurai is like Gone with the Wind mixed with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It's huge. It's sweeping. And it's one of the better samurai films I've seen in a long while.


The story concerns the Bakumatsu period of Japanese history, culminating 1864 through 1877 with the Japanese civil war that saw the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Sugi Toranosuke (Takahashi Hideki) is returning to his childhood home after being trained as a samurai by Ikemoto Mohei (Ikinam Shotaru). He sees his father as he enters town - both make eye contact but neither acknowledges the other. Sugi comes to learn that his father died soon after this phantom meeting - fulfilling his wish to see his son one last time. With not much to do, he takes up with a town leader and they trade sword styles between sips of sake. Sugi also gets to see the growing tide of conflict between those with power currently tied to the Shogun and those who want it.

It's about here that Sugi's sensei Ikemoto sends word to him: he's to escort a Shogunate agent named Reiko to Kyoto and stay there and stay out of any and all politics. Sugi learns that his master is a very important agent for the Shogunate and they are trying to stand down a rebel uprising by Saigo Takamuri (Ryutaro Tatsumi) - the true Last of the Samurai who has grown weary of the Shogunate's dealings with the West and is willing to destroy the currently political power by any means necessary. Of course, Sugi doesn't simply accept his master's order, but out of loyalty and a connection with the beautiful Reiko (Keiko Matsuzaka) he begrudgingly does as he's told. Of course war and politics have a way of pulling people in.

Another main character worth noting is Nakamura Hanjiro (played by Vengeance is Mine's Ken Ogata). He's a fun, devil may care swordsman and sprite that makes friends with Sugi - all while faithfully following the way of Saigo Takamuri.

Keep in mind that everything I just wrote about is all just the first half-hour or so. Lots and lots of stuff happens in this film - characters are introduced, relationships are made, swords are clashed and it all comes to a head with the famed Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 and the Battle of Shiroyama where we lose a few of our main players.

Also worth pointing out is: many of the events and characters in this tale are real (and used in the Ed Zwick film of the same name starring Tom Cruise that shares little else with this masterpiece). Sugi, though named for a real man, is more a composite of two or three people. But that doesn't make this film any less engrossing. And that is quite a feat considering the film runs a whopping 159 minutes. The sturdy directing by Misumi is joined by a marvelous score by Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube making this a film I can not recommend enough.

That recommendation is made even stronger with this incredible DVD only release from Neptune Media. The video is a pristine anamorphic transfer presented at 2.35:1, with clean colors and tight blacks. Having watched so many films on Blu-ray, I can tell it's not as clean an image as it would be on Blu-ray - but it's no slouch. Would I have rather seen this on Blu? You betcha. Am I mad about it? Nope. Sound is a fine and representative Dolby Digital 2.0 mono in Japanese. Subtitles are English, with no alternate tracks.

Extras include a trailer, an essay by the good sir Tom Mes on the inside of the cover, biographies for Misumi and all of the major actors featured in the film, a lovely film-to-novel comparison (the film is based on the serialized novel That Man by Ikenami Shotaro), two photo galleries (one for the film and the other showcasing historical images) and a Shogunate timeline giving a better context on how things played out in reality.

The Last Samurai is a real-deal samurai film. It's also a sweeping epic piece of cinema. It's long, but doesn't feel like it. Kenji Misumi brings a passion to this film that makes it wholly engaging and very watchable. It feels like all the best parts of his vast library of films - making it an apt final film for this incredible filmmaker.

But Misumi also knew... sometimes... a geyser of blood is what people want when they sit down to watch a samurai flick. That leads us to the four films he made before this (presented here as 3 and a half films):

Continue to Part 2


Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



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