Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


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Original trailer (no subtitles)

Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Masaki Kobayashi, 1971)

inn-of-evil“Sometimes it feels good to risk your life for something other people think is stupid”, says one of the leading players of Masaki Kobayashi’s strangely retitled Inn of Evil (いのちぼうにふろう, Inochi Bonifuro), neatly summing up the director’s key philosophy in a few simple words. The original Japanese title “Inochi Bonifuro” means something more like “To Throw One’s Life Away”, which more directly signals the tragic character drama that’s about to unfold. Though it most obviously relates to the decision that this gang of hardened criminals is about to make, the criticism is a wider one as the film stops to ask why it is this group of unusual characters have found themselves living under the roof of the Easy Tavern engaged in benign acts of smuggling during Japan’s isolationist period.

Led by the innkeeper Ikuzo (Kan’emon Nakamura), the Easy Tavern is, effectively, the hideout of a smuggling gang conveniently located on a small island in the middle of a river where they can unload goods from the Dutch boats before shipping them on to Edo. Everything had been running smoothly, but the friendly policeman has been moved on and the new guy seems very straight laced. The gang’s routine existence changes one night when they receive two unexpected visitors – a young man they save from a beating in the street, and a drunk who wanders in looking for sake. The younger man, Tomijiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings a sad story with him in that all of his troubles have been caused by trying to save the woman he loves from being sold to a brothel. Moved by Tomijiro’s innocent ardour, even the most hardhearted residents of the Easy Tavern become determined to help him. Accepting a job everyone had a bad feeling about in order to get the money for Tomijiro to buy back his lady love before it’s too late, the gang’s unusual decision to risk their lives for someone else’s happiness may be the first and last time they ever do so.

The residents of the Easy Tavern have various different backstories, but the thing they all have in common is having been rejected by mainstream society at some point in their lives. The most high profile, Sadashichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), is known as “The Indifferent” which is both apt and slightly ironic. Sullen and cynical, he puts on a show about caring for nothing and no one but, as inn keeper’s daughter Omitsu (Komaki Kurihara) has figured out, it’s more that the opposite it true – he cares too much about everything. Abandoned as a child, Sadashichi’s sad story is that he once thought his saw his mother long after they were separated but killed her because she’d fallen into prostitution. Then again, perhaps it was just a woman who looked like her, or perhaps he made he whole thing up. Coming across a lost baby bird shortly after killing a man, Sadashichi is determined to look after it but is later distressed by the words of the drunk who reminds him that the bird’s mother is probably going crazy with worry. Sadashichi may identify with this lost little bird, but his empathy also extends to Tomijiro’s plight as his plaintive looks and gloomy face prompt him into action, if only to make them go away.

Similarly, the other members including “The Living Buddha” – a rabidly bisexual former monk thrown out of his temple for his lascivious ways, an effeminate homeless man, a stutterer, and an invalid all have reasons for living outside the law. As the sympathetic inn keeper later tries to explain to a policeman, most of these men are people who’ve faced rejection in one way or another. Craving sympathy, they’ve turned violent and suspicious, pushed away from the very things they wanted most. Far from an Inn of Evil, the Easy Tavern is the only place where these people have been able to find acceptance, building a community of lost souls from those cast out from society at large.

The decision to try and help Tomijiro to rescue his childhood sweetheart, cruelly sold by her selfish and uncaring father, is, in once sense, a selfless one but perhaps also reminds them of all the times they were also betrayed or abandoned and no one came to help. Even knowing the plan is unlikely to end well, the inn keeper is proud of his men’s decision, if they didn’t try to help the girl no one else would. They may be throwing their lives away in a pointless endeavour, but if they don’t at least try then what’s the point in living at all. This more than anything expresses Kobayashi’s constant preoccupation throughout his career in pointing to the essential goodness of those who refuse to simply accept acts of injustice as normal and stand up to oppose them, even if their resistance will produce little or no actual change.

Filming in a crisp black and white, Kobayashi creates an eerie atmosphere aided by Toru Takemitsu’s strangely ethereal score. The world of the The Easy Tavern is a dark one in which cruelty and betrayal lie at every turn and men ruin themselves through thoughtless and reckless decisions, but the best of humanity is to be found among this gang of outlaws who collectively decide it’s world risking their lives for someone else’s love story. Filled with impressive visual imagery including the strange sight of the looming bright white police lanterns and the impressively staged last stand as Sadashichi holds off the troops for Tomijiro to escape, Inn of Evil is a tightly controlled, minutely detailed character drama in which men who’d throw their lives away for nothing find that their sacrifice has not been in vain.


 

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1974)

lone-wolf-and-cub-white-heaven-in-hell-japanese Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa) have been following the Demon Way for five films, chasing the elusive Lord Retsudo (Minoru Oki) of the villainous Yagyu clan who was responsible for the murder of Ogami’s wife and his subsequent framing for treason. The Demon Way is never easy, and Ogami has committed himself to following it to its conclusion, but recent encounters have broadened a conflict in his heart as innocents and seekers of justice have died alongside guilty men and cowards. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (子連れ狼 地獄へ行くぞ!大五郎, Kozure Okami: Jigoku e Ikuzo! Daigoro) moves him closer to his target but also further deepens his descent into the underworld as he’s forced to confront the wake of his ongoing quest for vengeance.

Ogami and Daigoro have made it to Snow Country, meanwhile Lord Retsudo is receiving a dressing down from a superior over his total failure to eliminate the Lone Wolf or his Cub. It seems Ogami has already despatched all three of Retsudo’s sons, and so now Retsudo pledges his daughter, Kaori (Junko Hitomi), skilled in the use of daggers and every bit as fine a warrior as her defeated brothers, in the mission to end the Ogami threat.

Things do not go to plan and Retsudo is forced to approach his one remaining son. An illegitimate child born to a concubine, disavowed, and hidden away in the mountains, Hyoe (Isao Kimura) is not well disposed to his estranged father’s request to save the Yagyu clan to which he feels only rage and resentment. Sending his father away, Hyoe nevertheless decides to take on Ogami in the hope of embarrassing the Yagyu by taking him out first. Possibly having spent too much time alone, Hyoe’s plan involves a number of strange rituals beginning with resurrecting three of his men as emotionless (yet intelligent) zombies meant to terrify Ogami and his son into submission.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen Ogami’s world darken as the straightforward missions of eliminating corrupt lords eventually gave way to more morally dubious assignments with the tragic story of Oyuki and later the assassination of an entire family in order to preserve the legitimate arm of a historical clan. Along the way, Ogami has met “true samurai” and villainous cowards, but his encounters with honest men and women have only served to shake his heart as he guides his young son onwards bound for hell by way of death or violence.

The pair have never been afraid before, but Hyoe’s plan hinges on pushing Ogami’s mind into those dark places, preventing him from fighting back against his supernatural soldiers. Death has always surrounded them, but the price of Ogami’s vengeance is brought home to him when Hyoe’s forces unceremoniously wipe out the entire population of an inn where Ogami and Daigoro are staying whilst hovering in some nearby trees to remind them that this is all really their fault and the longer they keep on down this path, the more the innocent will suffer. The zombie trio threaten to destroy Ogami’s human emotions – joy, sorrow, pleasure, and anger, leaving him only with fear. Unbowed, Ogami faces Hyoe but the pair have more in common than they thought and so round one ends in a stalemate.

White Heaven in Hell, though not intended as a conclusion to the series, neatly brings things full circle as Ogami visits his wife’s grave, recalling his familial tragedy and reinforcing his bond with Daigoro. All of the films have, in some way, dealt with functional and dysfunctional family, each commenting on the unusual relationship between Ogami and his son. Finally meeting face to face, Retsudo takes Ogami to task for the loss of his children which Ogami throws right back at him – after all, all he did was defend himself against a threat Retsudo himself instigated. Ogami eventually tells him that he hopes Retsudo becomes so lonely that he goes completely mad. Retsudo’s pointless manoeuvring has cost him dearly in the loss of each of his legitimate children, eventually forcing the acknowledgement of his illegitimate son and daughter whose hatred of him also leads to their undoing. So great is Hyoe’s loathing of the Yagyu, that his last ditch attempt at revenge is in trying to convince his own sister, Azuma, to bear his child and create a new line to finish them off once and for all.

Kenji Misumi declined to return for this instalment, claiming the series had become too much like a Western which is a little ironic as White Heaven in Hell leaves the arid deserts behind for the frozen ice plains of the north. Yoshiyuki Kuroda, making his first and only contribution to the series, had a strong background in horror cinema which might explain the sudden appearance of the supernatural elements in what has been, up to now, a fairly grounded exercise even if somewhat outlandish. This is also the only script with which original creator Kazuo Koike was not not involved and bears the least relation to the then ongoing manga. Still, the action is undoubtedly innovative as the baby cart’s wheels are swapped for skis and Ogami faces off against an entire army of enemies on a snow covered hillside. Kuroda sticks more closely to Misumi’s aesthetic than Saito had done though steers away from the painterly cinematics in favour of showcasing the snow covered terrain, driving Ogami deeper into hell as his heart freezes over but denying him the vengeance that has become his life’s work. White Heaven in Hell is the last outing for Ogami yet refuses to close the circle, his quest may be a never ending one, plunging both himself and his son into an inescapable cycle of violence and regret as the Demon’s Way stretches on endlessly towards an uncertain destination.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道, Kenji Misumi, 1973)

baby-cart-land-demonsOgami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), former Shogun executioner now a fugitive in search of justice after being framed for treason by the villainous Yagyu clan who are also responsible for the death of his wife, is still on the Demon’s Way with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Five films into this six film cycle, the pair are edging closer to their goal as the evil Lord Retsudo continues to make shadowy appearances at the corners of their world. However, the Demon’s Way carries a heavy toll, littered with corpses of unlucky challengers, the road has, of late, begun to claim the lives of the virtuous along with the venal. Conflicted as he was in his execution of a contract to assassinate the tragic Oyuki in the previous instalment, Baby Cart in Peril, whose story was perhaps even sadder than his own, Ogami is about to descend further still as a commission to kill a living Buddha proves even more sordid than expected.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (子連れ狼 冥府魔道,  Kozure Okami: Meifumado) starts as it means to go on as Ogami finds yet another coded way of touting for business when he notices the strange demonic drawing on the face mask of a resting man and correctly reads it as a message for the Lone Wolf and Cub. The Kuroda clan have despatched five of their best men wearing just such masks in order to test his skills and find out if he’s worthy of their job. Each time he defeats one, he’ll receive 100 ryou (a fifth of his fee) and part of the reasons and explanations he requires in deciding whether to take the job.

This time the assignment is to do with a mislaid yet incriminating letter from the Kuroda lord, Naritaka (Shingo Yamashiro), who has unwisely been deceiving the Shogun as to the identity of his children. Very much in love with his mistress, Naritaka has been passing off their daughter, Hamachiyo (Sumida Kazuyo), as his son Matsumaru. Meanwhile the real Matsumaru, his legitimate heir through his legal wife, has been imprisoned in the compound and kept away from prying eyes. A particularly stupid and pointless ruse, yet the lord has created even more problems for himself by allowing a letter outlining all of this to fall into the hands of a treacherous priest, Jikei (Hideji Otaki), who turns out to be the head of a ninja spy network. Ogami’s job is to kill Jikei and get the letter back but it comes with some additional spice – Jikei plans to hand the letter to Lord Retsudo, Ogami’s arch nemesis.

Ogami’s world is a feudal one where allegiance to one’s lord trumps almost everything. The lords are, however, often dishonest, selfish, and cruel. The hypocrisy of the samurai world is a phenomenon well known to all, and most particularly to Ogami who has found himself at the mercy of the ambitious Yagyu clan. Whatever else he may have become, Ogami is a man of honour to whom the way of samurai maintains a deep spiritual importance. Jikei’s attempt to unsettle Ogami by asking him what he thinks he’s going to achieve on the Demon’s Way and if killing a living Buddha is a fitting use of his talents, further pushes Ogami into a spiritual crisis regarding his quest for vengeance and ongoing career as a sword for hire.

Naritaka has, indeed, broken his code in lying to the Shogun but also in rejecting his position and creating an alternative family of his choosing by favouring the female child of his mistress over his legitimate male heir. In addition to his contract to kill Jikei and retake the letter, Ogami also receives a request to assassinate the lord himself alongside his concubine and even their daughter. This illegitimate line cannot be allowed to continue, the illicit family born of personal choice must be cut off before it begins to corrupt the future of the Kuroda clan. Actively plotting the death of one’s lord is an unthinkable concept, yet a retainer also has a responsibility to guard the honour of their house and so the lord must go, even if the retainer is bound to follow him.

The decision to execute the entire family recalls the series’ origins in which Ogami was seen to act as a second in the “harakiri” of a toddler shortly before seeing his own family fall under the sword of a Yagyu plot. Daigoro is growing older at an unnatural rate but shows a little more willingness to engage in acts of altruistic heroism than his father, such as in an episode where he decides to refuse to identify a local pickpocket even if it means he himself will be flogged in her place. Ogami looks on in inaction, yet there is the faintest flicker of pride in his otherwise impassive face as his fearless son opts to undergo a harsh punishment rather than allow someone else to suffer even as she tries to save him in turn. Daigoro also has an awkward moment of connection with the similarly aged unlucky princess but remains apparently unmoved by her fate at the end of their mission. The legitimate prince may have been liberated and the official line restored, but there has been a heavy price for all concerned and the Kuroda clan is far from saved.

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons marks the return, albeit for the last time, of the series’ original director Kenji Misumi who gets rid of the heavily exploitation leaning approach brought by Buichi Saito in the previous film, Baby Cart in Peril. No voiceovers, no musical sequences, and an overall return to quiet contemplation mixed with impressively balletic fight sequences rather than the frenetic action and sudden trickery which defined Baby Cart in Peril send the series back to its spiritual roots after a brief foray into the contemporary jidaigeki. Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is also the first in the series which contains no female nudity though it does make room for another skilled female warrior and also repeats the motif of Ogami leaving a melancholy woman behind him as he sets off into the sunset, yet this time it’s a woman who has chosen her own path in keeping with her own code and earned Ogami’s respect, and perhaps sorrow, in the process. Ogami is drawing closer to Retsudo, though his path leads him through a land of demons each more villainous than the last and justice seems like an unrealistic ideal where only men like Ogami stand at the gates of man and beast.


Original trailer (subtitles in German for captions only)

The Fireflies (螢火, 1958, Heinosuke Gosho)

bxbnzqmccaa5-cg-jpg-largeHistory marches on, and humanity keeps pace with it. Life on the periphery is no less important than at the centre, but those on the edges are often eclipsed when “great” men and women come along. So it is for the long suffering Tose (Chikage Awashima), the put upon heroine of Heinosuke Gosho’s jidaigeki The Fireflies (螢火, Hotarubi). An inn keeper in the turbulent period marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and with it centuries of self imposed isolation, Tose is just one of the ordinary people living through extraordinary times but unlike most her independent spirit sparks brightly even through her continuing strife.

Beginning in the “present” – the late 1860s, Tose is the de facto manager of Teradaya, a successful inn in Kyoto. Japanese history buffs will instantly recognise the name of the establishment, as well as that of Tose’s 18 year old adopted daughter, Oryo (Ayako Wakao). Nevertheless, that story can wait as we flashback with Tose as she gazes blankly at a stretch of water, remembering the time she first came to Teradaya as a young bride. The daughter of peasant farmers, Tose was not welcomed by her mother-in-law, Sada, both because of the class differences, and because the man she’s married is not Sada’s son but that of a concubine and she would prefer her biological daughter, Sugi, to inherit. Tose’s husband Isuke, though by no means unpleasant towards her, is a feckless man obsessed with cleaning and singing folk songs, leaving the bulk of the work to his wife.

Tose bears all, taking on the running of Teradaya and making it the most popular inn in town thanks to her friendliness, efficiency, and discretion. However, her position is threatened when she is almost ruined by a bizarre scam involving dummies and ventriloquism. Vindicated, Tose’s position is strengthened but there is more trouble in store when Sugi runs off with the conman leaving her infant illegitimate daughter in Tose’s care. Becoming a mother as she’s always wanted, Tose begins to find a little more fulfilment in her life only to have her dreams cruelly dashed once again. In an act of kindness she later adopts another orphaned girl, Oryo, who arrives at the inn starving and in the care of an older man who’d been looking after her since her doctor father was murdered for supposedly collaborating with the rebel ronin trying to over throw the shogunate.

This is the first mention of the ongoing political instability present in the country at large but largely unseen in the peaceful world of a small inn in Kyoto. Of course, you can’t say Teradaya and Oryo without eventually saying Sakamoto Ryoma (Miki Mori). Ryoma does eventually arrive in all his revolutionary glory albeit in an appropriately humanised form and proceeds to turn Tose’s life upside down in more ways than one. Locked into her loveless, but far from cruel, marriage Tose’s spirited nature is reignited by Ryoma’s fervour. Falling in love with him for his commitment to creating a better world for all, Tose’s dreams drift a little but are dashed again when she realises he and Oryo are the more natural pair.

Though Tose reacts badly to the discovery that Oryo is also in love with Ryoma, she is later able to patch things up, entrusting the man she loves to her daughter in an act of maternal sacrifice. Tose talks about her admiration for those who sacrifice all of themselves for other people but this is exactly what she has done with her own life, only in a much quieter way. Where Ryoma was a father to a movement, Tose is a mother to the world. Denied a child of her own through her husband’s indifference, Tose first adopts her niece and then an orphaned girl but consistently acts in the best interests of others rather than herself. Hearing the cries of betrayed revolutionaries, she describes them as sounding like howling babies – an idea she repeats several times including when describing Oryo’s famous naked dash from the bath to warn Ryoma of the impending arrival of the Shinsengumi. Tose’s only instinct is to silence those cries through maternal warmth, even if it ultimately causes her pain.

Tose, for Gosho at least, is no less a heroic figure than Ryoma as her everyday acts of kindness and strength contribute to an ongoing social change. Where other inn owners turn in the rebels either for material gain, active opposition, or desire to avoid the hassle, Tose stands firm and allows Teradaya to become known as a safe haven for the revolutionary movement. Ryoma shone brighter but for a short time, whereas Tose’s life goes on and Teradaya continues to be the favourite stop for beleaguered travellers passing through the old capital in these difficult times. Reconciling with her husband who finally offers the possibility of having a child of their own to inherit the inn, there is a glimmer of hope for Tose once again even if it’s clear that Isuke hasn’t really changed. It may seem that Tose’s firefly has blinked out as she takes her dull and self centred husband back, vowing to spend less time on the inn as she does so, but there is a glint of light in her few final words which are followed by putting her apron straight back on to meet the first boat, shouting the virtues of her beloved Teradaya all the way.


 

Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

samurai-spyNothing is certain these days, so say the protagonists at the centre of Masahiro Shinoda’s whirlwind of intrigue, Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke). Set 14 years after the battle of Sekigahara which ushered in a long period of peace under the banner of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Samurai Spy effectively imports its contemporary cold war atmosphere to feudal Japan in which warring states continue to vie for power through the use of covert spy networks run from Edo and Osaka respectively. Sides are switched, friends are betrayed, innocents are murdered. The peace is fragile, but is it worth preserving even at such mounting cost?

Our “hero” Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) is a wandering spy for the Sanada clan, nominally part of the Tokugawa though with no strong allegiance to either side. Everywhere he goes he feels hunted, watched by shadowy forces and unseen motivators. After bumping into Mitsuaki (Mutsuhiro Toura), an old comrade who fought alongside him at the Battle of Sekigahara, Sasuke is pulled into the ongoing intrigue as his friend is murdered and he assumed to be the culprit. Things are further complicated when a mysterious woman to whom he had become attached, Okiwa (Misako Watanabe),  is killed in a similar fashion. A political shift is taking place as a high ranking Tokugawa official, Tatewaki (Eiji Okada), is in the process of defecting to the Toyotomi with white cloaked ninja master Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) (presumably) working against him. Sasuke is charged with trying to sort all of this out but constantly finds himself on shaky ground as everything around him is constantly changing and the air is filled with conspiracy.

Shinoda aims to disorientate. After beginning with a brief historical narration to set the scene including a bloody excerpt from the horrific Battle of Sekigahara (the historical context presumably much more apparent to a Japanese viewer than an overseas one), he jumps forward 14 years and proceeds to give a rundown of the current situation. Quick fire naming and a lack of external context intentionally make it difficult to pin down who is who and which side is which. The opening sequence takes place in darkness with only moonlight and lanterns to light the way, so our players are always cast in shadows, only half visible and unidentifiable. Nothing is as it seems, the world is murky and the people in shadier still.

Sasuke fought at Sekigahara when he was just 15. His true coming of age has been in an era of peace and he is committed to sustaining that peace at all costs rather than return to the bloody, internecine warfare of the past. This stands in contrast to his double dealing friend, Mitsuaki, whose own coming of age was forged by war and so now finds himself at a loose end as warriors are obsolete in an age without war. Nevertheless, Sasuke feels the peace is threatened – all conversations are eventually about conflict, no one thinks about the meaning of death or what it is to be alive. Men like Mitsuaki have decided to live purely for pleasure, wanting nothing more than women and sake, thinking of nothing beyond satisfying their needs, and rarely consider the moral or political dimension of their actions. Mitsuaki’s unexpected degree of self interest accidentally threatens to completely destabilise the status quo, setting off a series of betrayals and counter betrayals in its wake, but all Mitsuaki was thinking about was a how to get paid twice for doing one job.

Navigating this complex network of allegiances and betrayals, Sasuke comes to discover what it is he really wants out of life and what he needs to do to get it. No longer a neutral observer, he has to pick a side and the one he picks that of the wronged. Coming to the aid of the threatened and oppressed, Sasuke adds himself to the list of enemies of the state yet he sees it as his duty to fight against the forces of darkness for a better, fairer world. Of course, he has his personal reasons for revenge but even these are partly born out of a sense of outrage for the injustice done to people who mattered to him.

Yet for all of the real world intrigue and political allegory Samurai Spy is also imbued with an unsettling sense of the absurd. Sasuke is plagued, yet at times assisted, by the almost supernatural Takatani who, incongruously, dresses in a bright white outfit with the fabric of his hood tied up into horns on the front. Appearing as needed along with his more conventionally dressed ninja minions, Takatani seems to float through the air performing strange acts of ninjadom and acting with no firm course of action. Shinoda shoots the battle scenes from odd angles using slow motion to give them a strange kind of power, even in one instance allowing a severed limb to float to the ground. In a nod to the circularity of violence, he even allows the climactic fight to be interrupted and witnessed by a small boy, shocked by what he has seen. The fact that the situation is laid to rest by a forgotten deus ex machina is yet more evidence for the world’s essential leaning towards constructed narrative.

Filled with the fog of war (literally so in places), Samurai Spy dramatises the uncertainties of its environment through the extreme lack of visual clarity. The audience is as disorientated as Sasuke, continually wrong footed and left at a loss as to the true motivations of each of the major players. The atmosphere is palpably intense, as if sitting on a powder keg ready to explode at any spark of conflict. From this viewpoint, it’s impossible to see who is in the right and who the wrong or even if those two ideas are even appropriate ways of thinking about things. Peace stands on a knife edge and, ironically, only survives if robustly defended. Violence is shown up for all of its essential cruelty and senselessness yet it is the only thing which is certain. Sasuke, at least, seems to have made his own peace in one way or another but the world he leaves behind him is far from ready to do the same.


 

Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)

Tsubaki Sanjiro horizontalGenerally speaking, where a film has been inspired by already existing source material, it’s unfair to refer to it as a “remake” even if there has been an iconic previous adaptation. That said, in the case of Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎), “remake” is very much at the heart of the idea as the film uses the exact same script as the massively influential 1962 version directed by Akira Kurosawa which also starred his muse Toshiro Mifune. Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in returning to the story’s novelistic roots than he is in engaging with Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy.

Sanjuro is a more populist offering from Kurosawa in any case and adheres to a fairly simple plot which picks up with the hero of the previous year’s Yojimbo, still a wandering ronin living on his wits and his sword. In actuality the script was altered a little to connect the two films even though the original novel has nothing to do with Yojimbo. Anyway, the story is set in a small town in which the hotheaded young men have got a bee in their bonnets about corruption at the higher levels and have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into and are about to make things even worse. Sanjuro duly arrives, overhears their idiocy and gives them some advice before heroically saving all their lives through cleverness. Later, when one of the young men’s relatives is kidnapped, Sanjuro decides to stay and help them sort this giant mess out before they do themselves a mischief.

Obviously, Morita uses the same script so Tsubaki Sanjuro has exactly the same plot as the 1962 film. This does lend it a slightly uncanny quality as its use of language and the structure of the script itself are much more of their own time – a fact brought out by the very theatrical performances of the only two female faces in the film who speak in very pointed and deliberate manners. That said, what Morita attempts to do is bring out even more of the ironic, dark comedy that underpins Kurosawa’s film but is very much played as background. Morita isn’t playing it as farce or as parody, but brings the same wry, almost mocking eye to the proceedings as he brings to to his contemporary satirical comedies.

Bayside Shakedown star Yuji Oda is cast in the role of Sanjuro but really of course he’s expected to play Mifune. He doesn’t have Mifune’s sheer presence and force of personality – who does? but he does a good job of adopting his wiseguy, casual grifter with a sentimental heart persona. We don’t know who Sanjuro is – he gives what is fairly obvious to be a fake name and seems to be a masterless swordsman content to travel in rags and live on the “kindess” of strangers, but you get the feeling he’s already got it all figured out and always knows the best way to handle any situation no matter how desperate it might seem.

If what Morita is trying to do is make a modern Kurosawa movie, he somewhat succeeds. Though he throws in the odd homage to the Kurosawa corpus, mostly he opts for a contemporary approach though one with an old fashioned kind of stateliness – no handheld camera here, wide and tracking shots rule the day. The score too remains in the classical jidaigeki realm with obvious call outs to Sanjuro’s own western leaning themes.

Morita himself can be something of a chameleon in the director’s chair, his style isn’t so personally defined but tailored to the project itself which can make him seem a little dull where he isn’t trying to add a layer of experimentation which is the thing which really interests him. Tsubaki Sanjuro’s experimentation is closer to mirroring – he’s not doing a Gus Van Sant Psycho style experiment, but he’s refracting Kurosawa for a modern audience raised on TV drama and idol stars. It works, to be sure, but perhaps it worked better for Kurosawa (unfair as that is to say).

Ultimately, Tsubaki Sanjuro is something of a curate’s egg. As it is intended to, the film has its generic sides in its fairly ordinary modern samurai movie aesthetic, though it never overplays these and cleverly adds in a more modern approach with a perfectly matched subtlety. Its cast of young men skew younger than in the original film making their naivety even more believable and lending weight to Oda’s performance which captures both his character’s gruff aloofness and his instant born leader abilities. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Tsubaki Sanjuro can’t reach the heights of the film which inspired it, but then perhaps it is not intended to, but simply to entertain with a familiar tale retold as broad comedy rather than mild satire.


Available with English subtitles on region free DVD in the US from Bonzai Media Corp. RSP

Unsubtitled trailer: