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:

Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Setsuro Wakamatsu, 2014)

Snow on the Blades 2Times change, and men must change with them or they must die. When Japan was forced to open up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation, its ancient order of samurai with their feudal lords and subjugated peasantry was abandoned in favour of a more Western looking democratic solution to social stratification. Suddenly the entirety of a man’s life was rendered nil – no more lords to serve, a man must his make his own way now. However, for some, old wounds continue to fester, making it impossible for them to embrace this entirely new way of thinking.

Kingo is one such man who finds himself frustrated by history in Setsuro Wakamatsu’s adaptation of a novel by Jiro Asada, Snow on the Blades (柘榴坂の仇討, Zakurozaka no Adauchi). In 1860 (as we count it) he married a beautiful young woman and received a promotion as the bodyguard for his lord, Ii Naosuke. However, one fateful day his progressive master is ambushed by a rival clan making a pretence of arriving with a petition that needs to be heard. Kingo and his men fail in protecting their lord and though many of the survivors commit suicide in shame, Kingo is charged with finding the remaining perpetrators and exacting his revenge. His quest spans almost fifteen years of turbulent Meiji era history as he trudges all over Japan looking for rumours of men who no longer quite exist all the while a lonely wife waits for him at home, becoming the sole breadwinner for this new life of forced “equality”.

The man Kingo has been looking for, Naokichi, is also living an unfulfilling life, hiding from retribution but also from himself and his own remorse over the deeds of a young man whom he no longer recognises. He has the possibility of building a new life with a local widow and her sweet little daughter who’s taken a liking to him, but like Kingo he’s held frozen by the old ways and can’t quite allow himself to bring a woman and child into his life of shame and fear.

Both men have been left behind by history. Kingo is the more obvious relic with his anachronistic top knot and old fashioned Japanese dress but Naokichi is also unable to move forward until he faces his past. For much of the running time Snow on the Blades plays out like a conventional mystery or revenge tale with Kingo on the road trying to track down those who he believes wronged his master in an attempt to atone for his failures through vengeance, but all that awaits him at the end of his journey is a lonely grave. The problem is, he liked his lord who was good and progressive man, filled with kindness and poetic sentiments. His regret over not being able to save him is more than failed duty, it is also personal grief and guilt though he finds little comfort in pursing those he believes to responsible.

Having spent thirteen years striving for something Kingo suddenly finds himself adapting to the times and beginning to believe perhaps this isn’t what his lord would have wanted anyway. Both men, confronted by each other and by several different kinds of history, are forced to face themselves as they are now and as they were then and assess what all of these codes and honour systems are really worth. Snow on the Blades is often beautifully photographed and filled with scenes as lovely as any woodblock painting but, it has to be said, somewhat dull as its central psychological dramas fail to ignite. Impressive production values and universally strong performances from its high profile cast lift the film above its fairly generic narrative but can’t quite save it from its rather trite message and run of the mill period drama aesthetic.


The assassination at Sakuradamon or Sakuradamon Incident is a real historical event in which the Japanese Chief Minister Ii Naosuke was murdered by ronin samurai working for the Mito clan outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle in 1860. Ii Naosuke was a leading proponent of opening up to foreign powers (albeit as a sort of defense mechanism) but made an enemy of just about everyone through his tyrranical actions and was a very unpopular figure at the time of his death though his image has now been somewhat rehabilitated.

Uzumasa Limelight (太秦ライムライト, Ken Ochiai, 2014)

tumblr_nfxugkn3kO1seecgzo1_1280Another one from The Glasgow Film Festival (which starts today!), Uzumasa Limelight reviewed at UK Anime Network.


Once upon a time, Japanese network television was dominated by Jidaigeki or samurai dramas filled with tales of glorious battles and petty vendettas. Of course, they had their stars – the guys on the posters looking mean with their swords held high, but they couldn’t have run without the “kirareyaku” or the guys whose sole job it is to get killed by the star of the show over and over again. However, times have changed and samurai dramas aren’t as popular as they used to be. Consequently, there’s not so much work to go around and it’s hard to make a living getting by on ordinary “extra” work in modern day dramas when you’re used to the comparatively more active chanbara world. The days of the once famous Uzumasa studios as the capital of period drama in Japan are coming to a close, yet perhaps it’s just time for the older generation to step out of the limelight so that the young ones can enjoy its glow.

Inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight – the story of a once famous washed up clown who finds a new lease on life after saving a young dancer from suicide, Uzumasa Limelight is a poignant tale of the transient nature of art as it evolves from one generation to the next. In a bit of smart casting, the leading role of the veteran kirareyaku, Kamiyama, is played by a real life master – Seizo Fukumoto who has been dying on screen for over fifty years and takes on a leading role here for the first time! After falling over in the street he encounters a young, hopeful actress just leaving an audition. Satsuki (played by world champion martial artist Chihiro Yamamoto in her first dramatic role), it turns out is fascinated by the kirareyuki craft and becomes intent on training under Kamiyama despite being warned there are generally very few of these sorts of roles available for women. Nevertheless, Kamiyama begins to pass on some of his skill and before long Satsuki herself has begins to step into the limelight.

Things have certainly changed a lot since Kamiyama began working back in the glory days of the TV chanbara serial. A new producer has come in and a series which had run for over forty years has been cancelled to make way for a new show – still a period drama but more modern and up to the minute. It’s going to star a handsome idol from a top dance group – one who refuses to wear the bald cap so they have to put him in a ridiculous helmet with a giant fur train. He also can’t use a real sword so all the fights will be done with cut off green sticks and replaced with CGI blades. The new producer doesn’t care about skill or experience, he just wants handsome faces to pull in the youth viewers – old guys like Kamiyama are totally out of luck! Who wants to see some random old guy when you could just pull in a few idols to wave a little stick around and fall over on queue? It’s a shame, but it’s the way of the world. Old soldiers fall but new faces rise in their place. There may be scant respect for craft, but the art form carries on – it changes and evolves from one generation to the next but the spirit remains.

In this way, Uzamasa Limelight feels very Japanese in that it sets up the conflict between a perceived decline in values in modern movie making – what was once an art is now a (fairly ridiculous) business, whilst simultaneously accepting the transient nature of all things. Kamiyama accepts his time has passed, he barely fights it and when he decides it’s time to go he does so with dignity. He passes his skills onto his young protege and watches her use them to become a star in the new artistic world whilst retiring to the sidelines, content to have played his part to the best of his ability. Uzumasa Limelight is a beautiful, poignant tribute to the bit players of countless movies whose performances are little appreciated but without whom an entire industry would not have been able to function. Imbued with a gentle melancholy, Uzumasa Limelight also offers not a little hope for the younger generation who will pick up where their forebears left off and create something, if not necessarily better, then at least different.


 

On a side note, this is a really well made trailer!

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Yuzo Asahara, 2013)

A-Tale-of-Samurai-Cooking-teaser

I kind of love this photo because he already looks so annoyed 🙂

Review of period romantic comedy/drama with a side serving of culinary delight A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story up at UK Anime Network.


It’s a little known fact but though all samurai carry swords, some of them hang them up when they get to work and serve their lords with meat cleavers and skewers in the relative safety of the kitchen rather than the noisy chaos of a battlefield. Of course, a retainer’s job is to serve the lord in whatever capacity is expected of him, though some maybe happier with their dictated fates than others. In A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Bushi no Kondate), it’s not only a conventional romantic tale between two initially mismatched people that the title alludes to, but also how one may fall in love with a path in life that was once deeply resented.

Back in feudal Japan, Haru (Aya Ueto) is an orphaned maid servant to a prominent samurai house. She was briefly married, but embarrassingly enough was “sent back” because her new husband and his family found her far too headstrong for their household. The daughter of a pair of restaurateurs, Haru has a keen sense of cooking of her own which sees her catch the attention of a visiting famous cook, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), when she is the only person able to guess the real ingredients in his “mock crane” dish. Instantly smitten, Dennai makes her a proposal – albeit one for his son who is set to take over the family business but has no real aptitude for cooking. Yasunobu (Kengo Kora) is his second child whose fate was sealed on the death of his elder brother and though he would rather be a more conventional kind of samurai, he is the only heir to this kitchen empire. Can Haru’s cooking skills raise a fire in Yasunobu’s heart for his unwanted destiny or will they both be subjected to a lifetime of cold dinners?

A Tale of Samurai Cooking is definitely much more “period drama” than “samurai movie” though it does share a little of the historical intrigue of your typical “jidaigeki”. Set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, there are plenty of sudden reversals of fate where one house jumps ahead of another which then falls out of favour, sometimes with tragic consequences. However, though those these events inform the drama they are really just the backdrop to the true story of the very grown up (though extremely chaste and innocent – this is a U rated movie!) slow burning love story between Haru and Yasunobu. Though it’s a very charming and old fashioned sort of romance, it’s also true that Kengo Kora and Aya Ueto don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry and their love story is pretty subtle and one sided until very late into the film. Of course, the audience knows how this sort of film has to end, but the film does rather rely on this fact.

Yasunobu is at heart a kind man undergoing very difficult circumstances. Having had to let go of the life he wanted that was so nearly his following the death of his older brother, it isn’t a surprise that he’s generally sullen and extremely resentful that his father has arranged this marriage for him with a slightly older woman who’s already been married once before, not to mention the fact that it’s all because she’s better than he is at this thing he’s now supposed to do for the rest of his life. Yasunobu doesn’t even like cooking, he thinks it’s “woman’s work” and had devoted his life to the art of the sword. Luckily, Haru’s perspicacity extends beyond her palate and she’s quickly figured out what’s going on with Yasunobu so she can turn him into the ace cook his father needs him to be. Haru’s influence opens up his wilfully closed eyes to the rewards of both good women and good cookery which is part way to saying that food cooked with love can heal a broken heart, but it’s equal parts changing times and a young man growing up.

As films about food go, A Tale of Samurai Cooking certainly has a fair few mouth watering dishes on display but perhaps lacks the hearty fare of something like the comparatively more sensual, though equally comic, Tampopo. In truth, its overwhelming quality is a kind of inoffensive niceness and perhaps for some tastes could have done with a little more spice though like the best Japanese cuisine offers its own rewards precisely because of its subtlety. It’s a perfectly nice light meal, but you’ll probably wishing you’d gone for something more substantial come bed time.


 

I went a bit overboard with the food metaphors, which is maybe what you get when you spend your food budget on movie tickets. I regret nothing.

Anyway this is showing at the Curzon in Mayfair until tomorrow, though they did say it may extend if there’s enough interest. It’s also going to be screened at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End and the Everyman and apparently will open in Ireland from 9th January. Yume Pictures will then release it on DVD in 2015 if you aren’t near a cinema that’s showing it, or you can even watch it on Curzon Home Cinema right now.

 

Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno (UK Anime Network Review)

ruruoni_kenshin_the_kyoto_inferno_still(saito’s just so cool!)

Review of the first Rurouni Kenshin sequel, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno up at UK Anime Network.


At the end of the first Rurouni Kenshin live action film, you might have been forgiven for thinking that this once wandering warrior had finally found a place to hang up his (reverse blade) sword for good. As fans of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s much loved manga and its anime adaptation will know, there’s no such luck for Himura Kenshin or the long suffering Kaoru as once again Kenshin will be called upon to put his unique skills to use and this time the very survival of Japan’s new era of modernism and equality is at stake!

Having successfully seen off would be drug baron Kanryuu and the false Battosai Jin-e, once remorseless killer Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) has moved into the dojo run by Kaoru (Emi Takei) and made a seemingly joyful life alongside Kaoru’s only pupil, the boy Yahiko (Kaito Oyagi), the doctor Megumi (Yu Aoi) and loud mouth Sanosuke (Munekata Aoki). However, the happy family’s peace is about to be rudely interrupted as an envoy from the Home Minister arrives and requests a private meeting with Kenshin. It seems an old enemy once believed dead has been discovered to be alive and currently plotting terrible vengeance against the new government in Kyoto. Shishio’s skills are matched only by Kenshin and so the government wishes to make use of his services once again to stop this new threat to the development of the modernising Japan. However, Kenshin has laid down his sword and dedicated his life to atoning for the lives he took as a warrior – will he really return to the life of a wandering swordsman? Originally reluctant and very much against the wishes of Kaoru, a tragic event finally convinces Kenshin he has no choice but to stop Shishio whatever the cost!

Even more so that the first film, Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is set against the backdrop of a Japan in the middle of earth shattering cultural shifts. The age of the Shogun is over, there are no more samurai or feudal loyalties to fulfil. This fresh new world of possibilities has no place left in it for the men who fought so bravely to bring it into being. Some, like Kenshin, hung up their swords and set themselves into atoning for the violence of the past by vowing to build a better, kinder, future. Others, however, like Shishio, were left with nothing other than the desire to return to a world where their skills mattered – the familiar world of lords and castles and glorious battles. Kenshin and Shishio are two sides of the same coin – light and shadow. Having been assassinated and thrown on a funeral pyre before miraculously surviving thanks to a fortuitous fall of snow, Shishio has made fire his very own symbol and primary weapon of attack. This new world is a hell for him and along with his bandage clad gang of followers, he’s about to plunge all of Japan into a fiery abyss too.

The first instalment was also notable for its fairly high production values and if anything, Kyoto Inferno even improves upon the original film’s impressive aesthetics. Fire in particular has often proved something of a bug bear for the modern action film and as you might expect from the title Kyoto Inferno is jam packed with flaming action. From its extremely striking opening scene, Kyoto Inferno lays on some of the most complex and beautifully filmed action sequences to be seen in a Japanese film in quite some time. Where it falls down slightly is bound up with its nature as the first part of a two part film as it is does begin to pile on the sub plots and risks becoming overloaded while the original gang (and particularly Yu Aoi’s doctor Megumi) end up with relatively little to do. Likewise, as with the first film the more manga-like elements such as some of the overly broad comedy or a couple of characters who are just the wrong sort of outrageous don’t quite fit with the otherwise classical feeling of the film though fans of the manga franchise may appreciate this attempt at remaining faithful to the source material.

In many ways the Rurouni Kenshin movies are just fluffy mainstream action films (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno is that rarest of beasts in that it manages to build on the foundations of the first film to become something greater with the result that it even helps to elevate the original. Of course, this largely hinges on how well the last part of the trilogy, appropriately entitled The Legend Ends will fare but suffice to say the first two thirds have stood it in very good stead. Action packed but with a tightly plotted storyline, convincing characters, good performances and high production values Rurouni Kenshin 2: Kyoto Inferno offers everything that’s good about blockbusters without any of the drawbacks. In fact the only real problem that the film presents is the likely long wait until The Lengend Ends finally arrives!


 

This is out in UK cinemas from Friday 28th November 2014 when it’ll play all these cool places:

  • Cineworld Enfield
  • Cineworld Crawley
  • Cineworld Sheffield
  • Cineworld West India Quay
  • Cineworld Glasgow RS
  • Cineworld Cardiff
  • Cineworld Stevenage
  • Cineworld Bolton
  • Vue Piccadilly (London)

Well worth seeing on the big screen, might even be better than the first one!

13 Assassins – Review

Takashi Miike, perhaps best known (at least around these parts) for the disturbing horror/romance Audition, never one one to confine himself to the same genres, finally turns his attentions to the traditional samurai epic. In remaking the 1963 movie of the same name, Miike has made something that honours the chanbara tradition but also succeeds in giving it his own unique twist. The plot is standard samurai fare, an evil lord, Naritsugu, rising in influence feels free to indulge his every whim on his powerless subordinates, this includes rape/murder/child murder/mutilation/outright barbarity. Finally other lords grow weary of him, some committing suicide in protest and it is decided  that Naritsugu must be removed, however his personal forces stay loyal to the samurai code and to their lord. Enter Shinzaemon Shimada, a world weary samurai eventually convinced to take on the task of eliminating Naritsugu, who then gathers twelve other men to become the eponymous thirteen.

So far, so Seven Samurai. However, Miike’s usual quirks and personal touches are very much in evidence, if slightly more reserved than we’ve seen before. Surprisingly, much of the gore that’s been associated with Miike is often just out of shot, with prime place being given to the sound of the terrible acts taking place. We don’t see the lords committing suppuku, or Hara-Kiri, we hear them, the sound of the knife tearing through their flesh, of a head coming off and rolling away, and the effect is so much more terrible. In fact the entire soundscape of the film is very impressive, steel clashing with steel, arrows flying with total clarity and we never lose sight of where we are. The final battle scene is remarkably well done, it never drags and Miike keeps such tight control that even through all the chaos of the battlefield, the audience is never allowed to get lost. Any fan of Miike or of the samurai genre would regret missing this, a very notable addition to both groups.