47 Ronin [mild spoilers]: follows a group of disgraced samurai as they set out to avenge their murdered master. As it’s a Hollywood film it obviously contains every single ‘western portrayal of Asia’ pitfall imaginable – everyone speaking ‘Engrish’, exotic mystique, ninjas/samurai everywhere, forbidden gaijin romance, cherry blossom, western warrior, kanji writing, tradition, tradition, tradition… Because of this – and given the foul reviews this received – I was expecting something woeful, but this is pleasantly surprising. The visuals are fantastic: it is a touch over-styalised – some parts feel like Sucker Punch set in feudal Japan – but the costumes, textures, sets, CGI backgrounds are all eye-poppingly sumptuous: it’s up there with The Fall’s immaculate design. Story-wise, other than a few swashbuckling & sword fighting action set pieces, this is definitely more of a drama than you expect: the story arcs are all fairly standard until the ‘happy’ ending – a mass samurai suicide instead of a mass criminal hanging – yay! The biggest complaint you hear about this is that it’s nothing like the original story: WTF?! This is a blockbuster movie… and there are so many fictionalized accounts of this tale that there’s a specific entire genre term for it – Chūshingura! The weirdest thing about 47 Ronin is that it plays to two wildly different audiences – it’s half respectful and traditional samurai movie; and half Game of Thrones style middle-earth mayhem (battles, questing, magic & mythology). Overall, it’s an interesting, and beautiful, oddity that could have been great, but is by no means a terrible movie.
Lone Wolf and Cub – Baby Cart in Peril (AKA – 子連れ狼 親の心子の心 Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro, Shogun Assassin 3: Slashing Blades of Carnage): Ito’s latest contract is to assassinate a killer of many samurai, but to his surprise it’s a lady with outstanding short-blade skills, and in a similar situation to himself… Oyuki presents a very strong female lead, something that the previous movies have had – but not taken this seriously. The very first frame is a tattooed boob, so it starts off great! But soon after there’s a bit of silly magic (face mask magic guy), some sizable flashback sections, and a lot more talking than previous installments. However, as good as the story and premise are, the Babycart films are never better than their action set-pieces: with Wakayama hacking, slashing, and literally flying around the frame – he can’t half move around for a big bloke. The now customary ‘final battle’ with dozens of enemies and a few ‘bosses’ is also great, and for the first time we see him properly injured/vulnerable too. More than anything, the film is a little confused about who the baddie is: the girl? Her nemesis? Itto’s old foe? The big hairy guy? By the fourth movie it does feel a bit like more-of-the-same but the film still pushes the boundaries, and does well to set up the one-armed swordsman myth.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades Review
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx Review
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance Review
Lone Wolf and Cub #1 – Sword of Vengeance (子連れ狼 子を貸し腕貸しつかまつる, or Kozure Ōkami: Kowokashi udekashi tsukamatsuru): when his wife is killed by ninjas and he is betrayed by a rival clan, the Shogun’s lead executioner becomes an assassin for hire, wondering the country with his infant son. The film opens with the lead character beheading a child… which lets you know exactly what to expect from the film, and what the lead, Itto Ogami is capable of. Despite this, being played so well by Tomisaburo Wakayama means that you still relate to, and feel for the character and his situation, as he transforms from obedient executioner, to a masterless badass – even if he’s out-of-shape. He is another one of Japan’s surprisingly complex – well acted – anti-heroes. The action scenes are second to none; heads literally roll across the screen, limbs fall to the ground, jets of blood spray everywhere – it’s completely over the top, yet so ridiculously stylish and meticulously planed; it was the first of the more extreme, exploitative Chambara movies. There’s also surprisingly good period detail for an out-and-out exploitation movie; the weirdest part however is that there’s a strangely high volume of scenes involving suckling on teats (OK, only two, but that’s still two more than most films). Sword of Vengeance is over 40 years old now, but it’s crammed full of everything that most modern exploitation films can’t even do right – the main difference is that it’s filmed by an absolute auteur – the film looks like art at times, which is a testament to the story’s manga roots.
NOTE: Some people will be familiar with this from the Shogun Assassin movie – which takes the bloodiest bits from the first two Lone Wolf and Cub films and mashes them together to create an even bloodier samurai slasher film aimed at Western audiences. That banned VIPCO vault of horror DVD was my first exposure to the series, and god was it brilliant.
As part of JAPANORAMA I am inviting fellow movie sites to join in. This post if from Mike at Screen Kicker Movies, an up-and-coming site full of film reviews and features that are oozing with funny writing and personality, making for easy and entertaining reading. He has chosen to review The Twilight Samurai – full review can be found on his site here. You can also follow Mike on Twitter @Metalmike25
The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, たそがれ清兵衛) The movie really isn’t your typical samurai movie. It’s set during peacetime when samurai worked as accountants instead of warriors. Essentially they went from doing the coolest job in the world to the most boring job in the world. This is where we meet Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) a samurai/accountant/single parent (what a combo!) who struggles to make ends meet until he is presented with an offer he can’t refuse. Released in 2002 and directed by Yoji Yamada it throws a curve ball at anyone expecting a violent action movie. It tackles something I feel is much more important than the usual motive of revenge – it’s about how normal people survive when life has given them a hard time. It’s very relevant during these recession hit times, more so than when it was released and this gives it an immediacy that stays with the viewer. Combine this with romance, comedy, and some very cute kids, and you have a winner on your hands. All together it’s one of those films that gives you hope in humanity. Oh and a desire to get a kick-ass samurai sword.
As part of the JAPANORAMA feature I am inviting fellow movie sites to join in. This post is from Michael over at It Rains… You Get Wet (a sweet Heat reference). The site is full of great articles, although I particularly like the TMT series of posts, which are great pieces of cinema nostalgia – and make me wish that I could visit such grand cinemas in their heyday. You can also follow Michael on Twitter @le0pard13.
The Loyal 47 Ronin (忠 臣蔵 Chushingura) (1958), directed Kunio Watanabe, is based on a historical event that occurred in early 18th century Japan. In that ancient land, it’s the national legend typifying the samurai code of honor, bushidō. I daresay, few westerners before World War II knew of it. Of course, after 1998 that number went up significantly with John Frankenheimer’s espionage-thriller Ronin, which used the famed tale as allegory to its own. Its summation works well here, “Forty-seven samurai, whose master was betrayed and killed by another lord. They became ronin – masterless samurai – disgraced by another man’s treachery. For three years they plotted, pretending to be thieves, mercenaries, even madmen – that I didn’t have time to do – and then one night they struck, slipping into the castle of their lord’s betrayer and killing him.” Essentially what transpires in this film and all the other versions of it (there are a lot). Beautifully shot in widescreen, and considered by many scholars to be the most accurate and best, it’s stage heritage does keep it bound some. But as a timeless yarn of honor and revenge, it doesn’t get any better than this. Shogun Assassin fans should stay far far away, though, as the film’s almost three-hour runtime is its own test of loyalty.