Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

A thrilling pre-titles opening sequence effectively sums up what this series is about. We see a topless swordmistress take down a group of ninjas, blood spraying theatrically across her bared chest. A quick cut to Itto Ogami as he is hired to kill this woman. As the titles roll a couple of minutes in the filmmakers have essentially told you everything you need to know about what is to follow. This is not in any way a criticism, but praise. Film four in the popular series seems to have found the heart of the story and presents exactly what the audience has come to expect. In an interesting twist Daigoro, Itto’s son, wanders off and is discovered by a rival swordsman who threatens him. Realising the child has the Eyes of Death, due to his repeated contact with violence, he spares him. This time spent with Daigoro helps set up his character a little more as we see the toll his father’s choice has had on him. We also learn more about the woman from the beginning of the film from a tattoo artist who produced the artwork we see on her at the beginning.

Utilising voice-overs and characters talking about stories lends the film a story-book quality, as though this is a famous historical event or legend. This also helps us to see certain characters as archetypes and their struggles as universal. The character of O-Yuki (the female warrior Itto is hired to assassinate) is mysterious and poignant. She is a more sympathetic villain than in previous instalments and one worthy of Itto’s respect. Once again the film does not spare the bloodshed and in a thrilling scene in a small temple we see Itto dispatch of a group of ninjas, severing limbs, blood pouring out across the floor. Decapitations, lopped off arms, splitting skulls, every conceivable wound that could be inflicted with a blade is used in a violently creative series of action sequences. As might be expected there are a couple of scenes that are similar to previous instalments, with an onsen, a climactic battle, but the action and story are highly entertaining.

Itto Ogami’s legend has at this point grown so that he is known throughout the land. It is always hard with a long running series not to make the protagonist into some kind of superhero. Baby Cart in Peril does a good job of this by seeing him badly injured and struggling to maintain the absolute composure he shows in usual circumstances. By giving us an example of Daigoro in trouble we also see his second major weakness: that of protecting his son. This film also shows us again that while he is undoubtedly capable of callousness and not averse to killing, he does maintain an underlying code of honour in his behaviour.

Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional  zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.

Azumi (2003)

Ten children are taken when they are young and trained to be assassins, among them Azumi. On the last day of their training, their master tells them they must pair up with their favourite person and kill them, thus qualifying them to be useful assassins. Set in feudal Japan, when the country is torn apart by warring factions, the film follows a group of assassins as they are tasked with killing a number of clan chiefs, allies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, in order to restore peace to the country. After defeating the first of their targets, the second sends a skilled swordfighter, Bijomaru, of his own to defeat the band of assassins.

The plot of the film will perhaps be better understood if you know a little about the Tokugawa shogunate, and this period of history, as it is a fictionalised version of that time. The story is not too complicated, basically the assassins are tasked with taking out the clan chiefs, while avoiding death themselves. I had a couple of issues with this film, largely relating to the tone. There are many comedic scenes, cartoonish violence, even almost slapstick comedy, while other scenes are sombre, dealing with death and tragedy. The film never really seems to pull these two distinct characters together, instead veering wildly from one to the other. This is not helped by the rock score and direction at times, which make it seem like a pop music video. It is hard to know whether you are meant to be taking any of this seriously. The photography likewise seems to lurch from being well shot, with a real cinematic feel, and looking like a home movie (sometimes it looks as though the actors are just role-playing here, rather than feeling like real people). The costumes and set design are all good and the acting is good for the most part (if you can get over the sudden shifts in tone from tragic to comic acting).

This period of Japanese history is the subject of many films, and this one takes a fairly light-hearted approach to events. The story looks at whether it is morally right or even possible to prevent war by killing those who cause war. The main character of Azumi is somewhat conflicted during the film, having killed her friend early on, and being forced into this life of death, causing suffering to others. There is also a scene in which another girl attempts to make her more feminine and cease killing, but Azumi finds that being an assassin is now the only thing she can do. The film is a real shame, because there are some great fight scenes and really interesting ideas let down by scenes where the filmmakers seem to have applied little effort.

Sakuran (2006)

Kiyoha is a popular young prostitute and much envied in the brothel. After being taken in there as a child she at first resists her fate and hopes to escape. However, she soon realises she must embrace her position in the brothel whatever that may entail. As well as struggling against the jealous matriarch she begins a relationship with a client with whom she forms an attachment.

The film is directed by Mika Ninagawa and her visual style is evident her with bright vivid colours and well established shots. Her weakness as a director is in any lack of evocative movement or awareness of using the camera other than to frame shots. At times the film would benefit from a more dynamic style. This coupled with the complete lack of plot leave this film feeling hollow despite a number of attempts to grab attention with dramatic turns of event. The music is provided by Shina Ringo and suits the modern-slant of this historical drama. The film attempts some heavy-handed, and as it turns out entirely inconsequential, metaphor and it’s clear from the lingering shots of the lead that this was intended to have a serious side. The problem is that you feel almost no sympathy for the character’s struggles as they rarely express any desire to do anything. While the film is set in a brothel it is rather tame, particularly Tsuchiya Anna’s scenes and excepting the scenes of the women bathing.

The film is an examination of sex and love and of being stuck in a life with little purpose or chance of salvation. You can view it either as a successfully depressing look at life in a brothel where nothing ever really changes and the soulless objectified women are servile to a ruling class of similarly cretinous men. Or as a failure that set aesthetic values above storytelling, so interested in the concept of a prostitute as heroine that the filmmakers forgot to write a compelling script.

Based on the manga by Moyoko Anno.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

three outlaw samurai

A ronin happens across a village suffering at the hands of a greedy governor. Finding a house of three farmers who have kidnapped the governor’s daughter as a bargaining chip he decides to help. One farmer’s daughter has also been taken by the governor, leading to a stalemate. The ronin is joined by two rogue samurai from the governors guard. Various conflicts ensue as the situation becomes increasingly violent.

The film is based on a long running T.V. series and as such is packed with incident as the characters struggle and scheme against each other. As such the film moves rapidly from one set-piece to another, feeling like a round-up of a series rather than a story which has time to breath. It’s well-shot, in black and white, with plenty of sword-fighting and not a little melodrama. Occasionally it feels cheap compared to other films of the period. Not for the faint-hearted, the film actually  gets surprisingly violent and the treatment of the daughters is fairly shocking.

Violence begets violence is the moral at the heart of this film. The ronin character is played as a hero rescuing the villagers, but their treatment of the daughter is of cause for concern. To what extent should conflict be allowed to escalate. A fast-paced action story with a few powerful scenes which you will remember.

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

shinobi heart under blade

1614, Japan. At a waterfall a young man and woman from rival warrior tribes, known as “Shinobi”, meet for the first time and fall in love. The Emperor, Ieyasu Tokugawa, has summoned the heads of the two tribes to his castle. Promising them sanctuary and a place beside him in the castle he decrees that their tribes must fight to the death. The two leaders return and select five fighters each. The two young lovers are both chosen to fight.

A forbidden love story reminiscent of  traditional theatre the film begins with great swooping shots of the landscape and throughout looks fantastic with it’s highly stylised cinematography, set-design and costumes. Once the fighting begins the film is littered with slow-motion and CG which detracts a little from the story and makes it feel more like a video game adaptation. This is heightened by the fact each character has a special ability and multiple gravity- and logic-defying stunts put this firmly in the fantasy genre. However, towards the end the film has a couple of powerful scenes and the acting is good.

The story maintains the focus largely on the two leads, although other characters are brought on briefly as foils or to fight. Their story is moving, particularly in it’s resolution and in the exploration of love and loyalty. If you don’t go in expecting a realistic drama you might enjoy the camp action scenes and anime sensibilities of this film.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara Kiri Death of a Samurai
The age of the samurai is drawing to a close with many having fallen on hard times. For a struggling ronin there is a risky, but potentially profitable, gambit that might be attempted: approach a wealthy lord and request to commit ritual suicide in his presence. If all goes well the lord will decide to take you on, or at the very least give you some money and send you on your way, rather than see blood spilt in his hall. This so-called “suicide bluff” is what we see attempted in this film by the samurai Tsukumo Hanshiro. However, following his request to commit ritual disembowelment the guards inform him that another recently appeared there attempting the same thing, and rather than being offered money they had forced him to carry out his proposed course of action. We learn that Tsukumo was aware of this and in fact good friends with the young samurai, who is in fact his son-in-law. We then hear the sorry tale that led him to that juncture, taken in by Tsukumo after his own father perished, and married to his daughter with a young child. Through various circumstances he was driven to the rash course of action that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tsukumo is now here for his revenge.

Takashi Miike is usually known for outrageous spectacle, violence, and even extreme horror. With this film, a remake of the 1962 classic, he takes a much more restrained approach. The tone is sombre, the drama slowly revealed and delicately considered. There is a certain theatrical feel to proceedings, particularly the sequences in the lord’s palace. Everything is driven by dialogue rather than action and this could easily work as a stage play. In fact there are perhaps only two sequence of swordplay coming late in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is incredible, perfectly captures the period, the palaces, feudal era streets and homes. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is likewise a gorgeous accompaniment to the drama. There is a lot to recommend the film, both cinematography and music, fantastic acting and a stirring central plot. It is a little overlong and lacking in the sort of frenetic action you may expect in a samurai film. It takes its time, relishing each moment and scene, and it rewards patience.

The film features a great look at the code of honour prevalent in the feudal period. It may seem peculiar that anyone would think to attempt this “suicide bluff”, but it allows us a look at both the relationship and reaction to death of this harsher social climate. There are a few hints to a more biting satire here, such as the shots of a white cat perched atop a pillow in the noble palace starkly compared to the feline corpse lying in the dirt in the lower home of the ronin. This is a world where the caste system rules and the line between rich and poor is clearly drawn. It is also a film about duty, both to your family and superiors, and whether it is possible to be good in such a rigid hierarchy, asking what it means to be an honourable person in such a world.

13 Assassins (2010)

 

The sadistic lord Naritsugu tortures and terrifies his subjects with impunity. One of his retinue Sir Doi decides to attempt a coup by recruiting a band of assassins led by his friend Shinzaemon. As the king returns from Edo the assassins wait in a village along the route to block his path.

A simple fight against the odds tale against a merciless lord. The film never looks less than stunning, with stylistic framing and actions. The final fight scenes employ hand-held cinematography to great effect. The opening scenes of the lords cruelty highlight an unhinged villain and the camaraderie of the assassins is also well-done. Although this kind of story has been done numerous times Miike adds his trademark off-beat humour and sensibilities to it. Occasionally the film seems undecided on whether to be a straight-faced historical drama, or a tongue-in-cheek action film. However inconsistent it is it remains very entertaining.

The focus is largely on the plight of the assassins against the vicious Naritsugu. The lords privileged, out-of-touch take on the world is highlighted later in the film when he remarks how fun it must have been to live in feudal, war-torn, Japan. Meanwhile, the assassins are left to muse on their fates as they face almost certain death. A fun action film with a fair mix of comedy and tradgedy.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Genji is born to the Japanese Emperor and his mistress. Being an illegitimate child, young Genji is not allowed to accede to the throne and is instead created head of his own ‘family’, and accorded the title Prince. The story follows the life and numerous romantic adventures of Prince Genji . Believed to be the world’s first novel, and one of the oldest existing examples of Japanese literature, this story is full of many interesting details pertaining to courtly life in the period described in the narrative. The story was written by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a member of the court of Empress Akiko. Vaunted, even in her own day, as a great writer, Shikibu has crafted here a timeless tale of romance and courtship. Prince Genji is very much a product of his time and station, as we see his neglect of his wife, and subsequent wooing of various ladies, essentially shrugged off as quite natural (after all Genji himself is a product of an affair). The book is surprisingly relevant in its discussions of what makes an ideal romantic partner, the potential pitfalls of being too jealous, too zealous, or too unfeeling in a relationship. The writer dissects human relationships and examines them with an anthropologist’s eye for detail, and proceeds to describe them with a poet’s sense of wonder.

The book is not an easy read, and this is due to a number of factors. Due to the age and setting of the story, people unfamiliar with Japan and the Heian Period, might struggle with the various names, of places and royal and military ranks that pepper the story. Murasaki Shikibu was evidently writing this for people at the courts she served at, and that is evident in the easy way she relates events. The narrative is replete with numerous references to ancient Japanese and Chinese history, legends and proverbs. There are a few cultural differences that may confuse a modern reader. The book certainly doesn’t read like a dusty ‘history’ book, but there are points which might require some explanation or further study to fully appreciate. Once you understand what is happening though, there is a fun adventure story underneath.

I would definitely recommend this book to scholars of Japanese literature, as it offers an impressively detailed look at the life of the nobility of the period. To the casual reader, I would recommend it for the beautiful writing – including the numerous waza (short poems) throughout – and also for the story. This was written as entertainment, and the book certainly has enough intrigue in it to hold your interest. The episodic nature of the text also helps in this regard, as each romantic encounter can be enjoyed as its own story, tying in to the greater narrative of Genji’s life.

I read the abridged version of this story, rather than the lengthy 54 volume original. This version ends with Genji’s retirement, whereas I understand that the full text continues with the adventures of his son. One day, I might embark on that journey.