the Crossing is proud to announce the Samurai Series, an ongoing look at exemplary works of samurai cinema. You may have noticed that several of our recent reviews have been of samurai films; this is no accident. For more, check out the Series here.
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It is clear from the first few frames of Samurai Spy that we are about to watch a film that stands an arm’s length away from its peers in the chanbara genre. It begins and ends with a narrator explaining the story’s historical backdrop, immediately making it clear that the Battle of Sekigahara, which took place in 1600, serves as the catalyst for the events that are to follow: the characters’ lives have been shaped by it to such an extent that some see themselves as mere riders on the crest of a wave of war; they have enjoyed relative peacetime for nearly fourteen years, but can sense that it will soon pass.
Like Sword of the Beast, the film was released in 1965 and has since become part of the Criterion Collection’s Sixties Swordplay Classics. (This strikes me as a bit odd, considering that, while Beast balanced the internal and external action, Spy more clearly focuses on the former.) Another, more defining, commonality is that this is also a character-driven story with a complex protagonist at its core. Our hero in this case is a samurai named Sasuke (Kōji Takahashi), who is, in his own words, “pursued, always pursued by something.” He is trying to literally run from the violence that has made his life the way it is, and somehow avoid the conflict he and everyone else knows is inevitable. Above all else, he wishes that the peace he has gotten used to will last, and is thus reluctant to engage in the battle and intrigue that thrust Spy‘s plot forward, despite his exceptional skill with a sword. One of his final opponents, bleeding to death after being felled by Sasuke, puts it best: “You’re a strange man,” he says, moments from death, “You truly are.” Continue reading
Sword of the Beast is a strange one. On the surface, it seems a standard tale of swordplay and vengeance, but there’s much more at work here: namely, a meditation on what it means to live honorably as a human, hidden in the guise of an almost Ahabic quest for gold. What better vehicle for such heavy ideas than a samurai film?
The beast of the film’s title is a ronin (masterless sumaurai) named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), disgraced and on the run after killing a counselor in his clan. He did this on the implicit orders of another superior, a man who then went on to betray him in order to wrest power for himself. Gennosuke’s act is thus murky in terms of morality, and it’s a good while into the movie before you’re able to get good read on him: Even as he’s called anything from a beast to a dog to a wolf–sometimes by himself–it’s clear that there’s a complexity to the character hidden beneath his disenchantment. This development is subtly woven into the 85-minute film; Gennosuke acts far more often than he speaks, and you almost don’t realize you’re getting to know him even as you are. It’s quite a feat, and adds layers to a film whose principal attraction is seemingly its swordplay. Continue reading
If you’ve seen A League of Their Own and can imagine that film’s setting transposed to fourteenth-century Japan and the womens’ wartime occupations from professional baseball players to samurai-killers, you’re coming close to Onibaba, a Japanese film from 1964 so strange and unsettling that there still doesn’t seem to be a consensus on it. The violence is grisly, the sex nigh-gratuitous. At its core, however, Onibaba is an almost-tragic tale of three people living through war and poverty, coping in ways that only make matters worse for themselves and each other.
Released at a time when Akira Kurosawa still dominated Japanese cinema, the film is handled artfully by director Kaneto Shindô. He presents us with a poignant blend of heavy, black-and-white atmosphere and genuinely unnerving moments of horror. The tension is high immediately, and maintained throughout. This is due in no small part to Onibaba’s three leads, Nobuko Otowa (the woman for whom the film is named), Jitsuko Yoshimura (the daughter-in-law), and Kei Satô (Hachi), who returns home from war alone, leaving the woman without a son and the daughter without a husband. The web of sex, murder, and betrayal that ensues makes this a tough one to forget. Continue reading