Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: Seven Samurai for Seven Samurai

Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo

The samurai as Western hero in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo.  A loose adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled novel Red Harvest, it was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars.  Kurosawa's sequel Sanjuro is a comic take on a short story by Shūgorō Yamamoto that was also adapted as a more serious dramatic film starring Tatsuya Nakadai called Kill! that was directed by Kihachi Okamoto.

The Loyal 47 Ronin
The samurai as historical tragedy in Kenji Mizoguchi's epic 1941 version of one of the most famous, and most filmed, episodes in Japanese history, in which the titular ronin avenge their wronged master and commit honorable suicide.  Kurosawa's Kagemusha also uses history as a means to examine the samurai world, in this case the fall of the warlord Shingen Takeda during the civil war that ultimately established the Tokugawa Dyanasty in 1575.

Toshiro Mifune in Throne of Blood
The samurai as Shakespearean tragedy in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Ran.  Adapting Macbeth and King Lear, respectively into Japanese settings and utilizing the conventions of traditional Noh theatre, Kurosawa loses the language but gets to the heart of the brutal violence and treachery in Shakespeare.

Tatsuya Nakadai in The Sword of Doom
The samurai as homicidal maniac in Kihachi Okamoto's pitch-black The Sword of Doom.  Tatsuya Nakadai plays the most bad ass samurai around, who kills indiscriminately and can only be stopped by a freeze-frame (the film is the first in a trilogy, but the remaining movies were never made).  One of the most vicious and evil protagonists in film history in an immensely enjoyable movie.

Tomisaburo Wakayama in Shogun Assassin
The samurai as grindhouse classic in Shogun Assassin.  Director Robert Houston melded together parts of the first two films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series (directed by Kenji Misumi) and dubbed them into English for release in the US.  You probably know it best from the many samples used in GZA's seminal album Liquid Swords.

Nobuko Otowa in Onibaba
The samurai as victim of the people in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba.  During a great war, an old woman and her daughter-in-law hunt down wounded samurai and murder them, stealing and selling their weapons and armor for food (this is also a plot point in Seven Samurai).  They are eventually repaid with a terrible curse, one that involves one of the scarier masks in film history.

The samurai as social commentary in Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, in which Tatsuya Nakadai (in one of the great performances in film history) seeks revenge on the samurai clan, and the feudal system in general, that lead to his son-in-law being forced to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword.  Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion, starring Toshiro Mifune along with Nakadai, is also a frontal assault on the samurai system, with Mifune rebelling against the irrational demands of his lord.  Japanese directors often used period settings to disguise their critiques of contemporary, and especially wartime, Japanese society.  Sadao Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons is one such film, following the struggles for life in a slum both for masterless samurai who can barely survive and the common people, who weren't much better off.  Made in 1937, Yamanaka was drafted the same day the film premiered and he died in Manchuria at the age of 28.

No comments: