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Doogan's Views at The Digital Bits
page added: 7/20/05



Doogan's Views - Main Page


I wonder... do you think the Japanese dig classic Westerns as much as we, the American Fanboy, dig Samurai films? I sure hope so because turnabout is fair play... even in film culture. At this point in film history, Samurai films and Westerns owe a lot to each other, but as you'll see by a selection of really cool Samurai DVDs that have come out in the last few months, many other genres have inspired Samurai flicks as well.


Hanzo the Razor (Box Set)

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Hanzo the Razor (Box Set)
1972-74 (2005) - Toho (Home Vision Entertainment)

Katsu Shintaro didn't just play a cunning blind swordsman known as Ichi. Oh, no. He was a helluva character actor, and one of his most notable character creations was Hanzo, the long "arm" of the law. The box explains the character best "Dirtier than Harry and Shaftier than Shaft!" To discuss the films and then go into how enjoyable and well done I personally find them to be will get me on the lists of just about every feminist out there. So before I shove my foot fully down my throat, let's say right off the bat that the Hanzo Trilogy (which includes Sword of Justice, The Snare and Who's Got the Gold?) is a wholly adult offering and concerns some very, very despicable acts of violence towards women, acts that should never be accepted in any way shape or form. Yet, and here's where I create a world of female enemies, in the context of these films, what Hanzo does makes some sort of "sense." Uhg, I'm in trouble now and boy do I know it. I should stop while I'm ahead, but I'm not known for my tact. So let's look closer at the three films in this set...


Sword of JusticeThe SnareWho's Got the Gold?


Sword of Justice (1972)

In 1972 Hanzo Itami, master swordsman and incorruptible lawman, is pulled from the pages of the manga by Lone Wolf and Cub creator Kazuo Koike and given life on the silver screen.

In this, his first cinematic appearance, we learn just how incorruptible Hanzo is when he refuses to make a ceremonial oath as a Shogunate constable because he believes all the other officers he works with on the "force" are corrupt. He doesn't feel that he can make the same oath as they do morally and so he flat-out refuses. Why are the other cops corrupt? The simplest answer and Hanzo's answer is: because they forsake the poor for the rich. His decision raises the ire of his higher ups, and may be the end of his career and possibly his life. With mouths agape and fingers wagging, Hanzo moves on to the meat of his adventure and we next meet two former criminals under Hanzo's employ who run errands for him in exchange for their freedom. Together, the three of them start to uncover information about a killer on the run in Hanzo's town, and a certain lady who has a connection to him. She's a bad egg, and Hanzo has a special interrogation technique to learn what she might know about this newcomer and his conspiracy connection to the same higher ups that Hanzo pissed off earlier.

The Snare (1973)

In pursuit of two criminals, Hanzo stumbles into the procession of Shogunate commissioner of finance Lord Okubo, who immediately demands an apology for interrupting his passage, which Hanzo refuses to give. This, of course, pisses off Hanzo's higher-up and it takes a dead girl, a bald female monk in need of interrogation, a botched abortion and a sex ring conspiracy linked to those higher-ups to bring Hanzo to the top and everyone else to the bottom.

Who's Got the Gold? (1974)

Onibi and Mamushi (the two criminals that work for Hanzo) are out fishing in a pond and come face to face with a female ghost who runs them off. Hanzo ain't afraid of no ghosts and he shows up and immediately learns that the ghost is all flesh and blood woman (guess how he figures that out) and that she's part of a conspiracy that's sucking gold out of the treasury and into the haunted pond. Bet he links it to higher-ups he pissed of at some point during the film.

Yeah, yeah, Hanzo isn't high art, nor does it stray too far from the structures established in the first film, but that's always been Katsu's strength as a storyteller... he knew what worked and gave his audiences exactly what they wanted and expected.

But, aside from the eye-widening story elements (rape as an interrogation technique with the end result always being the woman not wanting Hanzo to stop and sticking around to cuddle afterwards and let's not even go into how Hanzo trains his most important muscle!) and the great characterizations by Katsu, the thing that stands out more than anything in these films is the heavy blaxpoitation vibe going on. From camerawork to the bass-heavy musical score, urban films of the 70s surely influenced the making of this film.

If you're open to them and can take them for what they are, the Hanzo the Razor films are campy fun and are served quite well on DVD. The anamorphic widescreen transfers are spotless, the sound in the original mono is hiss free and dare I say quite groovy and the extras are what we expect from a Home Vision samurai release: trailers and liner notes. If you or the one you love, are into samurai films I highly recommend these films. Just don't enjoy them as much as me, and you won't have to defend yourself as a pervert.


Ronin Gai

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Ronin Gai
1990 (2005) - Shochiku Co. (Home Vision Entertainment)

Japanese Samurai movies aren't just popular here in the states, surprise, surprise, they're actually quite popular in Japan as well. Who'd have thunk it? If you need proof, look no further than modern Samurai Films Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai and this film: Ronin Gai, a full on love song for the genre.

Although not as fan friendly as Twilight, Ronin Gai has a rather nice pedigree. Directed by Kazuo Kuroki and famously conceived to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of Shozo Makino (the man credited as being "father of Japanese cinema" and bringing Japan out of kabuki and into Kurosawa), Ronin Gai is also the last film in the colorful career of one Shintaro Katsu who you just got done reading about and know how much we at the Bits love. Considering this is the swan song of one of Japan's most beloved actors, it's worth having in your library right there. But I'll sell it some more.

Covering just about every spectrum of film culture: comedy, drama, epic, love, Ronin Gai follows a cast of Samurai Film stock characters. There is the shadowy Yojimbo-esque ronin named Gennai (Yoshio Harada), the beautiful prostitute he loves (Oshin), the samurai clans member with a dark past and desperate means (Doi), his sister Obun and Bull, played by Katsu who is but a shadow of his former self, reduced to humiliating himself to the highest bidder, yet very protective of the prostitutes who work at the local tavern.

When some local prostitutes are murdered at the hands of Shogunate soldiers who are making it their job to cleanse the land of sin and sinners, the above cast is slowly pulled into doing something about it when Oshin is scheduled for public execution. That's when this film stops looking like a Samurai costume drama and becomes the blood-splattered badass we are all hoping for.

The first hour is a bit, uhm, slow and plodding. It takes some time to set everything up and make us familiar with the characters and get things to exactly where they need to be to end it the way fans will be happy with. The characters are nice and the film fan homage's throughout are fun to spot (count the shogun's retainers, how many are there? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . seven samurai!). But the end is amazing and makes it well worth the wait.

Ronin Gai looks pretty damn good on DVD. It's anamorphic and the color representation is beautiful. Sound is presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and extras are your standard Home Vision type with the theatrical trailer and liner notes.


The Sword of Doom

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The Sword of Doom
1966 (2005) - Toho (Criterion)

This one is quite the fan favorite. But the fans of this film might be the real fans of Japanese cinema, not just of Samurai Films. When I announced in my last column that I'd been looking at a bunch of Samurai Films, I received a huge stack of "can't wait to read what you have to say about Sword of Doom" e-mails. Will I praise it based solely on its Samurai laurels or will I break it down as the historical drama it is? Well, here I am and guess what? I love this film for both reasons. I love, love, love Sword of Doom. It's truly a great flick. And it's huge that Criterion put it out on DVD for all of us to savor over and over again.

The utterly soulless Ryunosuke Tsukue (played with a deadness I've never seen before by Tatsuya Nakadai) is a swordmaster who will kill without a moment of hesitation for whatever reason he feels. He's a bad seed through and through. Yet he's not an evil man. He's ambivalent towards every thing. He doesn't care enough about anything to be good, evil or even middle of the road. He just is. And ultimately that's what this film is about: extremism and ambivalence.

After cutting down a sick old man who just prayed not to be a burden on his daughter, Ryunosuke is confronted by the wife of the man he's about to face at his sword school's fencing exhibition. She wants him to lose an upcoming duel. He says it will take more than pleading for him to consider it. The man's wife offers herself and he takes the offer, but during the duel, her husband offers an illegal move and Ryunosuke kills him for his transgression.

This opens up a can of worms in the form of Hyoma, the man's brother. Hyoma is now looking for revenge, and he seeks out the tutelage of Toranosuke Shimada (played by legendary Japanese film star Toshiro Mifune). Shimada simply tells Hyoma that Ryunosuke may be an unbeatable foe... on any level. But maybe, just maybe... with time, practice and by utilizing a special sword style, he might have a chance.

Of course, there's even more going on underneath the full-blown samurai action, and to fully understand you have to school yourself a little bit on Japanese history circa the 1860s when the samurai themselves were on their way out as a culture and with that came in-fighting against themselves, push back against incoming Western forces, question of Emperor loyalties and factions with anti-shogun sentiments. It was a turbulent time, a time when extremism and side picking ruled and Zen-like ambivalence would get you killed. You cared about something or people would make you care. And when it's all said and done, the idea of who is the true master, the sword or the sword-wielder, comes into focus.

Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, Sword of Doom is based on a serialized and uncompleted story written by Kaizan Nakazato over a thirty-year period. The story has been brought to stage and screen many, many times by directors including Hiroshi Inagaki (the Samurai Trilogy and Chushingura (1962)). But here Nakazato's message and symbolism gets the full-treatment, and even though the epic nature of the story is left in tact (there are many dangling issues left to dangle) Okamoto makes this film his own even in one film installment. Part of that accomplishment is thanks to cinematographer Hiroshi Murai whose specific vision for this film goes a long way in telling the story cinematically.

Sword of Doom is presented on DVD in anamorphic widescreen in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks as exceptional as you'd expect from Criterion. There are moments of grain and some shimmer here and there, but this is an older film and that's to be expected. The sound is Japanese mono and sounds very good as well. Extras include only a liner note booklet. All in all, a great samurai film and a great presentation.


Samurai Assassin

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Samurai Assassin
1965 (2005) - Toho (AnimEigo)

Speaking of Kihachi Okamoto, he's back and he's just as badass with his other ultimate Samurai Flick. Samurai Assassin! What's better than Toshiro Mifune with a sword? Since I don't have kids, I have to say... just about nothing.

Samurai Assassin is another film that takes place at the tail end of the Tokugawa era much like The Sword of Doom. Here, a group of assassins wait outside the Edo Castle gate where they plan to kill a powerful lord. Among their ranks is Toshiro Mifune as down on his luck ronin Tsuruchiyo Niiro, the bastard son of a respected samurai whose only want in life is to become respected himself and with respect may come his illegitimate father vouching for his pedigree. We also meet Keiji Kobayashi as Einosuke Kurihara, a well-respected samurai representing the life Niiro wants. As this group waits in the snow, many things come out and suspicions build when it becomes clear one of these men is a mole. But who?

Based on a true historical incident and filled with complex characters, gorgeous cinematography and some truly heart-thumping sword fights, Samurai Assassin is one of the best Samurai films to ever cross the silver screen and an all-time favorite among connoisseurs of the genre. The acting is also top notch, but you could have guessed that with the name Mifune spelled out above.

Here is yet another nice film treatment from the vaults of AnimEigo. The video is anamorphic widescreen in a very nice black and white transfer with some grain but nice detail. It's not as good as say, the Zatoichi films, but it's still a first rate job. Audio is standard mono with two sets of subtitles: full and limited. Full drops the historical and cultural data on you, with explanations of "slang" terms of the period and Limited is straight dialogue. Extras include a selection of AnimEigo trailers and their famed historical data sheet housed on the DVD.

Of all the films in this column, this is the one I stand by the most. It's a great film that's fun, easily accessible and well-worth putting into your library.


Incident at Blood Pass

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Incident at Blood Pass
1970 (2005) - Toho (AnimEigo)

Incident is a pretty fun film on so many levels. First, it was hatched out of an agreement for stars Mifune and Katsu to each appear in the other's character vehicle. Mifune would appear as "Yojimbo" in an Ichi film (Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo specifically) and Katsu would appear in a Mifune "Yojimbo" film - this one. Second, it would mark the last film in the unofficial Yojimbo series of films (I say unofficial because the nameless ronin who describes himself as a bodyguard or yojimbo in these Mifune films aren't necessarily the same character, like Eastwood isn't always the same character in Leone's Man With No Name Trilogy, which was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo). Lastly, it's just a fun film, plain and simple.

Incident at Blood Pass is an American Western, through and through. Instead of hats we get top-knots and instead of guns there are swords. The music feels like something pulled out of a John Ford film and the wide vista shots make Japan look like the American West. It's actually very cool.

The story concerns Mifune being asked to meet a messenger. The messenger will give him a note with a single character on it. If it's the Japanese character "Mountain", he'll go to location A, if it's "3": location B. He has no idea what he's supposed to do at either of those locations and when he asks he is simply being told he'd know what to do when he sees something happen. So he goes and something, of course, happens.

That something occurs at an inn on the end of Sanshuu Pass. The Inn is run by an old man and his bored granddaughter Oyuki. Yojimbo arrives with Okini, a woman he saved from an abusive husband and drops her off now that she's safe. She takes a job at the Inn and through her we meet the fallen doctor Gentetsu (Katsu) and gambler Yatarou. That's when a slimy Shogunate constable and his quarry stumble in, both half dead. Yojimbo and a hesitant Gentetsu nurse them back to health and that's just about when the film really kicks in and all hell breaks loose.

The film is all about the characters and the characters are all great. Not one is a simple cardboard cut-out Samurai Film stock character. They all breathe and fight for life in your mind. Not the best Yojimbo film, but one you'll wish Leone might have remade with Eastwood.

The film looks pretty damn good in anamorphic widescreen. It's, again, not as good as the work put into the Zatoichi films, but maybe that's just a problem with the masters provided AnimEigo. Sound is mono and like Samurai Assassin subtitles are offered in Limited and Full. Extras are trailers and digital liner notes.

Incident at Blood Pass isn't the greatest Samurai film but it's a good one. And you know us, a good Samurai film is better than most other films.

There were two other titles that could have been put into this column, and didn't make it for a variety of reasons. AnimEigo released Samurai Banners this week and you can purchase it from their website. I didn't get a copy yet, but the minute I do, I'll spin it and let you know what I think. And I simply didn't have enough time or space to give the justice Criterion's release of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha deserves. It's a huge, huge disc, well worth both my time in reviewing it and your time in adding it into your library. I'll review that all by its lonesome when I get back from San Diego, as well as amend my Twilight Zone review with Season Three which I picked up recently. Look for those updates sooner than later.

My next column will focus on Ghost in the Shell now that Volume 7 of Stand Alone Complex will be out in two weeks, so look for that before the end of July.

Until next time, keep spinning those discs!

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


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