Early seventeenth century Japan (the beginning of the Edo period) and the Tokugawa Shogunate now rule the country, bringing a period of relative peace to the previously war torn country. Masterless samurai struggle to stay alive and with no wars to fight or retainers to pay them, they turn to everyday jobs or worse, they drink, gamble and fight amongst themselves.

One such masterlass samurai, Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai), arrives at the house of the Iyi Clan’s requesting that they let him commit seppuku there. An official of the clan, Kageyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni), is suspicious though believing that this may be a ruse intended to extract money from the clan, a common occurrence at the time. He therefore tells Hanshiro the story of Motome Chijiiwa (Akira Ishihama), a samurai who arrived on their doorstep also requesting a place to commit seppuku but who was actually seeking a hand-out from the clan. The clan humiliated Chijiiwa and made him go through the ritual disembowelment with his bamboo sword, a replacement for the real sword he sold in desperation.

Continue reading “Harakiri”

The Tale of Zatoichi

Shintaro Katsu was far from a household name in Japan in the late fifties, but following a role in Kazuo Mori’s 1959 chanbara, Samurai Vendetta, Katsu really found his feet and fame as a blind masseur seeking power at any cost in Mori’s follow-up picture with the actor, Shiranui Kengyo. In this film Katsu played a pretty unlikable character, but the public took to him as an actor and in 1962 he teamed up with director Kenji Misumi to play another blind masseur; this time one with an incredible talent with the sword and an even greater skill for telling the difference between right and wrong.

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Pigs and Battleships

Originally released in 1961, Shohei Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships is a beautiful film and one that wonderfully captures a unique period in Japanese history. Following the nation’s defeat in World War II Japan was subject to a significant American presence and as a country recovering from the very serious effects of the war this had a significant impact on the post war malaise. Moving away from war era beliefs, dealing with a distrust of the older generation and generally struggling to survive in difficult circumstances, the younger Japanese population were wrestling with something of an identity crisis.

Parallels between Japan as a country and the lives of the individual characters constantly run throughout Pigs and Battleships, imbuing the character’s lives and decisions with a greater significance and depth. The two main protagonists, low level yakuza Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura), are at an important tipping point and there is a sense throughout the film that the decisions they make will define their lives. Continue reading “Pigs and Battleships”

An introduction to the Stray Cat Rock films

Following the surprise success of Roger Corman’s 1966 biker movie The Wild Angels with Japanese audiences, Toei studios made the smart move to try and cash in on its popularity with their own example of the genre. Delinquent Boss was also a hit and spawned no less than sixteen sequels, four of which were released as soon as the following year.

Rival studio Nikkatsu wanted a piece of this pie and so they promptly commissioned a biker film from screenwriter Shuichi Nagahara and director Yasuharu Hasebe, both of whom had recently made their debuts with reasonably strong and, perhaps most importantly, low budget genre pictures – 3 Seconds to Explosion and Black Tight Killers respectively.

Though the origins of their project were about following in the footsteps of other filmmakers, Nikkatsu’s biker films would be different. Theirs would be about a female biker gang. Continue reading “An introduction to the Stray Cat Rock films”

Branded to Kill and Trapped in Lust

A dazzling, dizzying descent into black and white madness, Branded to Kill is one of the most stylish and well-loved Japanese films ever made, but it took a while to find its audience.

The appreciation certainly didn’t start inside Nikkatsu, the studio that produced the film. Following completion, Branded to Kill was screened for the studio heads, many of who were left very confused, and unable to unravel the film’s befuddling plot. They were reportedly angered by Suzuki’s seeming disregard for narrative sense, and so he was promptly fired from the studio. Suzuki has sadly made relatively few films since, although his most recent film, 2005’s Princess Raccoon, really was something special.

I must have seen Branded to Kill around a dozen times now and while I do feel like I know what’s going on in the plot, I’m still not convinced I fully appreciate every aspect of the narrative. Even still, this has never seemed like an issue. Each time, I’ve just been utterly lost in Suzuki’s creation, wrapped up in Branded to Kill‘s bleak, monochromatic but oddly cool world, crashing back into colour and reality only after the film’s stark finale and closing credits. Continue reading “Branded to Kill and Trapped in Lust”