Three Outlaw Samurai (1964)

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) movie poster

director Hideo Gosha
viewed: 01/01/2016

Astoundingly good, Hideo Gosha’s first feature film, Three Outlaw Samurai, is oddly enough a sort of prequel to a television show that Gosha had been directing.  It features Tetsuro Tamba, Isamu Nagato, and Mikijirō Hira as the trio of ronin, meeting up for the first time in the midst of a peasant revolt for a cruel and heartless local magistrate.  The peasants kidnap the magistrate’s daughter and attempt to negotiate and the three samurai find their places in the changing vantage on the situation.

Three Outlaw Samurai is visually inventive and surprising.  Gosha tilts the camera mid-sequence for reframing certain shots as figures move in action.  It’s just plain awesome.

I’ve seen about 30 samurai films since I started digging into the genre several years back.  I’d seen Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (1965) which I also found impressive.  Three Outlaw Samurai was so good, I’m keen now to watch more of his films.

Samurai Spy (1965)

Samurai Spy (1965) DVD cover

director Masahiro Shinoda
viewed: 09/09/2015

Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy is an oddly confusing, though possibly intentionally confusing, film.  It opens with a moderate amount of voice-over narration, telling us the setting for the action herein.  There are two warring clans with spies on both sides and a third clan, also with spies, trying to decide which other clan to side with.  In this landscape of named but unseen characters, are representative samurai and spies, populating the complex spectrum of allegiances, and all perhaps lying to one another about their intents.

I don’t know how much the film means to reflect the Cold War era in which it was made or how much this existential spider’s web of knotted truths simply implies the complexities of trust and verity.  The film is shot in the cramped streets of small villages and in the somewhat labyrinthine interiors of inns, restaurants, and village houses.

Adapted from a novel by Masahiro Shinoda, I’m willing to think that maybe the confusion was my own and perhaps not as intentional as I thought.  The confusion, though, didn’t hinder my appreciation of the film though.  It’s quite brilliant and intriguing.  I really liked it.

Return of Daimajin (1966)

Return of Daimajin (1966) movie poster

director Kenji Misumi
viewed: 09/07/2015

 

Lucky for fans, the Return of Daimajin hit theaters four months after the first one.  Interestingly, as kindred as the Return is to the original Daimajin (1966), it’s actually also kind of totally unrelated.

Like in the first film, the giant statue of the god comes to life to wreak vengeance on cruel bad guys, but this statue was located on a mountain on an island in a lake.  And the vengeance he seeks is against an invading kingdom who has come to steal the wealth of the two lakeside kingdoms.  These kingdoms worship their giant stone warrior god very ardently.

Really, that is one aspect of these films.  There is a very strong current of religiosity, prayer, and ultimately deliverance by the divine ruthless giant.  I suppose that in other kaiju films where the monsters are good and people are calling to them to save them from whatever catastrophe (usually another kaiju), you could make the case that they are also sort of praying and worshiping the giant supernatural beings.  But here it’s very clear.  This is religion.

These bad guys, I don’t know if they could have learned from what had happened in the original Daimajin only months earlier.  Same statue, different location.  These villains don’t just mutilate the statue, they blow the whole thing up, launching his head into the depths of the lake.  It’s oddly evocative of events that would happen years later to the Buddhas of Bamayan, blowing up the giant statuary image of a religious figure (it would have been cool perhaps if those two Buddhas came to life and took vengeance on their destroyers).

Of course, by now we kind of know that in the last reel, Daimajin won’t let us down.  Even if all the good guys are tied to sticks and about to be burned alive (also vaguely referential of Jesus).  In fact, the cool effects and fine film-making are even cooler here.  Daimajin parts the waters as he comes to ground to smash the bad guys and save the good.  These movies have a really cool aesthetic and design.

I’m only bummed I had to order the third and final film from Netflix because for some unknown reason, the third installment was not on Amazon Prime with the other two.  Go figure.

Daimajin (1966)

Daimajin (1966) movie poster

director Kimiyoshi Yasuda
viewed: 09/06/2015

Daimajin, where have you been all my life?

I grew up loving Godzilla and with a general love for Japanese kaiju films (while having no idea of the term “kaiju”).  Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s information was a lot more obscure.  I’ve said it before and I’ll saying it again: I love the internet and Wikipedia.  Knowing is a billion times better than living in the dark.

Still, Daimajin.  I can’t say for sure that I never saw images of Daimajin or its two sequels, but I can say that I really didn’t know virtually anything about them.  Finding the first two films on Amazon Prime, I feel enlightened.

Unlike most kaiju films, Daimajin is set in the Edo period, the world of samurai, peasants, feudal strife.  The film opens with a coup d’etat that unseats the kind ruling family, forcing the survivors to run into hiding.  While the new regime metes out endless punishments, the devout and humble pray to their giant stone god, Daimajin.  The villains even go so far as to attempt to mutilate the giant statue.  But this is not only a vengeful god, but one who actually comes to life and stomps down the evil ones.

He’s kind of a giant Golem (1920), if you will, though classically Japanese.

Really, it takes most of the duration of the film before Daimajin awakens and wreaks havoc, apparently a consistent theme in all three films.  The films were all shot and released in short succession in 1966.

The thing is, the film is very well-produced.  It looks beautiful and the special effects are very nice, not as campy as when Godzilla gets on a rampage.  And I just really liked the damn movie.

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974)

Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell (1974) movie poster

director Yoshiyuki Kuroda
viewed: 07/30/2014

Well, I’ve finally completed the series of films known as “Baby Cart”, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies from the early 1970’s adapted from the long-running manga.  And sadly, and probably unsurprisingly, the final film is probably the weakest of the series.

It seems that this wasn’t necessarily the finale for the series, but rather it just turned out to be that way.  The Yagyū clan who has been seeking revenge on Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his son Daigoro are upping their game.  The final battle in this film takes place in the snow.  

The series itself is pretty great with four of the six movies directed by Kenji Misumi and all coming in quick succession in a matter of 2 or 3 years.  Misumi died in 1975 at the age of 54, so maybe his health had something to do with the handing over of the fourth and sixth episode to other directors.  Speculation, on my part.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973) movie poster

director Kenji Misumi
viewed: 07/04/2014

Part Five of this six-part film series, known as the “Baby Cart” series, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons features a return from director Kenji Misumi, who sat out the prior installment Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972).

It starts out with this rather odd and amusing series of strangers that encounter the Lone Wolf, seeking to employ him to assassinate someone.  Each progressive encounter involves a fight to the death to test him and provide him more information on the hit.  It’s actually a rather complicated narrative about a lord who has replaced his son, the right heir to his shogunate with his daughter by a concubine, a letter he wrote that describes this, a monk unto whom he has sent this message, and the monk’s actuality as some double agent spy leader of another killer group.

There is also a rather long aside about a pickpocket who tries to embroil the Cub in an escape plan of hers and a public punishment of the stoic lad.

I’m kind of curious if this series really has an end in its final installment, or really it turns out to be just another leg in an ongoing saga.  The titles of the films indicate a further push into the depths of evil and hell, which is echoed in the story.

We’ll see.  Soon.

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

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

director Buichi Saito
viewed: 06/24/2014

Chapter four of the six film series of Lone Wolf and Cub that was produced in the early 1970’s, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972) is the first film not directed by Kenji Misumi, but by Buichi Saito.  Though some of the players shifted throughout, it carries on the story without dramatic stylistic changes, though does feature some of its own characteristics.

You’ve got the very pulpy lead in with the topless and tattooed Oyuki waylaying a gang of killers with her knife.  As in the other films, the Lone Wolf is often sympathetic to the brutality against women, though here is charged with killing Oyuki.  He allows her her own vengeance and offers her a noble death.  All while the Yagyū clan comes in larger and larger numbers to get their revenge on him.

The battle at the end of Baby Cart in Peril is not so unlike that of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972), a showdown on a cliff resembling a quarry with the Lone Wolf blasting away with the guns inside the baby cart and then slaughtering the would-be slaughterers.  Only this time, there are even more of them, and the fight goes on in a labyrinth-like pit at the bottom.  And this time, the Lone Wolf takes a heck of a greater beating, pretty seriously bloodied up.

Pulpy is probably a good way to describe this episode.  Oyuki is a pulp character and the dismemberments and blood geysers are plentiful, if not gratuitous.  All with the watchful eyes of Daigoro, the cub, fearlessly facing the world, would-be killers and the killed, even his own death with complete placidity.

I’ve taken my time getting through this series but have decided to push forward and watch the rest with some relative alacrity.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) movie poster

director Kenji Misumi
viewed: 06/10/2014

It was six years ago when I started this six film series with Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) and it took four years for me to get around to the second installment, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972).  It’s another two years until I got around to the third episode here, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades.  I have no excuse.  It only took the filmmakers three years to make the whole series.

And the films are very good.  All of them so far.

It’s the legendary character of the disgraced former executioner for the shogunate who travels the Edo-era countryside with his little tot in tow.  He’s committed to the dark side of the world, ready for him and his son to perish, and thus the titles of the films moving from dark to darker to darkest.

In this one, aiding a young girl who has been sold into prostitution sets some confrontations for Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the Lone Wolf.  He takes her place for her punishments and then is contracted to kill a conniving statesman, who in turn tries to hire the Wolf to kill his opponent.  It all comes down to a massive bloodbath, in which the Lone Wolf takes down a legion of samurai maintaining a nobility most of the combatants could never achieve.

The contrast of the sweet and innocent face of the child Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), implaccable and unflinching in the face of gruesome human violence is reflected in the beauty and simplicity of life and landscape of their world and the evil conniving monstrosity of humanity.  The contrast is profound and the images are powerful and moving even in what is essentially a pretty pulpy samurai film.

And that is not at all a snipe!

I’ve somewhat shamed myself into finishing this series before another half decade passes.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s an issue of so many movies, so little time, not any qualitative commentary on the films.  Quite the opposite.  It’s great stuff.

Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro (1962) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/31/2014

Sanjuro is Akira Kurosawa’s sequel to his great 1961 movie, Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune more or less reprising his role as the masterless but masterful samurai, finding himself in complex political situations and turning things on their heads.  And then splitting some heads of some bad guys.

Sanjuro features a more contrived plot, with Sanjuro showing up amid a group of young would-be samurai who are about to get embroiled in a political fiasco.  They don’t size up their situation right, initially planning to attack the more noble lord, while really getting set up by the villainous one.  By now, Sanjuro can size up a town of characters and easily make out who is good and who deserves to die.  He winds up protecting the young men and leading them in their endeavors.

The film’s tone features perhaps a bit more comedy than in Yojimbo, but lacks the darker seriousness that runs through the 1961 masterpiece.  Some of it is quite good, like the captured bad guy who turns out to be more tuned in and good than some of the original gang.  Some a little less so, in the mother and daughter aristocrats who are naive but naive like a fox, winding up offering wisdom against the violence and killing.

The film does seem to take a different stance on the killings, responding to the advice of the older woman.  Sanjuro reconsiders his use of violence, sparing the aforementioned captive, and ultimately trying to bring about a resolution without the bloodshed.  It’s all for naught in the end, with actually a rather punctuated and gushing moment of bloody violence.  The ending seems to take this pacifist forced again into violence a bit more forcefully.  But since Kurosawa never brought him back himself, one can only speculate what became of him.

The character of Sanjuro was one more highly associated with Mifune, as iconic as any in Japanese cinema.  But the movie Sanjuro is the lesser follow-up to its brilliant predecessor.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo (1961) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/27/2014

I continue my march through “major films I’ve never seen” or films by major directors that I haven’t seen.  The thing is, that I have seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo before.  It was a long while back, but wouldn’t qualify it for this particular trek/trope.  But in planning to see Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro, I came to realize (which I did not know) that it was a sequel to Yojimbo.  Since it had been long enough that I hadn’t seen it, I thought it prudent to watch it prior to seeing the sequel.

I’d definitely say that Yojimbo is perhaps my second favorite Kurosawa samurai film, after Throne of Blood (1957).  Yojimbo is definitely one of Kurosawa’s best-known films.  It inspired not only its own sequel but was recreated by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which of course had two sequels itself.  Yojimbo is considered to have been roughly adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

A lone ronin, the eternal Toshiro Mifune, randomly finds his way into a village that has become torn apart by two warring factions.  The ronin winds up playing both sides against one another, offering to work for whoever will pay him better, while really planning to bring them both down in a bloodbath.  He’s happy to see them make their own bloodbath and just watch from above.  Of course, in the end, he unleashes his sword on all the leftover villains.

The film is largely quite comical, perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most humorous movies.  It’s a sort of simple scenario, yet quite poetical in its way.  Totally brilliant film.