Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Zuwhack Or Not Zuwhack!*

Not too long ago I watched the film Love and Honor. This is the third of Yoji Yamada’s recent films about peace-loving samurai forced to confront difficulties in old Japan just prior to the Meiji Restoration (Japan’s abolishment of the samurai caste, and reinstatement of the Emperor as head of the nation—effectively the country’s entry into the modern era). These movies are just the kind of dramatic, exotic, stunningly filmed pieces that film awards, critics, and art houses love. And they pretty much deserve every accolade they’ve gotten.

I’ve long been a martial arts film fan… not much of a surprise considering my involvement in actual martial arts! I like a lot of different subgenres within that rather broad category; kung fu movies old and new, the stunt-driven modern actioners of Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa, the fantastic ‘wire-fu’ of the current wuxia (Chinese swordplay), and at the top of the heap, the jidaigeki (lit. ‘period drama’) or samurai film.

Breaking down what is worthy and fun about all these different genres is probably fodder for a future post, but I’ve enjoyed the Yamada films of late specifically, so some context needs to be offered for these.

Most westerners probably think of ‘kung fu films’ when they think martial arts movies. Or Jackie Chan’s forays into Hollywood. If a filmgoer DOES know anything about jidaigeki, a highbrow fan usually thinks ‘Seven Samurai’ and the lowbrow fan goes with ‘Shogun Assassin’. But Japan actually has a huge, and very rich, tradition in cinema drawing from their feudal history. Some of the films are basically just action adventures (similar in some ways to a ‘cowboy’ western) others are dramatic takes on the conflicts between duty and conscience, and still others are scathing critiques of a social system that much of Japan today looks back on through rose-colored glasses.

If you run down to your local Suncoast Video you will easily find some Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub films. These are highly recommended episodic films. You don’t have to watch them in any specific order to get the plots. Films like these do have cerebral moments and often have a lot to say about relationships, status, and honor in a world as harsh and uncompromising as feudal Japan could be. But they are also liberally dosed with tightly-choreographed duels and bloodshed, which are probably the main draw to watching them. Exciting stuff. But there are a number of films (mostly in the 1950s and 60s) that concentrated more on the emotional and political content and less on the dueling. As the 70s came along this sort of more dramatic treatment sort of fell out of favor but has recently been revived by Mr Yamada.

These films are incredibly well photographed, like most Japanese films are, with the typical minimal camerawork in play. Gorgeous color and scenery along with detailed, accurate locales and costuming are the norm. Although Japanese period films of the 70s and 80s often had theatrical, un-historical costumes for many of their heroes (particularly ‘ninja’ characters) there’s none of that here. The whole look and feel is drawn realistically from late-Tokugawa Japan, which unlike almost any other ‘horse and swords’ era we actually have some photographic record owing to how late in history the country’s feudal history lasted.

I’m the first person in line to see some good old sword-dueling, blood-gouting action. But that isn’t what’s on tap here, There is a somewhat gritty duel at the end of each installment… with the climactic battle at the end of The Hidden Blade probably the most shocking or gory, but also with the weakest actual fight choreography. All three films follow a similar plot. A lower-ranking samurai who just wants a peaceful life with his family gets involved in the machinations of his clan and eventually has to kill someone… an act justified by the samurai way philosophy but distinctly at odds with what has become the actual samurai lifestyle, at least the quiet lifestyle of each of these protagonists. The other thing the men have in common is that they are all secretly (more or less) quite expert at dueling, with the same sensei dispensing advice to each before their respective showdowns. The films are not connected continuity-wise in any obvious way, but they share the same mythical clan name and location along with this sword master.

Of the three films the one most likely to have been seen by western audiences is The Twilight Samurai. Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada is known over here as a protégé of Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba, who has long since made his way into some rather high profile American gigs like Rush Hour 3 and The Last Samurai. In Japan he was quite a heartthrob in those old Sonny Chiba films and is considered a very versatile and bankable actor. This is probably the best film to start with, and considering Sanada’s good grasp of English, the DVD extras can help a viewer get a good understanding of the philosophy and motivations behind these movies. He imbues his character Shinbei with a lot of humanity and pathos. In fact all the leads do, with the movie alternating their warmth, humor, and seriousness in their roles as fathers or husbands.

As I said at the top, I recently watched the third (and presumably last) film in the series, Love and Honor. I knew going into it, from ad copy, that this film’s lead was going to be blinded. Sorry if that is a spoiler. I was skeptical that a duel (assuming the pattern of the first two films was going to be adhered to) could be pulled off in a plausible manner. These characters are good fighters but not preternaturally skilled like Zatoichi, that doesn’t fit with these films intent to portray their samurai as ‘regular joes’. But the movie manages everything believably, so I can recommend this film as much as the other two.

As much as Japan is said to be a conformist society, and the Japan described in the films is mired in a very rigid caste system, these movies are also very good illustrations of how the individual is celebrated and how even a culture enamored of its past has room for a critical look. If a viewer finds the humanity of the characters in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai just as compelling as the action scenes, Mr Yamada has struck just the right notes.

*Onomatopoeia for the sound of a sword striking through flesh in Japanese period films, frequently used also as the translated rendering of the same sound effect printed in period manga.

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