|SHADOW OF THE SAMURAI: The greatest Samurai films, and their influence on Western cinema.
by Brian Mckay (y2mckay)
The Immortal Wakayama Tomisaburo, "Lone Wolf and Cub"
Martial arts movies, which reached the peak of their popularity in the 1970's, appear to be back on the rise. With the arrival of big-budget flms from China like CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, HERO, and THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, Kung-fu is making a comeback. Likewise, the availiability of live-action Samurai movies is on the upswing, with the interest of mainstream western audiences getting a jump-start from Hollywood films like THE LAST SAMURAI or Quentin Tarantino's extreme homage to old-school martial arts films, KILL BILL VOLUME 1. This, in turn, has led to an increasing availiability of genre films in the west from Japanese directors both new and old, like Ryuhei Kitamura (AZUMI, ARAGAMI), and Takeshi Kitano (who recently brought us a surprisingly decent remake of ZATOICH). But as any true fan of the genre knows, the old films are still the best, and fortunately, a number of classic films and series are becoming increasingly availiable to Region 1 DVD audiences. What most Western movie fans probably don't realize, however, is how deeply Samurai movies have influenced Western filmmaking over the years.
Samurai movies are a breed apart from most martial arts flicks. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, they do not feature people running up walls or across treetops. There are no long, protracted battles in which a thousand blows are struck, yet nobody ever seems to really get hurt. There is little hand-to-hand combat in a Samurai film, because the weapon of choice is a Katana, the traditional Japanese sword (which are generally acknowledged as the finest in the world). Sword battles do not go on for hours in a Samurai movie, but are lightning-fast, with a mythical warrior's skill and reaction time being the only things that keep him a split-second ahead of death. Samurai films can be grim and bloody affairs, but just as often, they are full of levity and quirky humor.
Ironically, Western audiences are often ignorant of Samurai films - even though the genre has influenced some of the most popular Hollywood blockbusters of all time. THE SEVEN SAMURAI has been retold many times, from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN to A BUG'S LIFE. And, as any George Lucas fanboy can tell you, The STAR WARS films drew heavily from the influence of old Samurai films. Basic plot elements were inspired by Akira Kurosawa's THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and the Jedi Knights of his films were modeled after the Samurai in many ways - from their clothing and lightsabre fighting technique, to their very names. (An "Obi", as in Obi-wan Kenobi, is the sash that a Samurai warrior would tuck his swords into). A number of old westerns were also modeled after the Samurai genre, and there is little doubt that the races of fictional warriors such as the Klingons of the STAR TREK universe, with their personal code of "death before dishonor" and proclivity for fighting with bladed weapons, were also inspired by the model of ancient Japanese warriors.
Good Samurai flicks used to be extremely hard to find, with only a handfull of Mom-and-Pop video stores renting old, battered VHS copies of a few choice movies. Most likely, though, you wouldl have to hunt for a seller on-line who specialized in obscure foreign films. However, now there are several series becoming easily availiable through outliets like netflix.com or amazon.com
AKIRA KUROSAWA AND TOSHIRO MIFUNE
Long before the dynamic duo of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat begin making their Hong Kong bullet-fests of the 1980's, Japan's most prominent director and leading man teamed up in the 1960's to create some of the greatest Samurai epics of all time. Most noteworthy, of course, is THE SEVEN SAMURAI, in which villagers under attack by bandits hire mercenary warriors for protection. However, in a lighter and more action-packed vein, they also filmed YOJIMBO ("The Bodyguard" -1961) and it's sequel, SANJURO in the following year. Toshiro Mifune is the ultimate anti-hero of these films, defeating his enemies with his acerbic wit and, when that isn't enough, a whirlwind of vicious sword slashes. YOJIMBO was remade into A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS and, more recently LAST MAN STANDING (which is not a bad film, but Bruce Willis is no Toshiro Mifune). Though both Akira and Toshiro by no means limited themselves to making Samurai flicks, they certainly created a standard by which all other films in the genre would be judged. Toshiro also made many excellent Samurai films with other directors, including SAMURAI REBELLION and SAMURAI ASSASSIN.
WAKAYAMA TOMISABURO AND KATSU SHINTARO: BROTHERS IN LIFE, BROTHERS IN BLOOD.
Indisputably, the most violent and action-packed movies of the era were the LONE WOLF AND CUB series (also known as the "Baby cart" series). Starring Wakayama Tomisaburo as Ogami Itto, a.k.a. "Lone Wolf", and produced by his brother, Katsu Shintaro, the films of LONE WOLF AND CUB series are the most bloody and entertaining Samurai spectacles ever created. The six films, released rapid-fire between 1972 and 1974, have enough fake spurting arterial blood to make the end of Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH look like someone merely spilled Kool-Aid at a Sunday picnic. Wakyama Tomisaburo wielded real-life expertise in Iaido and Kendo (the arts of Japanese swordsmanship) as well as a number of other forms, and it definitely shows in his work on-camera. He posessed a lightning-fast sword draw that would put any old west gunfighter to shame, and whenever the sword left its sheath, you could expect an unparallelled ballet of blood, dismemberment, and flashing steel.
The films tell the story of Ogami Itto and his son, Daigoro (pictured above). Once the Shogun's chief executioner, Ogami was framed for treason by the clan of the Yagyu Ninja, and forced to flee with his son, taking the odd assasination jobs that come along (for 500 pieces of gold, he'll kill ANYBODY) and seeking vengeance against the Yagyu at every opportunity. Ogami literally mows through his enemies, and the body count rises exponentially with every film. Although stoic in the extreme (he never cracks a smile or a joke once throughout the entire series), the films still manage to relay humor through the supporting characters. The most prominent prop in the films is the wooden baby cart he pushes his young son around in - a cart that is loaded with dozens of concealed weapons which become more elaborate with every film.
Wakayama Tomisaburo starred in many films throughout his career, but it was the LONE WOLF AND CUB series that immortalized him with Eastern and Western audiences alike. His brother, Katsu Shintaro, also starred in a number of prominent Samurai films, including the highly prolific ZATOICHI film and television series, which told the tale of a blind master-swordsman (which inspired the film BLIND FURY with Rutger Hauer). He also starred in a trilogy of films centered around a character known as Hanzo a.k.a. THE RAZOR. Hanzo is a Samurai-constable who investigates crimes and takes particular delight in interrogating female suspects with what he refers to as "The Longest Arm of the Law" (I hope I don't have to explain this any further). Accompanied by a pair of bumbling sidekicks, he also enjoys gutting his enemies in the streets, or luring them into his swinging Samurai pad, where a series of bloody and elaborate traps always await the unsuspecting trespasser. THE RAZOR trilogy contains, by far, three of the funniest Samurai flms ever made.
While the creation of epic Samurai films appeared to be a dying art for a time, the genre seems to be making a genuine comeback in both Japan and Hollywood. Remakes have already been slated for THE SEVEN SAMURAI and LONE WOLF AND CUB, and the success of Takeshi's ZATOICHI film on both sides of the Pacific is sure to bring about a revitalization of the Blind Swordsman's saga. Likewise, the films of Kurosawa are readily availiable on DVD, and classic series like ZATOICHI, LONE WOLF AND CUB, and LADY SNOWBLOOD are in the process of being released on disc as well. Whether any of the new films currently in production will ever manage to rival the magic of their predecessors remains to be seen - but at least I can finally start trading in my worn-out video tapes for some shiny new DVD's
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=386
originally posted: 06/08/01 20:25:24
last updated: 11/22/04 10:58:45