Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No posts for a couple weeks

I will not be posting for a couple of weeks due to the fact that I will be traveling to Japan. I know, you may be wondering why no posts about Japan since I will BE in Japan. Family obligations and schedules and other factors really will not allow me the opportunity to post while I'm there. Plus, there really will not be any sightseeing so it would just be boring for you anyways.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Incident at Blood Pass

Legendary actors Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu team up for this final Yojimbo film (Zatoichi meets Yojimbo is the other film between these two). A wandering samurai (Mifune) accepts a mysterious assignment that takes him to the titular mountain pass. Told to await further instruction in an isolated teahouse, the samurai -- through the conversations of the teahouse's patrons -- gradually becomes aware of an elaborate plot involving a gang of bandits and a convoy of Shogunate gold.

In the early seventies, Toshiro Mifune and Shintaro Katsu made a deal with each other; they would each appear in a film made by the other. The two films that resulted were Zatoichi meets Yojimbo and Incident at Blood Pass (Machibuse). Two of Japan's greatest stars collide when Toshiro Mifune ("Yojimbo", "Samurai Banners") butts heads with Shintaro Katsu ("The Razor", "Zatoichi"). In his final portrayal of the Yojimbo character, Mifune is hired to perform a mission so mysterious, he isn't even told what it is! All he knows is that he is supposed to go to a remote mountain pass and wait for something to happen. When he arrives at a lonely tea-house on top of the pass, he becomes ensnared in a twisted plot involving a bandit gang, a Shogunate officer, a discredited doctor (Katsu) and a convoy of Shogunate gold. He soon discovers he's apparently been hired to be a bodyguard for the bandits, but all is not quite as it seems!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Samurai Assassin

On a snowy spring day in 1860, throngs of men gather at the gates of Japan's Edo Castle in hopes of assassinating Shogunate leader Ii Naosuke. Upset with the way his life is going, ronin Niiro Tsuruchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) becomes involved in the coup, ultimately seeking a spot in a great samurai house. With no family to speak of and a broken heart, Niiro has nothing to lose -- and will stop at nothing to become a full-fledged samurai. Will he succeed?

This is an awesome movie. This movie is about one of the major events in Japanese history, the assassination of Ii Naosuke, the defacto head of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1860. The Tokugawa were headed by a child shogun at this time, so Ii Naosuke wielded the real power. And he used that power with bloody efficiency. The Tokugawa had been growing weak for decades and after the American Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay in the early 1850s, the Tokugawa's weakness became all the more apparent. But Naosuke was intent on reestablishing Tokugawa supremacy and so he instigated the bloody Ansei Purge. All those he deemed disloyal or a threat, even daimyo lords, were either imprisoned or put to death. A group of Mito samurai felt it was their duty to eliminate Naosuke. And that is what this movie is about. This group of Mito samurai along with other disaffected samurai such as Niiro Tsuruchiyo, plotted to kill Naosuke.

This movie instantly joins my select group of favorite films alongside Seven Samurai, Seppuku and several others. This was a great, great movie. So much better than Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor which is another film starring Mifune that takes place during the same time period. Samurai Assassin was awesome because it was not just a simple retelling of this event. The movie includes a deeper story about Tsuruchiyo's background that comes to light in a shocking realization at the end of the film. I have seen several great battle scenes in various films involving groups of samurai and this film has one of the best. The final assassination battle involved dozens of samurai in a brutally realistic battle to the death. Incredible. If you are familiar with the historical events of this period, especially regarding Ii Naosuke, then this film will mean so much more. However, if you are not familiar with this time period, this is still an awesome movie to watch. Unlike Shinsengumi, which will make little sense to those not familiar with that period, Samurai Assassin will still be a highly entertaining film even if you do not know the history behind it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This is cool

This couple won a contest to have a samurai wedding at a castle. The groom played the part of a feudal lord. The castle is Matsue castle (chidori-jo) in Shimane prefecture. I would have loved to have a wedding ceremony like this but I don't think my wife would have approved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Man in Limbo at Narita

I will be coming to Japan in one week. Maybe I will see this guy hanging out at Narita.

He is Feng Zhenghu, an activist from China. He has been trying to return to China but the Chinese government, without reason, has refused to allow him to re-enter China. So Mr. Zhenghu has been living in limbo at Narita for almost two weeks. But he has not been staying in the main terminal area where the restaurants and lounges are. He is stuck in the no-man's land between the airplane disembarkation point and airport immigration. After his last attempt to re-enter China through Shanghai, where he was sent back to Japan by Chinese authorities, Mr. Zhenghu drew the line and refused to enter Japan. So here he lives in Narita no-man's land.

He has apparently been surviving on hand-outs of food from supporters and passengers. He has not showered since he last arrived, only being able to wash is face with hot water. The polite Japanese airport authorities have attempted to convince him to pass through the immigration gates but he has refused. Zhenghu states he misses his home and just wants to return, no matter what happens to him. Since he is in a secure area, supporters are unable to visit him except through arriving flights. A supporter from Hong Kong flew to Narita to see him but depressingly she arrived through the wrong terminal. After returning to Hong Kong, she immediately returned on a different flight she knew would take her through the correct terminal that Mr. Zhenghu was staying at.

Maybe I will bring a candy bar or some other snack so if I see Mr. Zhenghu when I arrive at Narita I can give it to him.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Hidden Fortress

A general and a princess must dodge enemy clans while smuggling the royal treasure out of hostile territory with two bumbling, conniving peasants at their sides; it's a spirited adventure that only Akira Kurosawa could create. Acknowledged as a primary influence on George Lucas' Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress delivers Kurosawa's inimitably deft blend of wry humor, breathtaking action and humanist compassion on an epic scale. The Criterion Collection is proud to present this landmark motion picture in a stunning, newly-restored Tohoscope edition.

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin or The Hidden Fortress. This is another Akira Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and released in 1958. This movie is filmed in some of the most impressive natural locations with stunning backdrops of stark cliffs and rocky canyons. This is classic Toshiro Mifune in a classic, old samurai movie from the fifties. General Rokurota Makabe (Mifune) protects the damsel, but not the damsel in distress, but a strong and intense princess, as they try to escape across the enemies border.

Misa Uehara, who plays the princess Yuki, is not typical of female characters in classic samurai films. She plays a strong and demanding leader of her clan. While I was impressed with this unusually strong female character, at the same time, some of Uehara's performance got on my nerves. Often throughout the film, Yukihime would stand stiffly with her feet spread wide and holding a thin bamboo stick between her two hands. She held this bamboo stick in this manner for most of the film which had me wishing I could tell her to "get rid of that damn stick already." Oh well.

I think the best aspect of the movie is the two bumbling, conniving peasants, Tahei and Matakishi. They are hilarious and really make the movie. But they are not just there for some comic relief because the story is really told from their point of view. There is not a lot of action in this movie but it is not supposed to be an action movie. However, this movie did have one of the most impressive duels I have seen in any samurai movie. It's not a sword duel however but an incredible duel between Makabe and his nemesis using spears. Great duel.

This movie actually was an influence for George Lucas for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, especially in how the telling of the story is from the points of view of the film's lowliest characters, C-3PO and R2-D2, taken from the character Tahei and Matakishi. The strong princess Yuki being the influence for the strong Princess Leia. I am not sure who General Rokurota Makabe is the influence for. When you talk about "classic" samurai films, The Hidden Fortress is a classic of classics and a must see for anyone who is a fan of traditional samurai film.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Onibaba - Demon Woman

Deep within the wind-swept marshes of war-torn medieval Japan, an impoverished mother and her daughter-in-law eke out a lonely, desperate existence. Forced to murder lost samurai and sell their belongings for grain, they dump the corpses down a deep, dark hole and live off of their meager spoils. When a bedraggled neighbor returns from the skirmishes, lust, jealousy, and rage threaten to destroy the trio’s tenuous existence, before an ominous, ill-gotten demon mask seals the trio’s horrifying fate. Driven by primal emotions, dark eroticism, a frenzied score by Hikaru Hayashi, and stunning images both lyrical and macabre, Kaneto Shindo’s chilling folktale Onibaba is a singular cinematic experience.

This film is really completely different than any other samurai movie I have seen. The story surrounds two women who live during a time of civil war in the 14th century. They live in a spooky marshland area and keep themselves alive by murdering lost samurai and selling their armor and weapons. This allows them to survive while the younger woman's husband and the older woman's son is away fighting in the wars. However, everything quickly changes when a man named Hachi returns from the wars and becomes their neighbor. He returns with the news that the younger woman's husband is dead. The younger woman is distrustful at first but eventually her sexual urges push her to begin a passionate affair with Hachi... much to the disgust of the older woman. But her anger is not so much coming from a sense of immorality but because she is jealous of the younger woman. The older woman even tries to convince Hachi to sleep with her. Later, the old woman realizes that her younger samurai killing partner might leave with Hachi and then she would have to fend for herself, which turns her jealously to fear. I won't say what happens after that so as not to give it away but the ending is pretty bizarre.

Before I watched this I wondered how much there could be to this story to last two hours. But it ended up being a really interesting plot. The photography was amazing and I really loved the strange and eerie drum based music, especially at the start of the film. This is not really a horror film but more like a psychological drama loosely based on Buddhist fables. This is an excellent, strange, eerie film with a very bizarre and abrupt ending. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Obama's bow

Did Obama overdo it when he bowed deeply to the Japanese Emperor during his recent visit? Credit for this post and photos goes to Anthony Bryant over at Samurai Archives.

There is some controversy in the States with how the President of the United States has bowed to foreign royalty, especially after he bowed deeply to the Saudi King earlier this year. I have less of a problem with the bow to the Japanese Emperor but I do think that Obama is overdoing it and the President of the United States should not be bowing the way he has. Below are some other world leaders meeting the Emperor. You be the judge.

Former Russian President Putin

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

The King of Morocco

Obama: "Excuse me Emperor, I seemed to have lost a contact lens. Don't move."

Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor

One of Japan's most revered actors, Toshiro Mifune stars in this historical samurai epic (jidaigeki). As the end of the 19th century nears, the balance of power shifts from the shogunate to the emperor. Kondo Isami (Mifune), a farmer turned warrior, leads the fierce Shinsengumi, a small army of ronin (masterless samurai). Isami and his men oppose the violent, roaming bands of ronin who are terrorizing Kyoto in the name of the emperor and against the foreigners. Together the Shinsengumi band together to wage battle against these ronin and the inevitable tides of change.

The Shinsengumi are very famous in Japan and there have been dozens of movies and television shows about them. They were the last shogun's last samurai police force assembled to fight the hordes of ronin terrorizing Kyoto. The ronin were masterless samurai who were roaming the streets of Kyoto creating terror and bloodshed in the name of restoring the emperor and throwing out the foreigners. The Shinsengumi are an interesting group to be so popular or even to be considered heroes. The reason is because not only were they on the losing side of the war and had very little or no impact on the political changes sweeping the country, but they were also a brutally violent and bloody police force.

Although there have been many films about the Shinsengumi, this one is worth seeing because Toshiro Mifune plays Kondo Isami, the most famous leader of the Shinsengumi. Isami was actually from a family of peasants but because of his superior skill as a swordsman he rose up to lead this samurai corps. One thing with this film though, if you have little or no understanding of the historical events of this time period, you will be completely lost and the film will have very little meaning. If you are familiar with the Shinsengumi and the Restoration period, then you will appreciate this film more. However, this movie is just OK, not a great film. For me, I think Mifune was too old to play Kondo Isami and the film bizarrely jumps into the story too abruptly. Aside from the narrators explanation of the historical events, there was no background about Isami. The movie just jumps quickly to important events such as the elimination of Isami's rival Serizawa, a violent and alcoholic leader of another faction in the Shinsengumi.

If you like Toshiro Mifune or samurai time-period movies, then this is still a good movie to see. Just not the best. There was one sad scene where a Shinsengumi member was ordered to commit seppuku and he had his head cut off. I was intrigued by how they filmed the scene as they showed the head falling off the body so I did an extremely slow-motion replay of the scene. You could see the actor swing his blade and that it missed the other actor by a good six or seven inches but then the head slowing falling off. Very interesting. One aspect of samurai movies I find a little silly is the funny sounding slashing noise they make when someone is being slashed by the sword. It is the same sound you'll find not just in low budget chanbara flicks but in higher quality films as well. It's comparable to the loud goofy sound we all hear in western movies when someone is getting punched in the face.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Red Lion (Akage)

When winds of change sweep Japan, overthrowing three centuries of Shogunate rule, Gonzo, a peasant, enlists in the Imperial Restoration Force, which promises to abolish the oppressive practices of the past. When the advance guard approaches his old hometown, he convinces his commander to let him ride ahead and prepare the locals for the advent of the New World Order.

When he triumphantly rides into town wearing the Red Lion Mane of Office he borrowed from his commander, he expects a warm welcome, but gets far more than he bargained for. His friends think he's going to save them, the incompetent local officials think he's after their heads, a secret band of shogunate fanatics want him dead, and he can't even read his own proclamations.

This is a color film that was released in 1969 starring Toshiro Mifune. This is a excellent dark comedy with some funny and goofy scenes with Gonzo (Mifune) playing a comedic and tragic character. This was the first role I have seen Mifune play as a comedic character and he did it very well as the stuttering, clumsy Gonzo. I found myself laughing loudly at times. I really liked how the movie was unpredictable with many plot twists and the film moved along at a good pace with no slow points. Even better was the entertaining and funny cast of characters in this film.

This is a very political movie and I have heard some people claim it even has socialist aspects to it. I don't know about that but the movie definitely is a statement about despite man's attempt to overthrow one oppressor, they often end up being under the boot of another master. In this case, the villagers realize at the end that the Imperial Forces are really not much different to the old oppressive shogunate. All in all this was a great movie filled with comedy, tragedy, some good sword action and great acting by Mifune and the other cast of characters.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Mikogami Trilogy: Slaughter in the Snow

This is the final bloody installment of the famed "Mikogami" Trilogy.

Jokichi's success at getting revenge has resulted in a hefty price being put on his head, and it's only a matter of time before he runs into Kobunji, the master of the throwing knife, who while he really likes Jokichi, has his professional reputation to uphold. But just because you have to kill a guy doesn't mean you can't enjoy getting to know him first and do a little male bonding by offing some villains. But in the end, there can only be one... nothing personal, mind you, it's just business.

I didn't post about the second installment of this trilogy but this post pretty much covers the last one as well (you can read a brief description of #2 here). A lot of spraying blood in these movies. A lot of Jokichi walking from here to there. Actually half these movies seem to be Jukichi walking. The fight scenes were kinda entertaining but like the previous installments, the fighters also tend to stumble around a lot. In the last movie, much of the fighting took place in rocky stream beds and in the water and so the fighters were stumbling around and falling over the rocks and stumbling in the water. Kinda silly. In this one, they were stumbling around and falling over in the snow. Kinda silly. But for what it was, the Mikogami trilogy was still entertaining. What do ya expect with a standard chanbara flick. It's amazing how much blood sprays even from just a shoulder wound. But that is what you should see in a good chanbara. And that's what you get here, a lot of spraying blood.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Samurai Rebellion

Aging samurai Isaburo (Toshiro Mifune) challenges the ruling warlord in Masaki Kobayashi's compelling tale of a peaceful man who's pushed too far. When a mistress displeases the lord, he demands that Isaburo's son marry the woman. Isaburo takes the girl in, and to everyone's surprise, she falls in love with her intended husband. But when the temperamental lord reverses his orders and demands his mistress's return, Isaburo bravely takes a stand.

The above is a very good description of this 1967 black and white film starring the great Toshiro Mifune. The original Japanese name for the film is Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu which translates as Rebellion: Dealing with the Bestowed Wife. This is the last of the films I have watched from the Rebel Samurai collection from The Criterion Collection. The others being, Kill (Kiru), Samurai Spy, and Sword of the Beast. What an incredible collection. With Samurai Rebellion, the cinematography was incredible including tilted camera angles as well as beautiful Zen-like raked gravel gardens of Isaburo's home. But what really impressed me with this film was the relative originality of the story. The loyal samurai vassal that rebels against his lord in order to protect the happiness of his son and his son's young wife. The movie is a scathing portrayal of the feudal clan society in Edo period Tokugawa Japan and of the treatment of women in society at that time.

As a samurai movie, this one is grouped with those such as Seppuku (Harakiri) and Sanjuro versus chanbara movies such as Lone Wolf and Cub. It is a movie with a deep and emotional story with a very sad ending. There is very little fighting and the ultimate action scenes take place at the end of the film. The sword fighting was good, not as good as THE BEST EVER fight scene from Seppuku (Harakiri), but still impressive. Director Masaki Kobayashi, who also was responsible for one of the greatest movies of all time in Seppuku, really should be considered in the same company with the great director Akira Kurosawa. Although I would not put this movie at the level of Yojimbo or some other of Mifune's films, this movie is very, very good in my opinion.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Samurai Spy

Years of warfare end in a Japan unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, and samurai spy Sasuke Sarutobi, tired of conflict, longs for peace. When a high-ranking spy named Tatewaki Koriyama defects from the shogun to a rival clan, however, the world of swordsman is thrown into turmoil. After Sasuke is unwittingly drawn into the conflict, he tracks Tatewaki, while a mysterious, white-hooded figure seems to hunt them both. By tale's end, no one is who they seemed to be, and the truth is far more personal than anyone suspected. Director Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy, filled with clan intrigue, ninja spies, and multiple double crosses, marks a bold stylistic departure from swordplay convention.

Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke is the Japanese name of this film. This movie takes place 14 years after the great battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and in the days and months leading up to the final ultimate battle between the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi in the Battle of Osaka in 1614. Samurai Spies and ninja from both sides are battling it out in constantly shifting alliances. No one can be sure whose side any person or group is on. Sasuke is tired of the wars from the past but he is unable to avoid being drawn in.

Although the title is not very creative, this is a pretty damn good movie with many plot twists and surprises. It's unfortunate that they couldn't come up with a better name for Western audiences so people would not think this is just some corny samurai/ninja flick. There are some very good sword fighting scenes involving both samurai and ninja. The ninja action was not cheesy or silly at all. In fact, one of the final combat scenes between Sasuke and two ninja was pretty damn cool with just the right amount of violence and gore without making it a goofy chanbara scene. I really liked the mix of samurai and ninjas and the ninja were not overused in this film so it actually gave the whole espionage aspect a bit of believability in my opinion. It was a more realistic portrayal of espionage, conspiracies and political power struggles than some other movies I've watched. This film, like many other samurai movies with many characters, really requires you to pay attention closely to keep up with whose who.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Baian the Assassin: Volume 2

His name is Baian, professional acupuncturist and assassin! A needle deftly inserted into the human body can bring relief and healing. For the defense of justice and honor - and for the right price - it can also bring instant death! Based on the stories by Shotaro Ikenami, Baian the Assassin features tales of murder and deceit, jealousy and revenge, all set in the backdrop of corrupt samurai lords, ruthless merchant princes, fawning geisha, and deadly ninja.

This is the continuing series of Baian the Assassin played by Ken Watanabe. As in the first volume, Baian is once again approached by his mojotime, his contact for new assignments. This new assignment is potentially very dangerous however Baian reluctantly accepts. He quickly confirms just how dangerous his targets are so as in the first volume, Baian asks his good friend Hikojiro to assist him. But unexpectedly Hikojiro declines for unknown reasons. Soon Baian learns that his friend's tragic past has reappeared. It is from there that the plot takes interesting turns. Although this episode is a little slow with very little action, it is still a decent show to watch. If you are looking for a lot of sword action, look elsewhere as you won't find it here. But I like Watanabe and he does a pretty good job as Baian the Assassin.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Samurai Skater

The Japanese figure skating champion Oda Nobunari has had a strong opening going into the Olympic season. He has won his two Grand Prix events - Trophée Bompard in mid October and Samsung Anycall Cup of China last weekend - with strong performances.

Some of you may recognize his family name.

Nobunari is the 17th descendant of famous Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga and so has samurai blood in his veins. "Since at least him, all male descendants have the syllable 'Nobu' in their first name," the 2006 Four Continents Champion explained (actually Nobunaga's father Nobuhide also had this spelling).

Nobunari is considered to be one of the contenders at the upcoming Vancouver Olympics.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sword of the Beast

Legendary swordplay filmmaker Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast chronicles the flight of the low-level swordsman Gennosuke, who kills one the chief counselor of the clan as part of a reform plot. His former comrades then turn on him, and this betrayal so shakes his sense of honor that he decides to live in the wild, like an animal. There he joins up with a motley group who are illegally mining the shogun's gold, and, with the aid of another swordsman, gets a chance not just at survival but to recover his name and honor.

There is a lot of story to tell in this relatively short 1965 black-and-white film, only 85 minutes, but it is the classic jidai-geki. It takes place in the turbulent 1850s as the Shogunate nears its end and corruption in the clans is rampant. This is a cynical samurai film about how the clans have become more corrupt and how the lower samurai are used and exploited.

Gennosuke, a low ranking samurai, who thought he was doing his duty to accelerate reform in his clan, was actually being used and manipulated. He escapes to the mountains to give up the samurai life and live like a beast and there he meets a prospector searching for gold. It is here that he encounters another samurai, Yamane, who is prospecting for gold to support his clan. It is also where the daughter of the man that Gennosuke murdered and her samurai fiance track him for revenge. This is where the story has many twists and turns as Yamane also is unwittingly being used and manipulated by his clan. Gennosuke attempts to convince Yamane of the danger of placing too much blind loyalty in his clan.

The movie moves fast and includes views of Gennosuke's past through flashbacks which help explain the story. The ending is very abrupt which left me thinking there was more to be told. The film is full of beautiful photography of the outdoors where most of the film takes place and includes plenty of good sword action so it is a worthy film to see.