Monday, January 12, 2009

Great Films of The Japans

My dear and beloved Japan stirs ancient feelings in me that echo across the centuries. My time there was during the Sengoku Jidai, the Era of Warring States in the 16th Century - a time of chaos, cruelty and cunning. However, in the end it left me with a revulsion for violence and heartfelt qualms to this day when I look upon the shiny steel of a sword. It didn't have to be that way, oh so long ago. (For a wonderful taste of the time of Japan's unification, read Taiko - which will also make your film viewing richer since they would no more explain who Tokugawa is in a film than we would Lincoln. Everyone just knows.)

I despise horror films which is a huge genre in Japan and I'm mostly ignorant of anime so my list here is mainly older films with a little background of my (limited) knowledge of each.

Akira Kurosawa films:

Kuro-san is considered the most Western of Japanese directors and also the one who put Japanese filmmaking on the map. For the majority of his career he teamed with Toshiro Mifune and they were a legendary pairing. Kurosawa is my favorite director and he was a sincere soul.

Ran [Chaos] (1985) Ran is Kurosawa's take on King Lear. He wanted to use it to view the cruelty of the warring eras from the "viewpoint of God". The colors are magnificent and Lady Kaede is a woman you will find in no American film!! You could watch it on mute and be awed by the spectacle alone.

Kagemusha [Shadow Warrior] (1980) Historical fiction based on the use of doubles by the great Japanese warlord Takeda Shingen. A lowly criminal is found to be an exact double of the great warlord and in his impersonation of him loses his own identity. Through his eyes we see both the high and the low during the warring era. Film ends with the legendary Battle of Nagashino.

Yojimbo (1961) Remade by Eastwood as a "Fistful of Dollars", it is the prototypical story of a "Japanese western" when a lone samurai comes to a town run by two gangs and he plays both sides off each other. Mifune is great as the swordsman everyone wants to hire and the film is unabashed fun.

The Hidden Fortress (1958) This films touches my heart and you can read my posting on it here.

Throne of Blood (1957) Is Kurosawa's MacBeth. The cinematography is great and when the arrows start coming at Mifune in the end, it's the real deal. Sit back and enjoy like a fine wine.

Seven Samurai (1954) The most famous of all of Kurosawa's films and remade as "The Magnificent Seven". Seven unique samurai defend a village against bandits as we gain a glimpse into the put upon farmers who were squeezed between bandits and warlords demanding food for their troops. A classic tale.

Rashomon (1950) The film that got the world to take note of Japanese movies. A story about truth, the human ego and what it means to lie about who you are. Layers and layers of depth never matched again.

I never cared much for Kurosawa's films made after "Ran" but all before that are worth watching and he has many more gems not mentioned above.

Zatoichi film series:

There are over 25 Zatoichi films, dating back to the sixties. Ichi (played by Shintaro Katsu) is a blind masseur (a common occupation for blind people of his time) with a wicked cane sword. His sense of justice often gets him crossways with the local crime bosses of wherever he happens to be wandering but his flashing sword shows no mercy. If you want to know who's going to die next, it's whoever utters the line, "But he's just a blind man!" Ichi is humble and warm and just great to hang out with. Like one, you'll like 'em all. (Here's my posting on my "
Zatoichi Principle" and its addendum.)

Tatsuya Nakadai films:

Behind Mifune, Nakadai is my favorite Japanese actor. He made his name in the epic
Human Condition trilogy, a story of one poor soul's experience at the mercy of army fanatics in WWII. But he was also one bad ass samurai. Sword of Doom is the story of an "evil sword" played with searing intensity by Nakadai. He also shows his strength of character in Hara Kiri, reviling the corruption that set in after Japan united under a single government. Kill!, believe it or not, is actually a fun samurai film with plenty of humor. Nakadai also played the lead roles in Kurosawa's Ran and Kagemusha.

Ugetsu (1953) Man, do I love this film about a couple trying to survive amid the brutality of the Sengoku era. Despite all the hardships they cling to their love in a uniquely Japanese way. Heartbreaking and moving.

Samurai Trilogy Musashi (played by Mifune) is considered the greatest swordsman in Japanese history. He defeated an entire school! This trilogy tells his story.

Good samurai ass-kicking films: Three Outlaw Samurai, (1964)Samurai Gold, (1965)Samurai Rebellion (Mifune, 1967), Samurai Banners (Mifune, 1969), Twilight Samurai (2002), Hidden Blade (2004)

Fire On the Plains (1959) When I saw this film it was introduced by someone who said after seeing it he became a conscientious objector. It's that powerful. The Japanese army is without food or provisions in the dying days of WWII and we watch the brutal fate of a sick and hungry soldier. Directed by the great
Kon Ichikawa.

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is the Charles Bronson of Japan. Here's three of his to check out:
Sonatine (1993), Violent Cop (1989), Fireworks (1997)

Neo Tokyo (1987) My one anime pick. Comprised of three short stories that take you completely into another world. Satire, Alice in Wonderland and sly commentary all mixed together. Awesome! (And yes, I know there's other great anime out there)

Shogun (1980) I could do an entire posting on James Clavell's masterpiece. Also highly recommended is the novel on which it is based. Clavell was shot down in WWII and held in the horrific Japanese prison camp at Changi. 150,000 prisoners went in, 15,000 came out. The experience scarred him for life but triggered his fascination for Asia and his writing career was spawned by a need for therapy. One day his daughter came home and showed him a story in a history book about the "only foreigner ever to be made samurai". Thus Shogun was born and is by far the greatest and most insightful look at the different mindsets between East and West. Many of the characters and events are historically based. Not made by a Japanese director but filmed entirely in Japan.

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