Tag Archives: samurai



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 24 June 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Kaneto Shind&#333

Writer: Kaneto Shind&#333

Based on the Japanese folktale: The Cat’s Return

Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, Kichiemon Nakamura

Original title: Yabu no naka no kuroneko

Japan 1968

95 mins

Along with 1964’s Onibaba, Kuroneko (1968) is one of two horror films directed by Kaneto Shind&#333 in the mid-1960s. Although they were the prolific director’s only forays into horror, both are now considered to be genre classics. Like its predecessor, Kuroneko recounts the tale of women struggling to survive by themselves during a period of chaos and civil war. Since her husband was dragged off to join a samurai band three years earlier (at this point in Japanese history the samurai were essentially mercenaries, rather than the powerful hereditary caste they would later become), a wife and her mother-in-law have been left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the women are found by another gang of samurai who rape them, steal their food and leave them for dead. When we next see them, the women have become vengeful spirits, luring stray samurai into their house with offers of alcohol, comfort and sex, only to tear out their victims’ throats and drink their blood. After a number of similar deaths, a local samurai leader sends one of his bravest men to track down the killers. Unbeknown to the women, the samurai sent is the same husband and son taken away from them three years before.

Kuroneko is probably the most famous example of the bakeneko (also known as a kaiby&#333) or ‘ghost cat’ story), one of the more popular variations on the standard kaidan, or ghost story. According to folklore, a cat who drinks human blood can gain magical powers, including the ability to talk, to fly and to assume human form. In horror stories the bakeneko is often a pet whose master is murdered; when the cat drinks its master’s blood, it also inherits their memories, including the identity of the murderer. As a bakeneko, the cat exacts revenge on the guilty party, usually by infiltrating their home and killing off – and consuming – the entire household. In Kuroneko the spirits of the murdered woman and her mother-in-law have become bakeneko, allowing them to continue taking revenge on the samurai they blame for their deaths. Although less well-known in the West, ghost-cat films were very popular in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, attracting a number of key directors, including Nobuo Nakagawa, Kenji Misumi, Tokuz&#333 Tanaka and Teruo Ishii.

Unlike in the majority of bakeneko films, in Kuroneko Shind&#333 is less interested in plotting out the creatures’ revenge than in following the samurai’s relationship to his dead wife and mother, and underlining the political and social changes taking place, in particular the rise of the samurai class. With the exception of the hero, the samurai in Kuroneko are nothing more than thugs whose primary interests lie in money, women and alcohol. The men that the women lure back to their house are finely dressed and dignified, but after a few bowls of sake, they become little different to the ragged crowd who raped and murdered the women. The samurai’s leader describes his men as the nation’s heroes – a claim that might well have resonated with post-war Japanese audiences – but the majority of them seem to be peasants who found a way out of the punishing life of a farmer, mainly at the expense of their less fortunate neighbours.

The returning husband and father is different, however. For one thing, he’s quite willing to acknowledge that his deeds were motivated by nothing more than a survival instinct, while he’s far from the picture of nobility and battlefield glory that the other samurai believe themselves to be. In reality, he simply wants to find his wife and mother, and when he does find them his urge to spend time with the women overrides any sense of duty he might be feeling from his new-found samurai status. These scenes are reminiscent of similar moments in the various versions of another traditional Japanese ghost story, the kaidan botan d&#333r&#333, ‘the ghost story of peony lanterns’, in which a man continues to visit a ghostly woman he has fallen in love with, even though he knows she will eventually kill him. It also prefigures Nobuhiko Obayashi’s award-winning 1988 version of the story, Ijintachi to no Natsu (The Discarnates), with a businessman electing to spend time with his deceased mother and father, despite the risk to his own life.

Beyond the political concerns, Kuroneko works exceptionally well as a ghost story, not least because of the sense of the tragic and bittersweet that colours many similar Japanese tales. For much of its running time the film is an exercise in restraint, creating a tangible atmosphere of dread and unease without resorting to unnecessary shock tactics. Shindé has a fine eye for the grotesque and eye-catching, with one of Kuroneko’s key images – a close-up shot of one of the ghosts with its own severed paw between its teeth – gracing the cover of almost every home video release of the film. The rapid transformation of the hero from half-naked, filthy creature (bearing a severed head!) to dignified, clean-shaven and impeccably dressed aristocrat is another memorable sequence. Like most Japanese horror films of the period, Kuroneko unfolds at a stately pace, but it’s rewarding viewing, and one that will stay with the audience long after it reaches its inevitable climax.

Jim Harper

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Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 25 February 2013

Distributor Eureka

Director: Kaneto Shindō

Writer: Kaneto Shindō

Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô

Japan 1964

100 mins

Kaneto Shindō’s Onibaba (1964) is an allegorical tale of transformation and uncovered deception. The narrative is set in rural 14th-century Japan during civil war between rivalling shogunates. Two women, a middle-aged mother (played by Shindô’s business partner and future wife Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, (Jitsuko Yoshimura) scavenge to survive. Their modus operandi is to lie in wait in towering susuki fields (Japanese pampas grass) until unsuspecting samurais exhausted by the war pass. Then the women attack. They spear and kill the warriors then strip them for their clothes and swords that can be traded for meagre bags of millet. Systematically they work together to drag their prey to a deep hole and fling them in. Back at their hut they eat, rest, exchange their goods with a covert vendor and await new victims.

This stark austerity is caused by a war that is not the women’s but the generals’ and emperors’ higher up in the social order. But it is the overlooked world of the women that becomes Shindō’s focus. They are not condemned, after all they are doing what their male compatriots are doing a few miles away on the battlefields. Instead, their actions are portrayed as part of a world turned upside down where morality mutates, frost in summer ruins crops, a horse gives birth to a cow and the sun rises black in the sky. It is into this strange yet matter-of-fact cycle that Shindō injects a surreal depiction of erotic desire and a seemingly supernatural twist.

Tension in the film arises when this need for physical survival is met with erotic desire. When Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from fighting in Kyoto without the younger woman’s husband her mother-in-law is forced to consider life without her when she predicts she might leave with Hachi. The consequences are life-threatening, and a game of cat and mouse begins as the mother tries to keep her close. Here, Shindō moulds a childhood Buddhist fable warning against duplicity for his own means. In Onibaba, truthfulness is about finding the limits of your own freedom in an unfathomable moral sea.

The bleak brutality and violence is echoed in the stylistic choices for the film. The soundtrack scored by long-time Shindô collaborator Hikaru Hayashi provides minimal drum rhythms that are remindful of a racing heartbeat or blood pumping through the body. They harness a sense of survival of the fittest or the shrewdest. Like the sound, the mise en scène is pared down to eerie glimpses of sky, smothering fields of pampas grass, small stretches of water and caves. Close-up shots of the reeds make the most of their animistic qualities. Taller than a man or a woman, they seem to move of their own volition, animated and magical. Filmed from overhead they become an uncanny engulfing swell that can carry you along to meet concealed malign forces. This is where exhilaration and terror meet: what will these enigmatic grasses reveal?

Nicola Woodham

Ninja Scroll

Ninja Scroll

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 November 2012

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Writer: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Original title: Jûbê ninpûchô

Japan 1993

94 mins

On the eve of its 20th anniversary, one of the most popular animé films of the early 90s finally reached UK cinemas, ahead of an HD release on Blu-ray. Ninja Scroll was originally released in the West on the back of the success of Akira, as both US and UK distributors fell over themselves looking for the next big Japanese animated film that could cash in on the success of the cyberpunk classic, while ignoring for another decade the non-violent, but superlative work of Studio Ghibli.

The film suffers from the excesses that gave much contemporaneous animé a bad name. These include pans over still images to save the animators some time, as well as the more unsavoury scenes of rape, excessive female nudity, ultra-violence and the ubiquitous tentacled monsters. But none of these elements should be a surprise, as the director also animated more egregious examples in the form of his Wicked City pair of films (ôôjû toshi, 1987) and Monster City (Makaitoshi Shinjuku, 1988). However, in Ninja Scroll at least, these elements are offset by some beautiful renderings of landscapes, weather and the costumes of feudal Japan. The film’s bookends are also excellent: a surprisingly subtle fight scene on a bridge and a climactic battle on a burning ship full of molten gold.

That the film excels more in individual compositions than overall direction and storytelling is indicative of the fact that the director worked better as an animator on other people’s projects, rather than his own, most notably on one of the finest examples of the medium, Rintaro’s Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 2001) and the Satoshi Kon/Katsuhiro Ôtomo anthology Memories (Memorîzu, 1995).

While not based on manga like many of its contemporaries, the story in Ninja Scroll is still episodic to the extent of feeling like video-game plotting. The lead character – a wandering ronin called Kibagami Jubei – goes on various missions: retrieving gold, protecting the weak from being beaten and subjugated, and fighting a variety of creatures that transform from human personas into monsters. Some of these seem overfamiliar, such as those with the aforementioned tentacles, but others are terrific hybrids of man and nature, including a swarm of hornets that live within a hunchback’s vertebrae and demons that transform into rocks and shadows. Reminiscent of American super-villains, these characters and the rendering of rain and snow suggest the director also looked to the West for inspiration, to heroes and villains in Marvel Comics, as well as the then recently started Sin City comic by Frank Miller. Indeed, Kawajiri would look to Miller for inspiration again in his 2003 The Animatrix samurai episode ‘Program’.

Elsewhere, the inspiration is purely Japanese, with the wandering ninja relocated from a series of novels by Futaro Yamada, and placed in front of compositions reminiscent of paintings by Hokusai. This cultural mash-up is entertaining and often memorable, and the legions of adolescent males who have watched the film over the last generation ensured a thematic sequel in 1997’s Ninja Resurrection (Makai Tensho: Jigoku-hen), a spin-off TV series in 2003, and an official sequel in pre-production.

However, the rape scene, which borders on cannibalism and necrophilia, leaves a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended), and one wonders if the BBFC actually made the right decision in 1995 when they originally cut it from the film. The other 93 minutes are a reasonable introduction to the genre for gamers and animé fans, who would be well advised to follow this with the superior animé series Samurai Champloo (Samurai chanpurû, 2004–05). However, for those seeking the best ninja/samurai action on screen, there are dozens of live action movies either directed by Akira Kurosawa or based on manga by Kazuo Koike that are much better films than Ninja Scroll.

Alex Fitch



Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 26 September 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Writers: Shinobu Hashimoto, Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Based on the novel by: Yasuhiko Takiguchi

Original title: Seppuku

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita

Japan 1962

133 mins

Masaki Kobayashi, most often celebrated in the west for Kwaidan, his ghost story omnibus film, more typically made films of violent conflict reflecting his pacifist convictions. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Doing what little he could to resist Japanese militarism as a soldier in WWII, as a filmmaker Kobayashi threw himself into demonstrating the futility of armed struggle. In movies like Samurai Rebellion (1967) and 1962’s Seppuku (just released in the UK on DVD under its more common Western title, Harakiri), the director plays a cunning game, building up a cauldron of seething dramatic tension that finally explodes in a bloody climax, satisfying the demands of a genre audience who require chanbara swordplay, yet resulting in no beneficial effects, for anybody.

Crucially, Kobayashi isn’t opposed to the enjoyment of violent movies, so he doesn’t see any need to destroy audience involvement or render the battle scenes overly unpleasant with excessive gore, or unexciting via distanciation effects. His fights are stunning spectacles and absolutely thrilling to behold, especially after the hours of slow-mounting pressure that build up to them. For tales of defeat, in which not even the memory of a heroic effort will go recorded by history, these movies are surprisingly pleasurable, even at their grimmest.

What Kobayashi is opposed to, and very strongly, is the whole samurai tradition, and its continuing celebration in Japanese cinema. While some filmmakers, notably Kurosawa, were almost wholly approving of the idea of the noble warrior class, and others seem to have been largely agnostic on the subject, seeing it as purely a commercial genre element to be exploited, Kobayashi is devoted, in his period films, to destroying the pernicious myth of an honourable tradition of chivalrous combat and feudal rule. He does so mercilessly, though the tradition, here aptly embodied by an empty suit of armour, always remains at the film’s end, undefeatable. It’s a surprise to see that Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel, also worked on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.

This slow, savage destruction of the mythic code of the samurai is delivered via a series of flashbacks, embedded in the action to produce an illusion of indirection - in fact, the story moves as directly and ruthlessly as a sword thrust. But the ingenious structure allows an incremental build-up of tension, the weaving of several narrative lines, and a final, cataclysmic coming together of all that’s been set up, resulting in a highly cathartic outburst of action.

Along with Kobayashi’s eschewing of delicacy and ellipsis, there’s an avoidance of humour, except for the very blackest sort, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai’s sepulchral performance. The film is deliberately heavy and sombre and truly downbeat, yet it never feels weighed down, depressing or turgid: because it’s an embodiment of the true cinematic urge, the evocation of ideas with image and sound, delivered with passion and anger by a fearless and resourceful filmmaker.

See the original before Takashi Miike’s version of the same story hits UK screens in October.

David Cairns

Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai

Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 4 July 2011

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Mizusho Nishikubo

Writer: Mamoru Oshii

Japan 2009

72 mins

Suitably for a film written by Mamoru Oshii, Musashi is alternately beautiful, intriguing, enlightening, impenetrable and frustrating. As with his earlier film, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters (2006), it’s a type of animé unlike any I’ve seen before. While Tachigui was a fictitious drama made in the style of a documentary and animated in a unique way, Musashi is an animated documentary with dramatised scenes, mainly narrated by a Chibi-style CGI professor. Occasionally, the narration is sung and the animated set-pieces taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries are contrasted with live-action footage of the same locations in modern times.

In addition to the simplistic style used for the narrator, reminiscent of early Pixar short films, the animation style varies from chapter to chapter as we are told the story of Miyamoto Musashi, writer, artist and samurai who lived from approximately 1584 to 1645, and given lessons in the history of sword fighting in the East and the West, army tactics and the development of chivalry. You might have guessed that a film trying to cover all these topics and more in its brief 72-minute running time would feel a bit rushed, and as an educational tool, it would possibly work better as an extra on a box-set of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), which starred Toshirô Mifune as Musashi. The excellent animation used for the various scenes of the samurai at battle only leaves the viewer wanting more, as while we’re told how brilliant and innovative Musashi’s tactics were on the field of battle, it’s better to show rather than tell - particularly in animation - and excised from a greater narrative, the fight scenes don’t give us particular insight into the character as a real person.

Allowing for the frustrating nature of the film, there is still much to enjoy on screen. For a film made by a single director, it’s intriguing how many different animation styles are used, from monochrome, sepia-toned pencil work used to evoke silent movies, to stark black and white with a splash of red, and more caricatured line work depicting the cruelty of some of the foes Musashi meets in the field of battle, rendered in the style of Peter Chung. This anthology approach recalls an earlier Studio I.G. production, Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), which assigned a different director to each segment, and given the number of commentators and disparate films on Musashi’s life there have been, suits the material well. The film’s director, Mizuho Nishikubo, is an old colleague of Oshii’s. They both started their careers on the TV series Gatchaman II (1978-79), the sequel to an earlier show, better known in the West as Battle of the Planets (1978-85). This makes me wonder if the two men now use opportunities like Musashi and Tachigui to make films that are experimental and willfully obscure, their bulletproof reputation built on three and half decades in the industry permitting them to take on projects that wouldn’t be commissioned otherwise.

The film’s excellent visuals are accompanied by a terrific soundtrack that mixes Rôkyoku singing, funk, ambient and Western classical music, let down only by a dreary power ballad that accompanies the end credits. Although the film is short, a 45-minute edit without the CGI professor would be better still. But while not quite a good enough project in its own right, Musashi is a great introduction to both the character on screen (10 films so far, plus cameos elsewhere) and animated samurai cinema in general. If nothing else, this film made me want to track down Mizuho Nishikubo/Project I.G.’s TV series Otogi Zoshi (2004-5), about five folk heroes who save Kyoto from destruction during the Heian period, and their reincarnations in the modern day, which at a total running time of 626 minutes, unlike Musashi, presumably won’t suddenly be over just as it feels like the plot has begun.

Alex Fitch