Over one weekend we had a themed movie marathon – Japanese. These are what we saw…

13 Assassins (1963)

13 Assassins is a 1963 jidaigeki (period drama) film directed by Eiichi Kudo. I have seen Takeshi Miike’s blood soaked remake (2010) and have always been curious about the original. The story is simple – a band of 13 samurais plan to assassinate a cruel feudal lord. Interestingly, if memory serves me well, Miike was very faithful to the original, sometimes reproducing the same shot. I always like these numbered underdogs against an infinite number of scumbags movies. You know not all will survive, but you know they will die well. The first 3/4 is a lot of talk and recruiting, the last half hour is a helluva fight to the end and it is so well-staged I see the crimson red even though it’s shot in B&W. The catharsis hits the spot. Go see Miike’s remake, then check this gem out and you will realise Miike’s version is just a gimmicky and garish film.

Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Tokyo Drifter is a 1966 yakuza film directed by Seijun Suzuki. The story follows Tetsuya Watari as the reformed yakuza hitman “Phoenix” Tetsu who is forced to roam Japan avoiding execution by rival gangs. The majority of the film takes place in Tokyo, but portrays the city in a highly stylized manner. The opening sequence consists of a mash of images from metropolitan Tokyo, meant to condense the feeling of the city into one sequence. The film opens in stylized black and white, which becomes vibrant color in all subsequent scenes which served to represent Tokyo after the 1964 Summer Olympics. This is my first time discovering Seijun Suzuki and it wouldn’t be my last. Tokyo Drifter is an exercise of style over substance. What style this has! The loyal and charismatic henchman saunters around humming his drifter tune before whacking all the bad guys. Love his cool light blue suit that never gets one single drop of blood stain. This guy is so cool, women want to have his babies, but he pushes them away because a drifter shouldn’t have a girl next to him. It would sully his cool look. Narratively, this lacks structure but there is just enough to keep you on the road to one of the most bombastic climatic gunfights ever. I thought I have seen everything… heck! I am an amateur! I am cueing up his masterpiece Branded to Kill soon. 

Onibaba (1964)

Onibaba is a 1964 historical drama horror film written and directed by Kaneto Shindo. The film is set during a civil war in the fourteenth century. Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura play two women who kill soldiers to steal their possessions, and Kei Satō plays the man who ultimately comes between them. This is my second time and my wife’s first time, a haunting and astonishing film. It feels like a parable, a horror story, a cautionary tale about possessiveness. Erotically charged, bursting with symbolisms, this feels like a critique on consumerism, the destructive nature of sexual desire, all caught in a sea of weaving reeds. The horror element only comes late in the movie, but by then I was already a goner. This is a must-see.

Ran (1985)

Ran is a 1985 epic action drama film directed, edited and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. The plot derives from William Shakespeare’s King Lear and includes segments based on legends of the daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-period warlord who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. This is one of the best 50 films to grace the planet and if you don’t think so you know sh*t. I think it’s my third time seeing it and my wife’s first. This is a film that Kurosawa could never have made when he was younger. It is is a representation of the twilight of his illustrious career and his life. The culmination of all his life’s philosophies and experiences exploded on the screen in vivid colours. It’s the apocalypse of humanity in a kaleidoscope of primary colours. Lots of directors use colours as symbolisms, it is a matter of taste whether the gimmick calls attention to itself. Here, it is incredibly used, both thematically and structurally. You see the humongous battle scenes but you will never be confused who is who. My wife caught a detail I never saw even in my third time – the flags had lines, the number of lines symbolises which brother’s army it is. Ran is epic, full of metaphors (all great movies have that) and grand themes portrayed in grandiose ways. Everything is so operatic and opulent, making you think before you feel. There are no close-ups, everything is divided down the middle. It has an effect on you, making you see everything like an omnipresent God, never lifting a finger to intervene, preferring to lay back and see humans kill humans. You wouldn’t be able to sum up the whole film in a few throwaway lines. It’s one of those few films that teaches you something about life each time you see it.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

The Bad Sleep Well is a 1960 movie directed by Akira Kurosawa. It was the first film to be produced under Kurosawa’s own independent production company. The film stars Toshiro Mifune as a young man who gets a prominent position in a corrupt postwar Japanese company in order to expose the men responsible for his father’s death. It has its roots in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while also doubling as a critique of corporate corruption. Along with Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), it is one of three films in which Kurosawa explores the film noir genre. This one has its moments but overall it suffers from pacing problems and it is too long. The moment a reveal is dropped it slows down to a crawl when it should have gone up a notch. The ending withholds information that would have garnered sympathy for the hero. Instead, we are given the information through a verbose explanation that provides zero catharsis. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Where Kurosawa did stupendously well is his portrayal of the insidious nature of dirty corporation that leaves bodies in its wake as they lined their pockets with millions. 

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla is a 1954 Japanese kaiju film directed by Ishirō Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. Produced and distributed by Toho Studios, it is the first film in the Godzilla franchise and the Shōwa era. In the film, Japan’s authorities deal with the sudden appearance of a giant monster, whose attacks trigger fears of nuclear holocaust during post-war Japan. The film spawned a multimedia franchise, being recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest running film franchise in history. The character Godzilla has since became an international pop culture icon, and the 1954 film has been largely credited for establishing the template for tokusatsu media. Wow! Just fricking wow! Forget all the Hollywood Godzilla crap! This is where it all began. Going into this film, I was getting ready to be wrapped up by high camp and low cheesiness, but I had no idea I was in for such a superb time. In true monster movie fashion, the Japanese studios never throw in the iconic monster from the get-go. We get the after-effects when the shores of an island became its playground. Humans talk about it in all manners of seriousness. Then we get a roar, a thump and a rearing of a head, and the humans go ape-shite and likewise with us. The movie has the perfect balance between the human and monster elements. Heck! The Hollywood movies can never get this right. When Godzilla goes rampaging into Tokyo I became a small wide-eyed boy again. It’s not just a guilty pleasure, the film is filled with metaphors and symbolisms. They even put in one for Oppenheimer, the scientist who created the atomic bomb, and his profound sadness in seeing his invention gets used for destruction. His ultimate sacrifice is well-handled and hits a spot for me. And get this…. I actually felt for the poor thing that was Godzilla who could inspire terror and garner sympathy. 

Good Morning (1959)

Good Morning is a 1959 comedy film by Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. It is a loose remake of his own 1932 silent film I Was Born, But…, and is Ozu’s second film in color. I have seen most of Ozu’s celebrated films and this is the first time I laughed out loud. The story is so simple – two young boys in suburban Tokyo take a vow of silence after their parents refuse to buy them a television set. All of Ozu’s films are shot from the perspective of adults, but this one is from the petulant boys’ point of view. It is an enchanting portrayal of family life but using this deceptively simple framework Ozu gives a sharp critique towards the gossiping nature of Japanese folks, meaningless rituals and consumerism.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Branded to Kill is a 1967 Japanese yakuza film directed by Seijun Suzuki and starring Joe Shishido, Koji Nanbara and Annu Mari. The story follows Goro Hanada in his life as a contract killer. He falls in love with a woman named Misako, who recruits him for a seemingly impossible mission. When the mission fails, he becomes hunted by the phantom Number One Killer, whose methods threaten his sanity as much as his life.

The studio was unhappy with the original script and called in Suzuki to rewrite and direct it at the last minute. Suzuki came up with many of his ideas the night before or on the set while filming, and welcomed ideas from his collaborators. He gave the film a satirical, anarchic and visually eclectic bent which the studio had previously warned him away from. It was a commercial and critical disappointment and Suzuki was ostensibly fired for making “movies that make no sense and no money”. Suzuki successfully sued Nikkatsu with support from student groups, like-minded filmmakers and the general public and caused a major controversy through the Japanese film industry. Suzuki was blacklisted and did not make another feature film for 10 years but became a counterculture hero.

The film grew a strong following, which expanded overseas in the 1980s, and has established itself as a cult classic. Film critics and enthusiasts now regard it as an absurdist masterpiece. It has been cited as an influence by filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, Chan-wook Park and Quentin Tarantino, and composer John Zorn.

I lifted all the above words from wiki. It is important to know that information while watching this crazy movie to understand the nonsense the movie throws at you. Actually, “nonsense” is probably not a good word to describe it. It’s bravura gonzo filmmaking. Suzuki dreams up crazy scenarios and just shoots it exactly how his fevered brain imagined it. The editing goes through starts and stops with no regard to continuity but you will have no trouble following the general story. It’s about a hitman hall-of-fame chart that only has 3 entries. I think nobody cares about the chart except for the three dudes. Oh… there are lots of nudity and some full-frontals by a nubile girl and another stunner whose dream and aspiration is to die. I think she did not receive the memo that everybody dies eventually. There are some inventive shootouts (even crazier than Tokyo Drifter) and the last half hour is one helluva absurdist wet dream. I love this shite. We laughed at so many crazy moments (stuff I have never seen before) and it’s instantly memorable.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

The Sword of Doom is a 1966 jidaigeki film directed by Kihachi Okamoto and stars Tatsuya Nakadai. It was based on the serial novel of the same title by Kaizan Nakazato. This film boasts some of the most impressive swordplay of samurai epics. Visceral and violent, yet gorgeously choreographed to the tempo of exquisite death. 

Ever wonder what happens if the most immoral person becomes a politician or a psychopath becomes a police officer (wait a minute… there are examples of this in real life!) or a sociopath becomes a samurai? Phew… the last example has not happened in reality. I love how Tatsuya Nakadai plays his character Ryunosuke with a sickening smile as he dispatched the umpteenth samurai. He literally looks like he gets off on it. At one point the wife of his opponent begs Ryunosuke to throw the match, offering her own virtue in trade. Ryunosuke accepts her offer, but still kills her husband in the match. This guy is looking to get the Scumbag of the Century award. The fella just goes around amassing vendettas like nobody’s business but he finally meets his match in Toshiro Mifune’s Shimada, a sword master. The climax is already deliriously teased out because Shimada is coaching a samurai on the technique to slay Ryunosuke to exact revenge for killing his brother and destroying his family. Oh man… I was rubbing my hands in glee with the prospect of a bloody finale. But in an extremely odd choice of narrative cop-outs, we do not get to see that climax. The movie literally ends with a freeze like a slap on my face, an unnecessary subplot diversion notwithstanding. It almost feels like since Ryunosuke is such a scumbag that nobody cares about him and the director decided that since nobody bothered to know his fate he didn’t care to. From 5 stars, this became a 3 star movie in a split second.