Tag Archives: samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

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Daimajin Trilogy – Review

26 Jun

In 1954, Toho released a movie called Gojira that would completely reinvent an entire genre. Since then, Godzilla has become King of the Monsters and also a household name. In 1965, to keep up with what Toho was putting out, Daiei Films put another monster on the market, Gamera, which has become a respected kaiju, but is nothing compared to Godzilla. So while Daiei was known for its monster Gamera, it was also known as the production company that put Akira Kurosawa on the map with his 1950 samurai film Rashomon. Now, what if you take Daiei’s monster movies and COMBINE them with samurai movies. What would be the result. Well, that almost unthinkable result would be the Daimajin trilogy.

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The first film, Daimajin, tells the story of a Japanese village that is taken over by an evil chamberlain, Samanosuke (Yutaro Gomi), who forces the villagers into slave labor. After years of turmoil, the mountain god Daimjin is called upon to bring Samanosuke to justice and restore order in the land. In Return of Daimajin (or Daimjin Ikaru), Daimajin must once again be restored to life to stop a war between a violent warlord and the surrounding villages, before any more loss of life is had. In Daimajin Strikes Again (or Daimajin Gyakushu) Daimajin is brought to life by three young boys who witness their family being forced into labor camps to construct rifles for a warring faction, a problem that Daimajin can surely fix in one afternoon.

For any fan of Japanese film, there’s quite literally nothing to dislike here. It seems like a weird combination of genres, but it works out for the best. There’s so much cool stuff in all three of these movies, it’s hard to just pinpoint a few instances. The scene where a group of soldiers try to dismantle the statue before it comes to life ends with such a bang when the statue begins to bleed and a wild storm comes blowing through. That’s just the first time I laughed with excitement at the events that were to unfold. There’s also a lot of excellent religious symbolism that can be recognized no matter what faith you are, kind of like the bleeding statue. It adds a cool layer of the supernatural amongst everything else.

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All three movies have pretty much the same basic structure. There are a group of good and religious villagers just trying to live their lives and respect their mountain god (Daimajin). Of course, that would make for a boring movie, so there is always an evil samurai or lord that shows up that either wants to kill or capture the villagers. While it can get a little repetitive, there is no outstanding reason to have to watch all of these movies in a row in order. There’s no continuing plot and everything is always set up like it is in the first film. This allows you to watch whatever film you want in whatever order you want, and appreciate them as stand alone movies.

So after all of the drama of the story plays out and we really grow to hate the villain, the films switch gears and it all suddenly turns into a giant monster movie. That’s like…the best thing that could happen to any movie. Daimajin is a great giant monster, even though he’s technically a mountain god in the form of a statue. He’s a kaiju that thinks and recognizes good and evil. The actor’s eyes are seen, which never really happens in a monster movie. This gives Daimajin a healthy dose of personality and makes him stand out amongst all of the other hard hitters like Godzilla, Gamera, and Mothra.

Daimajin and its two sequels are all very solid and impressive examples of Japanese film in the mid 1960s. Between Toho and Daiei, there was just a huge flow of monster after monster, and I don’t think Daimajin gets the credit that he deserves. He’s a damn cool monster, and these movies also work great as period dramas. Anyone who is a fan of these kinds of kaiju movies, or even movies like Seven SamuraiRashomon, and the Lone Wolf and Cub film series should definitely check this trilogy out. It’s almost too much fun.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

8 Oct

I’m gonna just come out and say it. I’ve never Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 samurai classic, Harakiri. That being said, I can’t really compare these two movies. Today, I’m going to be talking about Takashi Miike’s 2011 retelling, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. I knew that Miike was capable of successfully crafting a samurai movie after his expertly made remake of 13 Assassins. The difference between these films is how he goes about telling the story. 13 Assassins is a quick paced action film that delivers on the goods when it comes to swordplay. Hara-Kiri, on the other hand, is most certainly not an action film. This is a slow paced family drama that tells of how the caste system in this time period spelled doom for the unworthy.

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On a day like any other the House of Li gets a visitor by the name of Tsugumo Hanshiro (Ichikawa Ebizō Xl), a poverty stricken ronin who asks if he may use the house’s courtyard to perform a ritual suicide. Before a decision is made, Hanshiro is told a story about another ronin, Motome (Eita), who came to the house a few months earlier for the same reason. It turns out that he was bluffing in order for pity to be shown on him, and maybe some money given to him. He is brutally killed for this. Hanshiro then tells a story of his own; a story where he reveals his relation to Motome and the reason behind his bluff. Tensions rise as he tells his story of family, death, and his goal of revenge.

This is a strange movie for a director like Takashi Miike to take on considering his filmography, which is out of this world I might add, consisting of over 90 movies. Look at films like AuditionGuzo, and his controversial Masters of Horror film Imprint. These are brutally violent horror films, and while he does work in other genres, he’s known as being one of the leading horror icons in Japanese cinema. Therefore, to even think that he could tackle a dramatic samurai film such as this is surprising. He handles Hara-Kiri like he’s been making movies like this his whole life. This is a legitimately excellent samurai drama that may leave some in the cold who were expecting an action packed movie with memorable sequences of swordplay.

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Ichikawa Ebizō Xl in his role as Hanshiro may actually be the best part of this movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this actor before, but he reminded me a lot of Toshiro Mifune, the go to actor of Japanese film legend Akira Kurosawa. He brings a feeling of gravity to all of his scenes, whether it’s joyful, angry, or downright somber. Another person who deserves a great deal of credit is Miike’s cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who again feels like he could’ve been doing this 50 or 60 years ago when samurai movies were at their height. He makes the scenery really pop in this movie, but also makes the climax of this movie look absolutely beautiful. It was all together a big team effort that really pays off big time in the end.

This is also an interesting samurai movie because it deals with a theme that feels fresh to me. In most of the films involving samurai and their code, their way of life makes them strong and excellent warriors capable of bringing the most powerful of armies to their knees. This is not the case in Hara-Kiri. This film explores the negative side of the samurai code and dares us to think of how honorable they could have actually been. Sure they fought bravely in battle and offered their services, but only to those who were able to pay. The very last line of dialogue sums up the entire movie in a very ironic way, and is an excellent coda to such a thematically powerful film.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai is an excellent addition to Takashi Miike’s stunning filmography. The fact that he has made so many quality movies is a pretty remarkable feat. This is not a movie that will leave you on the edge of your seat or one that will it give you a surge of adrenaline. This is a thinking man’s samurai film with themes that question what honor the samurais actually had. If you’re a fan of samurai films or even of Takashi Miike’s work, you have to check out this movie. It sums up his talent pretty damn well.

“Lone Wolf and Cub” Series – Review

1 Mar

Samurai movie are a real unique genre because they present a way of life that seems so distant and antiquated, it’s sometimes hard to believe that people once lived like this. Their sense of honor to the point that they would commit the act of seppuku for something pretty minor by today’s standards seems odd, but it’s unbelievably fascinating. The fun doesn’t stop there for the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a six movie saga that spanned from 1972 – 1974 and was based off a manga of the same name. These movies are entertaining, violent, often funny, and takes full advantage of showing off geysers of blood that clearly inspired film makers today, like Quentin Tarantino.

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Throughout these six films, the main plot goes as follows. Ogami Ittō (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is a shogun executioner during the Edo period of Japanese history. After the Yagyū clan conspire against him to claim his role as executioner, he changes his life and becomes an ronin assassin for hire with his young son, Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa). Amidst his adventures, Ittō and his son have to deal with vengeful Yagyū clan warriors, shinobi ninjas, sadistic fighters donning strange weaponry, and murderous women. While the violence never ends, Ittō has one real goal: to restore honor to his family name and kill the leader of the patriarch of the Yagyū clan, Retsudo (Yunosuke Ito).

This is a pretty slim summary of everything that happens in this series. There’s so many awesome and memorable things that happen in these movies that I wish I thought of. The coolest thing out of all the movies is the baby cart that Ogami Ittō pushes around. At first, the cart seems to just be a crudely constructed cart made of wood, solely used to carry Daigoro around. Well, that couldn’t be farther from what it actually is. This is a super weapon that I would love to have on my side in any battle. The cart is built using an arsenal including a spear, hidden daggers activated by buttons, shields, and a strange chain gun like device that has the ability to take down many people in a span of a few seconds. Things like this that happen or is seen in these movies are so cool and make them as memorable as Kurosawa’s more classical samurai films, such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.

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This would be a good opportunity to discuss the strange history of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. The history of the movies themselves is nothing too crazy. Unfortunately, the manga wasn’t finished until 1976, and the last of these movies was made in 1974. That being said, don’t expect a very satisfying conclusion. But what I really want to mention are the Shogun Assassin movies. I knew about those movies before I knew anything about the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and it was surprising to figure out that they are pretty much the same movies. Shogun Assassin and its four sequels are made by editing down footage from the six Lone Wolf and Cub films and splicing them together. I was interested in seeing the Shogun Assassin movies, but when I heard what they actually were, I decided to move straight to the source material and I regret nothing.

The character of Ogami Ittō should be way more popular than he actually is. He’s skilled to the point of almost being superhuman, and the body count of these movies shows that. In the final film, White Heaven in Hell, Ittō holds the record of most body counts by one character at 150 kills onscreen. One of the most memorable scenes is from the first film, Sword of Vengeance, when Ittō cuts the head off of a Yagyū samurai in a duel, complete with a geyser of blood and a dramatic sunset in the background. These movies aren’t just fun and exciting, they’re very well made and look awesome.

The Lone Wolf and Cub series is a great collection of films that I guarantee will entertain you. The characters are memorable, the story is epic, and the history of the time period is really interesting. The films themselves aren’t that long, even though there are six of them, which is good because they don’t mess around. If you love classic samurai films or the history of Japan, but most importantly, if you love having fun, check out this film series.

The Machine Girl – Review

24 May

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that a guilty pleasure of mine lies in the realm of Japanese B-movies, more exclusively those that fall into the “splatter film” category. I’ve reviewed RoboGeishaTokyo Gore PoliceMeatball Machine, and Helldriver. Now, adding to this list is The Machine Girl, an over the top blood bath directed by Noboru Iguchi, and gore effects by the master of B-grade splatter movies, Yoshihiro Nishimura.

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Ami (Minase Yashiro) is an average school girl who is very protective of her little brother, Yu (Ryôsuke Kawamura), especially since their parents killed themselves over a criminal investigation involving a murder that they were framed for. One day, Yu and his friend are killed by Sho (Nobuhiro Nishihara), the son of a samurai/yakuza boss, Ryûji (Kentarô Shimazu). Ami vows to get revenge for her brother, but is caught by Ryûji and has her left arm cut off (in a shower of blood that made me chuckle). Ami teams up with the parents of Yu’s friend, Suguru (Yûya Ishikawa) and Miki (Asami). They construct for her a machine gun to attach to her arm, and after some training, wage a war on the yakuza boss and his son.

Just typing this summary out made me realize how absolutely goofy the whole premise of this is. It wasn’t very easy to get it all down and make it sound somewhat interesting at the same time. That’s because the appeal of The Machine Girl is the visual chaos that fills pretty much the entirety of the movie. If you see the trailer, the summary that I wrote down seems a bit more interesting because you have a sense of how silly it really is. Like I said before, this kind of movie is my guilty pleasure. I recognize the fact that they really aren’t good movies. But, and this is a big but, they make me laugh and there’s plenty of blood and gore that paints the screen red.

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So, for the sake of being a proper critic, let’s objectively look at the movie. First of all, it looks really cheap, but that’s because it is really cheap. The movie is shot in HD which is common for movies of this kind and is pretty appropriate for the silly nature of the movie. If it was shot with beautiful cinematography, it would look and feel weirder than it already is. The acting in it is sub par and over the top. I can promise you that there is lots of fist clenching, teeth gritting, and yelling as characters run into battle. Finally, the writing is completely ridiculous. Honestly though, there really isn’t anything special about the dialogue. You could take all of it out and still know exactly what is going on.

A major plus for this movie is the insane camera work that is used during the more violent scenes. When Ami fires her machine gun arm near the camera, it seems to jitter a little bit like it is affected by the power of the gun. Iguchi used the same technique in RoboGeisha, which has a lot of similarities in its style. The gore effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura are also really cool. There is some CGI used for the blood and the gore, but a good deal of it is done with more physical means. Lots of arterial spray and limbs that go flying. The make up used for a character who has nails rammed into his face looks both disturbing, but very funny in its own dark way.

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Above all, that is really my main reason for watching all of these. The blood, the gore, and the action are so silly and over the top that I can’t help but be intrigued. The writing and acting may be bad and the HD may look cheap, but I can’t say that this wasn’t a really fun movie to watch. There were times where I got a little bored or was ready for the movie to be over, but most of the time I was into what was happening and wondered just what could possibly happen next. A machine gun arm, a flying clamp that rips heads off, a drill bra, and more make this a one of a kind movie. Well, perhaps not. It has been compared to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which is without a doubt a much better film. Still, I can see how much joy the film makers had making this because the finished product is so kinetic and enjoyable. It’s hard to explain how a movie is when you can really tell the makers were trying to make a movie that they would love to see themselves. The Machine Girl is one of these movies.

So, yeah. This isn’t a good movie, but it is entertaining and silly as hell. I don’t always feel the need to put on some highly artistic movie that will make me reconsider everything I know about film making. Sometimes I just want to see some limbs fly and a girl with a machine gun arm kill some bad guys. This gave me exactly what I was expecting, and for that, I can’t fault the movie. This isn’t for everyone, and to the people who have seen it and hate it, I completely understand. The Machine Girl stupid fun, and I personally had a good time.

Bunraku – Review

19 Dec

Wow. This one is really something. I’ve seen Sin City and Renaissance, both of which focus heavily on the visual style. Even with these two filmic experiences on the table, I can still say that I’ve never seen a film quite like Bunraku. What we have here is a mix of martial arts, westerns, samurai drama, graphic novels, and dystopian science fiction. Somehow when all of these genres are put in a blender, the result is Bunraku.

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After a global war, humanity built itself up back from the rubble and put a ban on all firearms. Now the police are all armed with swords and criminal bosses have taken over cities. The most brutal and powerful is Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), who has yet to be defeated by any other boss or their armies. Enter a mysterious Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt), a lone samurai on a quest. Both of these men have separate missions, but a common enemy: Nicola. With the wisdom of a Bartender (Woody Harrelson), these men join forces to fight through Nicola’s guards, including the skilled Killer Number Two (Kevin McKidd), to end his reign of terror.

The story here is pretty cut and dry. Nothing too deep about it and we’ve all seen it a million times before. My mind kept going back to Akira Kurosawa’s film, Yojimbo, because of the whole drifter without a name setting out to defeat an enemy controlling a fearful town. It’s pretty much the same story, just said a little differently. In this regard, the script is weak, from the rehashed story to the characters which really aren’t anything special. I will say that Killer Number Two is really awesome though.

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Even though the story and the characters weren’t anything special, I was never bored with this movie. There was something so genuine about the way it was being told. You can see that the writer/director, Guy Moshe,  just really loves the movies and making them as well. The effects for the backgrounds and other sets are incredible, from the almost cardboard like main street to the insanity colorful insanity of a club that seems to only play traditional Russian music. It’s times like these that I really loved to see the scenes play out and take in all the sights and sounds, the music and the color. It’s just a shame I never got too involved in the plot.

It’s really the way this movie was made that saved it for me. If it didn’t have the extra flair, it would fail to impress me. My favorite scene is a fight that starts on a rooftop and follows Josh Hartnett down the steps. The way it’s done however, is like there is no 4th wall to the building, and the camera cranes down with Hartnett’s movements. This is very reminiscent of old Nintendo side scrollers, even complete with coin sounds in the score that accompanied the scene.

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I really shouldn’t have like Bunraku. The story is unoriginal, the acting is bland, and the choreography isn’t all that great. I just couldn’t help myself. I got lost in the whole atmosphere of the movie. I will say that it’s all about style over substance in Bunraku, but I really enjoyed the style. As an objective critic, I’d say that this is a messy movie that is hardly worth anyone’s time. As a subjective critic, I would urge anyone to see it and try to enjoy and appreciate the work and imagination that goes with the style. Objectively bad, subjectively great.

Geisha VS Ninjas – Review

22 Nov

Japanese B-movies always seem to grab my attention when I’m browsing a DVD store. Normally they’re entertaining as hell with over the top scenes that make me laugh myself stupid. With a name like Geisha VS Ninjas, how could I possibly pass this movie up? Unfortunately for me, this movie is a derivative and cheap excuse for an action/martial arts film that has almost no story at all and fights scenes which you have seen the like of before, but done so much better.

 

Kotomi (Minami Tsukui) is probably the second most deadly geisha to ever live (RoboGeisha still ranks number one). On a mission to avenge her father’s death, she tracks down the killer, a samurai Katagiri Hyo-e (Shigeru Kanai). Of course, killing him isn’t as easy as it would seem. She must get through all of the warriors that stand in between her and the samurai, each warrior showing an increasing amount of skill.

Watching this movie is like watching your friend play the bosses of a hack and slash video game. Hell, I wished that I was playing a video game instead of just watching a movie play out like one. If I was asked what the movie was about in a more casual way than this review, I’d probably just say that a geisha has to fight a bunch of people. That’s pretty much all the movie is with some footage of her walking around the forest. There’s no suspense, no intensity, and really no payoff.

 

I don’t mind if a movie is made on a very small budget, but if you have these budget constraints, you have to think about what kind of movie you are trying to make. Low budget dramas and horror films work out just fine for me normally, as long as there’s a backbone to support it. Low budget action films are more difficult (although films like El Mariachi shows that it can be done), especially if its a costume piece at the same time. I will say that some of the costumes look really nice. The geisha looks like a geisha and the samurai looks like a samurai. The actual photography of the film is distractingly bad. It looks like a movie that was shot on the director’s own personal camera.  Maybe if the story was better, I wouldn’t be so critical of the camera work.

While the camerawork and image quality may look cheap, I will say some of the cinematography looks really nice, especially in the beginning and the end. When the action gets really dramatic during the climax, the scene almost becomes theatrical with hard light blocking off the background and really focusing on the action. It actually makes that scene stick out and easy to appreciate. That’s about all you can appreciate.

 

As I’ve said, this movie is a sorry excuse for a martial arts movie. While it does show some respect to the classic martial arts films of the 70s and the modern masterpieces like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it made me feel like I’d rather be doing anything else. Luckily, this movie is only 79 minutes long, so the torturous boredom didn’t have to last too long. Even if you love martial arts, samurai, and wuxia films, Geisha VS Ninjas is a weak attempt at storytelling that is better off being ignored.