Every now and again I stumble across a film whose premise is so fascinatingly odd that I just have to see it. Japan’s Toho studio reacting to the success of British Hammer horror in the 1960s and putting out a loosely connected trilogy of Dracula-inspired vampire films? Sign me up. Like many of the more oddball Japanese titles I watch this came via Arrow Films, who put out a Blu-Ray collecting all three of the so-called ‘Bloodthirsty Trilogy’. I picked it up when I saw it in the January sales and then promptly forgot about it until indecisively browsing for something to watch on a chilly February night. This long-winded preamble to me sitting down to watch The Vampire Doll (1970) is, sadly, probably more entertaining than the film itself.
After being so pleasantly surprised with The Tale of Zatoichi and in particular Shintaro Katsu’s endearing performance as the titular blind masseuse and master swordsman, I was keen to continue my “Zatoichi-gatsu” and watch the next entry in the series. I was also a little nervous: the series stretched to twenty-five films between 1962 and 1973, not counting later entries and remakes. Surely the quality would not be maintained for the duration, so it was just a question of when the drop would come. It was also not obvious whether a sequel would be an original story or merely a rehash of the first film; in watching many ongoing series from Japan’s 1960s and ‘70s like Outlaw Gangster: VIP or Lone Wolf and Cub, it’s clear that each film in the series follows a fairly rote formula, often with the same cast returning in “new” roles. Would The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1963) buck that trend, or mark the start of a more formulaic martial arts film?
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time — and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost all moral high ground. In Godzilla: The Planet Eater, Netflix and Toho team back up to bore the ever-loving god out of me for a third and, hopefully, final time. Any wishful thinking that the third instalment might magically turn around the series after two utterly lethargic entries was misguided, and my hopes were very quickly dashed as The Planet Eater settled into a familiar rhythm of characters no one could possibly care about reciting pseudo-philosophy no one could possibly understand. Every criticism I’ve ever levelled against the series, from the stilted animation to the lack of action to the awful dialogue still applies. Nevertheless, I powered through and watched it, so here’s my review.
Tokyo Mighty Guy • Danger Pays • Murder Unincorporated
Earlier on the site, I reviewed three films from Nikkatsu’s golden years in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Presented in Arrow Films’ Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Collection vol. 1, I found Voice Without a Shadow to be a decent early taste of Seijun Suzuki, but Red Pier and The Rambling Guitarist were both pretty forgettable, aside from the latter’s unusual Hakodate setting. So when I sat down to watch the films from vol. 2, I wondered whether it was worth digging into each film with a meaty review. I could just binge all three, I figured, and recreate the feeling of watching what I expected to be pretty ephemeral, throwaway pieces of entertainment in the 1960s.
The irony is that vol. 2’s films are much more entertaining and stand out from a crowded field of mid-’60s yakuza films by being much more comedic in tone. It actually feels unusual that rote action films like Youth of the Beast or Massacre Gun get their own standalone release, but Arrow has chosen to practically hide away these gems on the second volume of it’s Diamond Guys series. Perhaps it’s that the directors or the films themselves lack name recognition (Buichi Saito is perhaps best known for his work on Lone Wolf and Cub, while Ko Nakahira’s 1956 film Crazed Fruit is critically acclaimed but he’s otherwise unknown in the West, and Noguchi is billed as a ‘new discovery’).
Nevertheless, I’m going to treat these films more as a ‘collection’ than I normally would. Below are the reviews I wrote up while working through the disc, first posted over on my Letterboxd feed. Here’s hoping that Arrow digs deeper into Nikkatsu’s expansive back catalogue and releases another volume of Diamond Guys in the future.
I feel like I took a gamble on Zatoichi. It’s an old series whose legacy reaches far past the actual films, so I knew the basic premise of this blind swordsman from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even before the remake starring Beat Takeshi back in the early 2000s. I was hesitant to give the series a try, though, after struggling through six films of the seemingly similar Lone Wolf and Cub – and here was a series with twenty-five entries (and that’s just in the Criterion Collection, which sadly excludes the 1989 film also starring Shintaro Katsu, never mind the hundred-episode television show!). More or less totally unavailable in the UK, it was a moot point until Criterion brought their US collection over, and I finally rolled the dice.
Whether or not the rest of the series maintains the same level of craftsmanship is uncertain – or even unlikely – but the first film, Kenji Misumi’s The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is a brilliant and surprisingly introspective drama rather than the schlocky martial arts exploitation film I expected. This is all the more surprising considering Misumi actually directed several of the Lone Wolf films that I disliked so intensely – and that Shintaro Katsu, who stars as the titular Zatoichi, is the younger brother of Tomisaburo Wakayama, most famous for his portrayal of Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub.
I’m not sure when I first heard of Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) but it quickly grew to be one of my most anticipated Japanese films, and I watched it creep up the UK from London festival by festival until it finally arrived in Leeds. I’d heard all kinds of good things about it: that it was an excellent zombie comedy, that it featured an extremely long single take shot – the ‘one cut’ of the title. The praise was so effusive I was determined to see it, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The rough plot outline that I had heard, and that I will share here again, is that a low budget zombie horror film is interrupted by actual zombies and the director is determined to incorporate the real attacks into his film – in Japanese, the title is カメラを止めるな！ or ‘Don’t stop the camera!’. While that’s a wonderful title, it only scratches the surface of what makes One Cut of the Dead great.
This year, I’m spending the month of October celebrating the horror genre with a #31DaysofHorror or #Shocktober-style run of horror films. At the end of the first week I’m a little behind schedule, with an eye on catching up over the weekends, but I’ve already bagged my first Japanese horror of the season: utterly mad cult classic House (1977), the debut feature film of Nobuhiko Obayashi. Ostensibly a horror film Toho demanded after the success of Jaws in 1975, House (or Hausu, to give it its Japanese pronunciation) is most definitely not a straightforward suspense-horror film akin to the Spielberg movie that triggered its creation. Instead, it’s a completely surreal sequence of events and images that more-or-less tells the story of a gaggle of teenage girls who visit a countryside mansion in Japan before falling prey to the old woman who lives there and the diabolical house itself. Obayashi, who developed a series of experimental films through the 1960s, imbues House with a non-stop cavalcade of visual tricks, weird FX shots, dissonant audio that overwhelms the senses. Rarely good, but never boring, House is the kind of cult film that simply must be seen to be believed.
Yurusarezaru Mono (2013) is Lee Sang-Il’s gorgeous remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven, shifting the setting from the American Old West to Japan’s late 19th century northern frontier on the island of Hokkaido. Lee is able to draw out tremendous parallels between the two countries in that era – both recovering from a civil war, and expanding outwards into ‘unclaimed’ territory – and effectively retell the same basic story in a wholly new locale. Ken Watanabe (Tampopo, The Last Samurai) stars as Clint Eastwood’s equivalent: Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer”, a former samurai on the side of the Shogunate in Japan’s civil war (1868-69). After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial forces, Jubei is among those who fled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo), where he now lives a life of utter destitution. He’s picked up by Akira Emoto’s Kingo (the role played by Morgan Freeman in the original, in some strikingly similar casting) to collect on a bounty placed on the Hotta brothers by the prostitutes they disfigured. Much of this draws on story beats from the original Unforgiven despite the drastic change in location and culture, but while Clint Eastwood’s final Western is critically acclaimed, I’ve never cared much for it. In Lee’s hands, however, the story comes alive and works in a way I never felt about the original.
What can I write about Shinichiro Watanabe’s seminal, acclaimed, hugely influential anime Cowboy Bebop that has not already been discussed, in greater detail and with more eloquence, by people before me? I came very late to Cowboy Bebop; I’ve mentioned before when reviewing anime that aside from a handful of exceptions, like Ghost in the Shell, I hadn’t watched much until a few years ago. Cowboy Bebop was one of the landmark series that I’d somehow missed out on, and it took me seventeen years – the series aired in Japan in 1998, but not until 2001 in the west – to correct that grave mistake. Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001) gives me an opportunity to discuss the series as a whole and the film in particular. Set between episodes 23 and 24 of the original 26 episode run, the film works as more of a “lost episode” than as a either a capstone to the series or a truly standalone adventure. I imagine a casual viewer could approach it without having watched the series, but that would leave them missing out on much of the world- and character-building that went into the show – and as the film is set largely on Mars, it misses out on much of the swashbuckling, spacefaring charm of the series.
Original series director Kenji Misumi returns for one final film in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). This fifth instalment again portrays an episodic series of events in which Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his infant son are hired from their life on the road to commit an assassination, all the while pursued by the villainous Yagyu clan that schemed to have Ogami cut loose as a ronin way back in Sword of Vengeance. I wrote extensively about how the first and second films, both directed by Misumi, left me cold, but that his Baby Cart to Hades finally turned things around. I was disappointed by his being replaced with Buichi Saito for the fourth film just when it seemed like Misumi was getting into his stride, but Baby Cart in the Land of Demons gives him another chance. Would this be another series high point, or a disappointment like the first couple of films?