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.
Opening 2018 with another Akira Kurosawa classic seems like a good way to get started, so here’s Rashomon (1950). An inventive story that retells the same event from the point of view of multiple unreliable narrators, Akutagawa’s storytelling and Kurosawa’s interpretation echo through pop culture – with my personal favourite being the King of the Hill Episode, “A Fire Fighting We Will Go”. The film presents multiple layers of narratives within narratives as a wandering traveller happens upon two other men seeking shelter from the rain in the huge, cyclopean ruin of the titular Rashomon gate.
My experiences with the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies didn’t fill me with excitement for the remaining four films in Criterion’s box set. I don’t regret watching them, but I was starting to regret owning the collection – all the more reason to be sad Amazon was shuttering its LoveFilm rental service. And yet! Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972) performs the nigh impossible task of course-correcting from the previous films, with drastically improved cinematography and fight scenes, as well as more interesting character interactions. While still by no means a perfect film, it took me by surprise, and reinvigorated my interest in the series.
In this second instalment of the cult Lone Wolf and Cub, Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and infant son Daigoro take on a Shogunate plot to steal a region’s indigo dye techniques, do battle with a legion of ninjas and plenty of sword maidens, and spray buckets of luminously-red blood. It’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)! When I reviewed the first film in the series, I wrote how deeply disappointed I was; it was not the vital action classic I was imagining. Does the sequel manage to right those wrongs?
To the best of my knowledge, Kurosawa only made two sequels in his career. The first was a sequel to his debut movie Sanshiro Sugata. The second was Sanjuro (1962), a follow-up to Yojimbo. It wasn’t originally meant to be that way – Sanjuro was intended to be a straight adaptation of an existing novel, but the success of Yojimbo led to it being reworked, with lead character Sanjuro returning. It’s not unlike the many Die Hard sequels, each an existing treatment, reimagined with John McClane as the lead character (ironically, all except for the dismal Die Hard 5, the only movie actually written and intended to be a Die Hard movie from the beginning).
It’s back to Kurosawa for Yojimbo (1961). I was a little apprehensive after The Hidden Fortress, but any worries were misplaced: this is a samurai gangster action comedy masterpiece.
While recording our most recent podcast, I got into an argument with my co-host about Kurosawa’s films. He said they’re unwatchable, I said they were great. The Hidden Fortress (1958) is not great. Hidden Fortress really is almost unwatchable; a disjointed, overlong piece that seems far more old-fashioned than either the hyper-stylised Throne of Blood or the very modern Seven Samurai – I’m surprised it has high critical praise, but I’m not surprised it’s being compared to even older adventure movies like Gunga Din (1939) and Thief of Baghdad (1924).
The second movie in the BFI’s Kurosawa box set, Throne of Blood (1957) was a total mystery to me. I hadn’t seen Seven Samurai, but I at least knew the rough plot outline. All I knew about Throne of Blood was what I could figure out from the cover, which was that some liberties had been taken with the original Japanese, ‘Spiderweb Castle’. Or as the subtitles put it more fustily, ‘Cobweb Castle’. About ten minutes in though, it became clear this was Kurosawa doing Macbeth, and knocking it out of the park.
I am, as an old friend is often wont to point out, a massive weeaboo (I prefer ‘Japanophile’, though that makes it sound like I should be arrested for it). It’s probably no surprise then that I’m a fan of Japanese cinema: if nothing else, even if the movie is bad, it’s a window into a culture I’m interested in and a location I miss living in. The weird part is that until fairly recently I hadn’t seen many Japanese films I could say were good without having to qualify it. When I was younger, Japanese movie imports seemed to entirely consist of Ring-style horror and Takashi Miike’s trashier films.
When I was studying in Japan I even picked a class on Japanese film, but the teacher literally slept through it – I mean head on desk, slept through it – and the entire semester consisted of two projects: shooting an amateur movie and doing a short presentation on an actual Japanese film. Neither of which the teacher had any input in or critique of, so everyone ended up covering rubbish. Of course, I knew there were important films out there; I knew that I was supposed to like Kurosawa, and that before making Battle Royale (which I loved as a teenager) Kinji Fukasaku made well-regarded gangster movies. I just didn’t know which movies I was supposed to watch, or how to get hold of them.
Fast forward a few years (or ten years. I feel old) and I’ve finally seen The Yakuza Papers / Battles Without Honour and Humanity, which sit atop my heap of favourite Japanese movies. Now I’m getting around to watching older stuff, starting with the box of Kurosawa Blu-rays that’ve been sitting on my shelf for two years.
Seven Samurai (1954) is tied with the oldest movie I’ve actually sat down to watch of my own volition (the original Godzilla, naturally). It’s black and white, and three and a half hours long, which seems insane; it even has a twenty minute intermission built into the running time. Putting aside the Peter Jackson-like length I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Other than Clerks I don’t have much time for B&W pictures and unless I’m playing Shogun: Total War I’m surprisingly uninterested in jidaigeki – give me post-war crime and politics, not samurai.