Sunday, July 31, 2011

Our Top Ten Favorite Fight Scenes

We at the J-Film pow-Wow run into a lot of our readers at screenings and festivals. It's fun (and quite humbling) to know that there are people on the other side of our keyboards and laptops who love Japanese film as much as we do. One thing that comes up a lot when we chat with you are the films that got you into Japanese film in the first place. A common thread that runs through these first introductions to the cinema of Japan are action movies, and specifically ones that feature some truly amazing knock down, drag 'em out fights. Japanese film-makers have given us scenes of sword fights, martial arts combat and bare knuckle brawling whose violence, energy and skill stick in audiences' minds for days, months, year... and sometimes forever. That's why this month we wanted to share with all of you our top ten favorite fight scenes. We expect a lot of you out there will have varying opinions on our picks, so the only thing to do is put your fists where your mouths are and fight it out with us in the comments!

10. The Final Fight - Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi , 1967)

It's almost a full two minutes before Isaburo (played by a seriously intense Toshiro Mifune) and Tatewaki pull their swords out in their final encounter towards the end of Masaki Kobayashi 1967 film "Samurai Rebellion". Once they do, it's less than half that time before their battle is finished. So why does this make the list? First of all, that's only half the story...Once that particular skirmish has finished, Isaburo needs to get back to the little baby he has left waiting for him, but first he has an army of rifle bearing and sword wielding soldiers laying wait for him under the cover of brush in the field. Shots ring out from barrels held by still hidden soldiers while Isaburo dives into the growth. He's hit numerous times, but still hacks away at those soldiers foolish enough to only be armed with a sword. Kobayashi mixes in long shots and closeups to show the progress through the field and the immediate results. Isaburo's riddled body continues forward as he calls out the child's name. It's a hell of an ending, but made even more so due to that first one-on-one showdown. As the two combatants circle each other before even the first glint of sunlight comes from their swords, the winds howl through the open spaces and crops of the field. Isaburo suffers the first slash in their jousting battle - this isn't the standard clang-clang-clang sword fight as it occurs in quick single passing shots - but his determination screams through his silent glare. It's all quite magnificent and gorgeously shot and closes out one of the best films about the courage of a samurai ever made. BT

9. Blood in the boxing ring - Tokyo Fist (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

Many of the scenes on our list deal with the mechanics of fighting, the way someone can master the moves of violence, but one film on our list took it a step further and looked at the motivations of violence. That is "Tokyo Fist" directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Like his 1989 breakthrough "Tetsuo the Iron Man", "Tokyo Fist" is about the transformation of the body, but unlike its cyberpunk predecessor it doesn't leave the reasons of its characters' metamorphosis a mystery. Like a pitch black take on those old Charles Atlas comic book advertisements showing a 98-pound weakling beefing up to take on a muscled bully, "Tokyo Fist" introduces us to salaryman Tsudo and his fiancée Hizuru. At first they are the standard, polite couple... that is until the arrival of Kojima, a prize fighter who wants nothing more than to pound Tsudo into submission and run off with his bride-to-be. Sure, Tsudo doesn't want this sexual aggressor to steal his woman, but in his heart he also doesn't want to have his pride hurt. So begins his training to turn his sinewy body into a killing machine. Meanwhile Hizuru finds her own method of physical transformation through pain - piercing and body modification. This narrative transformation of that old Charles Atlas ad injected with a healthy dose of the dangerous obsessions of a J.G. Ballard novel climaxes in one of the bloodiest boxing scenes committed to celluloid. Tsudo faces off against Kojima in the ring, but has face beaten into ground beef by his opponent. Meanwhile we see Hizuru engaging in her own blood-bathed ritual involving surgical steel bars inserted under her flesh. Unlike all the other fights on this list, Tsukamoto repels us with violence while enticing us to take a look at our darkest urges and instincts. CM

8. Man battles cattle - Karate Bullfighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1977)

Sonny Chiba helped to popularize the Karate oriented fighting style during the 70’s, clearly separating itself from the more graceful and dance-like duels of many of the Shaw brothers films from China. Chiba was a raw and aggressive machine whose form was an afterthought as long as his fists overcame whatever challenge he faced. This is epitomized in "Karate Bullfighter", the first of a trilogy of films detailing a fictional account of the life of Mas Oyama, one of Chiba’s teachers and the creator of Kyokushin Karate, a style that prides itself on full contact sparring. One folktale tells us that Oyama fought bulls to test his strength, knocking them out with a single blow, and so one of these battles is recreated here, with Sonny Chiba battling a real bull. Yes, a real bull. If you thought the shark versus zombie from Lucio Fulci’s "Zombie 2" was the most bizarre fight you’ve ever seen, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Sonny Chiba holding a real bull by the horns and punching it in the head. The shark in "Zombie 2" was drugged, and clearly so as it moves lethargically during the battle. Here, there appears to be no trickery like that. This is a fight that could only have been done in the 70’s, not only for the fact there are laws protecting animals from being punched in the head for our entertainment on screen, but also because I’m sure very few actors today would put themselves in that much danger, nor would studios and insurance companies allow it to happen. Sure the other fights in the film are pretty brutal and breathtaking, but nothing is as incredible as watching Chiba match his strength to a real bull. MH

7. Stripped down combat - Sex & Fury (Norifumi Suzuki, 1973)

A good fight should be a mix of skill and strength with a healthy dose of stripped down animal rage. There are few fights on our list (or anywhere for that matter) that are as stripped down as the one between Ocho (Reiko Ike) and a group of assassins in Norifumi Suzuki's 1973 classic "Sex & Fury". Pickpocket Ocho finds herself in a little more trouble than she's used to when she begins to track down the man who killed her father years before. Vengeance is hard work, so Ocho decides to take a soak in a local bath house; but danger doesn't take time for a woman in in the tub. As Ocho suggestively soaps her ample bosom a group of men wielding katana burst in. Facing death Ocho doesn't have to time to think about propriety, she just grabs her sword and starts fighting... in the nude! Norifumi Suzuki was one of Toei's most called upon directors of its Pinky Violence films, pictures that combined bloodshed with boobs, so the concept of of a nude sword fight makes sense. What makes this scene from "Sex & Fury" stand apart from other Toei titillation, though, is not the level of combat skill, but that of film-making skill. Suzuki and Ike combine amazing fight choreography with the nudity required by Pink Violence films, but it's the editing that is truly masterful. As per Japan's screen censorship laws film-makers could not show pubic hair in their films. Suzuki and editor Osamu Ichida cut together the sequence so that it's not only exciting, but so that we get to see her breasts and behind, but never a whisper of hair between her legs. Not an easy task when you're fighting al fresco... CM

6. Slo-mo extravaganza – Milocrorze: A Love Story (Yoshimasa Ishibashi, 2010)

“Milocrorze: A Love Story,” Yoshimasa Ishibashi’s debut feature, is chock full of cinematic delights. Composed of four stories, it shifts genres with bold abruptness; packs the frame with a dizzying array of colors, effects and gags and keeps a remarkable momentum of fun and energy going. The tour-de-force sequence of the whole film arrives in the third segment, which finds Takayuki Yamada (who plays all of the main male protagonists) as a ronin traveling across a feudal land in search of his true love. His travels bring him to a brothel where a tense confrontation in a gambling den dissolves into a massive, “Kill Bill”-style swordfight. What makes this lengthy sequence so audacious is Ishibashi’s choice to have it play out in extreme slow motion, with fast motion “flashes” sprinkled throughout it. Besides serving a clear comedic purpose (for the many great facial expressions alone), this approach could be seen as bearing an element of generosity as well. So many fight scenes seem to play out too quickly or in too disorienting a fashion, robbing viewers of the chance to properly appreciate them; here, for a change, is one absolutely designed to let one’s eyes drink in all the splendor and detail of the orchestrated mayhem before them. As far as displays of choreographed screen violence goes, this is about as visionary and operatic as it gets. MSC

5. The ultimate cat fight - 2LDK (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2002)

The cat fight. It's a fight that has been fetishized by many men who want nothing more than to see two women use tooth fang and claw to destroy each other. Some guys out there even get off on it. We at the Pow-Wow can't really put ourselves in that group, but it's hard not to be in awe of a cat fight on the scale of that between Nozomi (Eiko Koike) and Rana (Maho Nonami) in Yukihiko Tsutsumi's 2002 film "2LDK". To say that these two aspiring actresses and reluctant roommates dislike each other is a bit of an understatement. Miho is a young woman who will use her acting talents (and other talents...) to get what she wants, while Nozomi is an innocent in the big city of Tokyo. The two women do nothing but rub each other the wrong way, but when they find themselves competing for the same role (and the affections of the same talent agent) their petty annoyances build, build and then explode into a cat fight that nearly takes up the entire 70 minute run time of Tsutsumi's film. "2LDK" (which stands for a two-bedroom apartment with living room, dining room, and kitchen) was filmed as a companion piece to Ryuhei Kitamura's sword fight film "Aragami", but this half of Kitamura's/ Tsutsumi's "Duel Project" dispels with the precision and honour of two samurai clashing. Instead we get two girls who use everything -- from ketchup to power saws -- to vent their hatred for the other. Truly epic. CM

4. Grave vs. Goddess - Death Trance (Yuji Shimomura, 2005)

Tak Sakaguchi and Yuji Shimomura need to be on this list. Whilst most of the films here involve samurai and swordplay (and yes, "Death Trance" is does feature both), it’s their skill with unarmed fight choreography that has changed the way we view Japanese fight scenes today. Shimomura is so talented, he was even recruited by the modern master himself, Hong Kong actor/director/action director Donnie Yen, when he made his modern cop action masterpiece "Flashpoint". Sure "Versus" laid the groundwork, but with the "Death Trance", they take it to a whole other level. Sakaguchi uses gloves that resemble hands so that he can make full contact during the scenes, giving each fight an elevated level of realism. His style is a mix of the old and the modern, the east and the west, which only enhances the bizarre ancient, yet post apocalyptic vibe the film has. There is an almost infinite number of fights to choose from, but it’s the battle between Grave (played by Sakaguchi) and the Goddess of Destruction that’s a real stand out. Shimomura throws the kitchen sink at us, giving us a sword fight that channels Seijun Suzuki through "American Beauty", as blood splatters mix with red flower petals, the two combats floating seamlessly through a void, Sakaguchi wielding his pulsating penis like sword, giving the duel a heightened sexual undertone. In a film that on the surface is an excuse for action, style over substance, Shimomura gives us something very original both narratively and visually. MH

3. The wife's first return - Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

In the first of five overlapping, intersecting, funny and warped stories about how people deal with what is dealt to them (ie. how they survive), Tadanobu Asano plays a man who has just killed and buried his wife. Upon returning home, he encounters her calmly sitting at the table in her bright green dress. Without saying a word, she whips up an enormous feast for him and sits quietly watching while he slowly polishes it all off. Just as he sits back to light up an after dinner smoke (perhaps thinking that he's dodged a bullet), he looks up to see her looming over him poised for attack - which she does with a huge flying kick to his head. As he soars backward in slow motion, the soundtrack kicks in with a driving tune entitled "Go! Go! Go!" and she begins to chase him around their brightly coloured house and connecting all manner of uppercuts and flying kicks (all in slow-mo). It's a massive burst of energy and beautifully sets up the rest of this candy-coloured movie which looks at times like a vat of jelly beans exploded on the set. The fight continues while we jump briefly to the other stories (memorably to the family of the third story singing "Go! Go! Go!" loudly in their car) until it ends suddenly - setting up her second return later in the film (and then third and fourth...). The fight is mostly a one-sided smackdown, but it's no less entertaining than any other brawl you would care to mention. This was where I fell for Asano as an actor - his deadpan straight face morphs into wild eyed disbelieving panic and you can almost feel some sympathy for him. Not quite, but almost. BT

2. The capture of an outlaw - Orochi (Buntaro Futagawa, 1925)

The depiction of violence on the Japanese screen has certainly gone a long way. Just take a look at the silent films of Shozo Makino starring kabuki actor Matsunosuke Onoe in which combat looked more liked a series of static poses, and then compare those with the savage bloodbaths in a film like Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins". The samurai sword fight went through a lot of different evolutionary stages between the 1920's and today, but one gigantic leap occurred in Buntaro Futagawa's 1925 jidai-geki classic "Orochi". Heizaburo Kuritomi (played by the legendary Tsumasaburo Bando) has gone from honoured samurai in the service of his master Eizan to a ronin outlaw after having been provoked into a fight with his disrespectful rival Namioka. Without a master Heizaburo has wandered the land, never giving up his own code of honour and good conduct. The only problem is that the establishment sees him as a hot head and soon he becomes wanted by the law. The final scene of Futagawa's "Orochi" sees Heizaburo take on a mob determined to bring him to justice... and what a scene it is! Instead of the stiff, posed fight scenes that had been filmed before this scene bristles with savage energy. Bando gives it his all in his performance -- slashing and stabbing at the crowd determined to bring this rogue warrior down. They use everything they have including clay roof tiles thrown down on the battered samurai. We won't give away how this scene ends, but we will say that it set a new high watermark that jidai-geki films would aspire to for years and years to come. CM

1. The fury of Ryunosuke Tsukue - Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

This film appears on many of our lists that involve samurai and swords, and rightfully so. This is my penultimate samurai film, one of our most favourite films of all time. Part of that reason is the reason this film is at the top of the list: the final fight scene. As Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) retreats to the house of pleasure with the group of ronin he’s teamed up with, he finds himself haunted by the spirits of those he’s killed. His growing insanity and guilt climaxes when he realizes the girl serving him is in fact the granddaughter of the old man he killed at the start of the film. Soon Ryunosuke starts battling his poltergeist foes, his sword cutting through the thin wooden and paper walls. Before he knows it, he’s doing battle with his fellow ronin, and any other sword wielding male in the building. Ryunosuke becomes an unstoppable machine, cutting down men and ghost alike, his evil sword slicing wildly. His opponents cut him, stab him, make him bleed, but like a demon he continues, leaving a path of destruction, until he’s barely able to stand. Just when you think he’s making his final charge: freeze frame. The film ends abruptly, leaving us to dwell on the massacre we’ve just witnessed. Does Ryunosuke die or does he continue his bloody rampage (technically none as the film was meant to continue in a trilogy of films based on "Daibosatsu toge")? This film and the final battle must of greatly influenced Miike’s "Izo" which explores the same themes of the samurai’s nihilistic and the fate that draws them into the world of violence they occupy, but it doesn’t elevate itself to the same level of "Sword of Doom". It’s a rare fight scene that can level your draw on the floor from its sheer physical prowess and yet cause you to ponder fate and your control or lack of control of it. Violence has never been so beautiful nor thought provoking. MH


Will said...

Awesome list! If I'd have my own, I would place Mitsuko and Kiriyama's short yet thrilling fight in Battle Royale, and Azumi's final duel with the main villain of the first film. :)

UK said...

Very cool concept and reviews
The work is very versatile, with so many concentrations intermingling
Samurai Swords

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