Sunday, October 9, 2011

REVIEW: The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu

鞍馬天狗 恐怖時代 (Kurama Tengu: Kyōfu Jidai)

Released: 1928

Teppei Yamaguchi

Kanjuro Arashi
Reizaburo Yamamoto
Takasaburo Nakamura
Tokusho Arashi
Kunie Gomi

Running time: 38 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

The men in power have had that power slowly wrenched from their hands, and the city is in shambles. Where there was once order there is now chaos. Justice has been replaced by lawlessness. Gangs and criminals prey on the innocent. Who will come to save the people? One man comes forward to don black robes and a mask to fight for those who can't. Who is this man? You'd be forgiven if you said Batman. With that kind of introduction who else could you expect? Well, if you were a young moviegoer in 1920's Japan you'd be thinking of another hero, one named Kurama Tengu. This hero, based on a character created by novelist Jiro Osaragi, fought for the common people (especially children) during the late 19th century, one of the most tumultuous times in Japanese history. He was also the template for a number of later Japanese superheroes such as Moonlight Mask and Seven Colour Mask. Through the mid 20's and 30's actor Kanjuro Arashi became synonymous with this black-masked samurai, portraying him in a series of features and shorts. One of those, 1928's "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" is not only packed to bursting with Edo Era action, but it also shows us how the big screen has been filled with superheroes long before folks like Tim Burton, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan tried their hand at the genre.

In 1865 Japan is a nation divided. Some, namely the government run Shinsengumi police force, are loyal to the dying Tokugawa Shogunate who have ruled Japan through a strict 260-year policy of isolation from the rest of the globe. Others are loyal to the Emperor and to a new age of modernization for the country. Between 1853 through to 1867 the streets of the old capital of Kyoto, and other major Japanese cities, have become a literal battleground of ideologies. Everyday citizens find themselves in the midst of historic unrest, and more than a few criminals take advantage of the political and military in-fighting to take what they want from whomever they can take it from. It's in this world that we meet Kurama Tengu, a samurai who cares for orphaned children and who dresses himself head to toe in black in order to protect ordinary citizens from these turbulent times. In the case of "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" our hero pledges his help when a local in is ransacked by bandits. As he pursues them through the back streets of Kyoto and Edo he comes across a cast of dasterdly villains and tempestuous women. There is Choshichi of Hayabusa (Shoroku Onoe), a man loyal to the Shinsengumi who wants only to take down Kurama Tengu. He slinks around corners following our hero with two goofy samurai in tow providing comic relief throughout the film. The one problem is that Choshichi is following the wrong Kurama Tengu. It turns out there is an evil double of Kurama Tengu roaming the streets and it's him, not our hero, who is being pursued. The real Kurama Tengu must deal with Okane (Kunie Gomi), a shady woman who at first accuses Kurama Tengu of stealing her purse, and then falls in love with him and then begins her own pursuit. The only problem is that Choshichi has his own designs on Okane.

There's enough plot-wise going on in "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" to confuse the average viewer. Not everyone is going to know the ins and outs of late 19th-century Japanese history, plus all the double and triple crosses are enough for a 3-hour epic. The only thing is that director Teppei Yamaguchi, who directed a number of Kurama Tengu films starring Kanjuro Arashi , crams all of this into a 38-minute film! Add to the villains, damsels and assorted samurai a gang of child street acrobats and an underwater swim/ chase sequence and the mind begins to boggle a little. When you consider, though, that "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" served the same purpose in Japanese pop culture as such classic Hollywood serials like "Buck Rogers" and "The Lone Ranger" things begin to make a little more overall sense. Also, given the fact that we have now become accustomed to our childhood heroes from Marvel and DC Comic battling it out for justice onscreen, there's something about this silent film, despite the samurai trappings, that feels very familiar. Swap out Old Edo and the katana for Gotham City and you'll see what I mean.

Not only are there narrative tropes and characters in "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" that would not look out of place in a present day superhero blockbuster, but the film also provides on of the earliest examples of onscreen horror in Japanese cinema. As part of the many plots and sub-plots that screenwriter Fujio Kimura packed into "The Frightful Era" he decided to inject some actual frights in the middle of the action. In the midst for his search for the bandits who are terrorizing Edo, Kurama Tengu is picked up by two men and taken by palanquin to a haunted house, one that comes complete with worn tatami, torn shoji screens, black cats and a female ghost whose black hair trails down from the ceiling. None of this would look at all out of place in the contemporary J-Horror films of Hideo Nakata or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It's remarkable to see that these filmmakers in no way invented this frightful iconography, but instead have simply adapted it from age old Japanese ghost stories and folk tales. As to its relevance in a historical action story... It certainly is a stretch, but screenwriter Kimura and director Yamaguchi justify this horrific interlude by having the gang of bandits, led by Kurama Tengu's evil double, hiding out in this evil abode.

"The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu" is an object lesson for anyone who bemoans the sorry state of the film industry. It's true we live in a time when movies seems to feature endless variations of popular comic book heroes. Flashy fight scenes, stereotypical character types and open endings that lead to one sequel after another are all cobbled together in a semblance of storytelling, but Teppei Yamaguchi's silent classic shows us that this is nothing new. Batman (or Spiderman or The X-Men) or Kurama Tengu -- movies have always been peopled with larger-than-life heroes, ones who are designed to entertain, and for Japanese film fans you can't find a better example than the "The Frightful Era of Kurama Tengu". Although not easy to find (the film is available on a DVD released by Tokyo-based company Digital Meme) this is a film worth digging to take a look at.

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