Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our Top Ten Favourite Samurai

While many of us probably got our first taste of Japanese films from dubbed Toho kaiju movies like "Godzilla" and "Mothra" or the wave of J-horror and Asian Extreme films that were so popular at the start of the decade the next stop for in exploring Japanese films tends to be the golden age classics like Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai", "Yojimbo", or the works of Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, and Kihachi Okamoto. These films took the iconic image of the samurai, the born soldiers of Japan's rigid caste system, and spun compelling stories not only packed with action, but with complex moral and ethical dilemmas. These films have become so popular over the decades that the image of actors like Toshirto Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai decked out in traditional samurai garb immediately pop into peoples' mind when Japanese cinema is mentioned. We thought that it was about time that we paid tribute to the samurai and share with you our Top Ten Favorite Samurai from Japanese Cinema.

10. Genzaburo Inoue (Jiro Sakagami) from "Taboo (Gohatto)"

From a film that features both Takeshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano as samurai, you’d probably imagine one of their characters having the best chance of getting on this list. "Gohatto", Nagisa Oshima’s 1999 period piece, is a beautifully made work that not only takes a sensible approach towards the intriguing idea of homoerotic tension within the elite Shinsengumi militia, but also holds up as a solid samurai film (albeit with a revisionist twist). With their black uniforms and, of course, ever-present swords hanging by their sides, the group’s senior members are impressive and intimidating figures to behold (qualities accentuated by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s solemn score). Even the eager young trainees demonstrate their lethal potential by volunteering for such duties as beheadings and nocturnal searches for nearby enemies. But instead of going for one of these model samurai, I somehow felt I had to choose the inept Captain Genzaburo Inoue, played by a scene-stealing Jiro Sakagami. Right from his first scene, in which he meets Ryuhei Matsuda’s girlish Kano while napping on some steps, the dumpy little man makes a memorable impression with his humorously easy-going disposition, immediately setting himself apart from the other, more serious samurai around him. Furthermore, his swordsmanship is laughably bad, as demonstrated in a hilarious sparring scene with Kano (whom he nicknames “Little Religion”). From his habit of doing his own laundry instead of letting servants do it for him to inadvertently drawing insults from passersby (leading to a full-out investigation into the offenders’ whereabouts) to falling off a ladder during an incident of very real peril, it’s no wonder Kitano’s Captain Hijikata reminds him that he should be setting an example for his men. Surely enough, Inoue is easily one of the most interesting characters to shake the conventional samurai image since Toshirô Mifune’s glory days. True, he may not match everyone’s idea of a Top Ten list-worthy samurai, but it’s for just that reason (well, that and his considerable entertainment value) why I wanted to make sure he had a spot here. MSC

9. Izo Okada from "Hitokiri (Tenchu!)" and "Izo"

Okada Izō was born in 1832 in the Tosa region, now the island of Shikoku. The son of a peasant Izō's father, Okada Gihei, bought the rank of gōshi, or samurai farmer, for his family, but even with this Izō suffered a hard and often impoverished childhood. As an adult the one thing that distinguished him was his ferocious skill with a katana. It was this skill that brought Izō to the attention of Takechi Hanpeita, the leader of the Tosa Kinnōtō (Tosa Loyalist Party), a group of rebels whose goal was to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate and return direct power of Japan to the Emperor. Hanpeita made Izō one of his hitokiri or assassins, and Izō carried out dozens of politically-motivated killings throughout the Tosa region and as far away as Kyoto. The relish that he took from his work earned him the nickname "The Butcher". When the Tosa Uprising was eventually put down in 1865 Hanpeita was ordered to commit seppeku, but a different fate was reserved for Izō. He was sentenced to be crucified, a death reserved for the lowliest of criminals. The life of Izō was brought to the screen in Hideo Gosha's 1969 film "Hitokiri (Tenchu!) and featured Zatoichi himself, Shintaro Katsu, in the title role. Katsu's Izō was was a fully fleshed character - a poor buffoon providing comic relief one moment, but in a split second he was a no nonsense sociopath, slicing and slashing any member of the Shogunate targeted by Hanpeita. When we see Izō hanging on the cross at the end of "Hitokiri" we feel for this savage man whose main crime was loyalty to his heretical lord. While Gosha went the traditional route and showed us Izō's life in his film Takashi Miike chose to show us his death and afterlife in his 2004 film "Izō". In this, one of Miike's most artistically ambitious, although some critics and fans say most self-indulgent, films Okada Izō is played by Kazuya Nakayama as human violence incarnate. After his grisly crucifixion at the start of the film we spend the next 128 minutes following Izō's vengeful spirit as it barrels through time and space murdering everyone in his path on his way to his main murderous quarry, God himself. CM

8. Iguchi Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) from "Twilight Samurai" & Munezo Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase) from "The Hidden Blade"

The 260-year rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate saw unprecedented peace in Japan. For the first time in the country's history regions and clans ceased what seemed like endless fighting, hostilities that would come to a head at the bloody Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. With the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the policy of seclusion put into effect in 1633 Japan had over two centuries to catch its breath, a time when arts and culture had time to flourish, and cities like Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo) became major economic centers. The downside to this peace and prosperity was that the samurai class, men born into the warrior caste, had no wars to wage and now they had to find something else besides killing to take up their time. Some became the standing army for daimyo lords, some spent their time in various forms of scholarship, while others became local officials and bureaucrats. No filmmaker depicted this period of the samurai better than Yoji Yamada, the man who also brought us the domestic comedies of the "Tora-san" films. Starting in 2002 Yamada began to adapt the works of author Shuhei Fujisawa who set his novels and stories in the late 19th-century when the Tokugawa Shogunate was on the wane and the opening of Japan and the Meiji Restortion was on the horizon. While all three films in what would become known as Yamada's "Samurai Trilogy" are top notch examples of classic storytelling the lead protagonists of the fist two films, 2002's "The Twilight Samurai", and 2004's "The Hidden Blade" make it onto our list because of their sheer likability and the similarity between their story arcs. In "The Twilight Samurai" Hiroyuki Sanada plays Iguchi Seibei, a scruffy samurai employed in a grain warehouse who cares for his son and senile mother, that is until he falls in love with a woman on the run from an abusive ex-husband. As their relationship flowers he is asked by the head of his clan to kill a samurai who refuses to commit seppeku after committring a crime. In "The Hidden Blade" Masatoshi Nagase's Munezo Katagiri is similarly domestic-minded with an elderly mother in his care and he too falls in love with his childhood frriend married off to abuisve merchants. He redeems her only to be ordered to kill his old friend who has been found guilty of conspiring against the Shogunate. Regardless of the age these two lived in or the time they were born both Sanada and Nagase play their characters like good, upstanding, if a bit down on their luck, working men who you might run into down at the local pub or riding the morning bus... except these two wear katana on their belt. CM

7. Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) from "Harakiri"

After watching Masaki Kobayashi's Cannes award winning (1963 Special Jury Prize) "Harakiri" for the first time, it didn't take me long to proclaim it as my favourite samurai film. It took me even less time to decide that Hanshiro Tsugumo (the main character of the film as played by Tatsuya Nakadai) was the greatest samurai ever. There's a fierce honour and unshakable determination about him that simply makes you want to be a better person and he's the kind of leader that you would gladly follow to the ends of the Earth. The story begins shortly after the start of the Tokugawa shogunate and shows Tsugumo as one of the many masterless samurai who find themselves at the gates of the house of the Iyi clan - requesting the chance to commit seppuku within their grounds. As the story unfolds and we hear of injustices committed by the clan, we see Tsugumo's need to make things right slowly rise to the surface and, even though he may be one man against an entire clan, watch him assume a position of strength. Tsugumo is not only just a remarkable samurai warrior though - he's even more dedicated to his family as a loving and tender father. His honour comes not from some old relic of a code, but from a deep humanistic point of view. "The suspicious mind conjures its own demons" he says without a hint of hubris or holier-than-thou attitude - to him it is simply a statement of fact. Tsugumo believes that if you are committed to an idea (such as every man deserves to be treated and respected as an individual), you should be prepared to die for it. Though he may be on the edge of a precipice, his conscience will not allow him to step away from it. Kobayashi himself once said, “In any era, I am critical of authoritarian power”. He and Tsugumo would've got along well. BT

6. Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) from "Lone Wolf and Cub"

One of the most influential fictional samurai characters ever created everyone from Frank Miller to Darren Aronofsky bows down to the genius of his progenitors, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Played by the prolific Tomisaburo Wakayama, who's best known in the West for his role as the vengeful samurai, Ogami Itto is the epitome of the Japanese idea of Mu; nothing, null or emptiness. Once the Shogun's executioner, betrayed and disgraced by the Yagyu clan who pined for his position, Itto abandons the life of the samurai, and follows the path of vengeance, swearing he will bring down the Yagyu with his last dying breath. Of course, he gives his baby, the little Daigoro a choice. Death or the life of vengeance. He chooses vengeance, and the two travel into the sunset, spending time meditating at temples, and traveling the land, performing assassinations for the price of 200 ryo. Itto's sense of honour and bushido is so great, it touches everyone he crosses paths with, whether friend or foe. He also lives the life of meifumadō, the road to hell. He can sense your bloodlust. And his rage knows no bounds. While the "Lone Wolf" film series is indeed grand, a surrealistic blend of the best and worst samurai films have to offer, they do tend to tone down the epic scale and the noble, stoic quality that Itto represents. Black magic, earth burrowing ninja's, and numerous other outrageous plot devices are created entirely for the film. Where Koike and Kojima's manga are praised for their historic accuracy and detail, the films seem to throw this all out the door, opting for something more akin to a grind house film. Even his rival, Retsudo Yagyu, is turned from an empathic character to nothing more than a stereotypical villain. But, in the end, how can you go wrong with a samurai that, according to Wikipedia, has the highest amount of onscreen kills in cinema history, at 150 in the final film in the series, "Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell". MH

5. Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) from "Sword of Doom"

Another classic samurai character based on another fictional tale, Ryunosuke Tsukue was created by Kaizan Nakazatoi in 1913 as part of a newspaper serial. After 41 volumes, the series ended only when Kaizan died. Made several times over, Kihachi Okamoto's depiction of the devilish samurai is a unique vision of what was originally intended. In the original tale, there was redemption in Ryunosuke, but Okamoto's planned sequels never manifested themselves, so instead, we are left with this perfect tale of nihilism. Ryunosuke is a samurai, who is ordered to loose a friendly duel, so that it will benefit his master and the greater good of their school. Of course, Ryunosuke doesn't oblige, choosing not to shame himself, and instead does the opposite, killing the man. This, along with several other events, sends Ryunosuke into a maelstrom of violence and death. On the surface, "Sword of Doom" could appear to be no more than an exercise in exploitation, but there is far more to this film and Ryunosuke, than blood and decapitations. For one, Ryunosuke is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, one of the most incredible Japanese actors ever to grace the silver screen. If there's one thing Nakadai brings to every role he plays, it's a deep sense of empathy. There's something about his eyes and the amount of emotion they are able to convey with just a glance that leaves you breathless, and leaves most actors wishing they had that kind of power. And it's his performance that really grounds the film and the remorseless character of Ryunosuke. This is not to say that Nakadai is the character's only saving grace. Okamoto turns the film into a great metaphor for fate and our control over it or lack there of. Is Ryunosuke innately evil, like most in the perceive him, and how he is depicted in the opening of the film when he cuts down an old man praying to Buddha, or is he a product of the times and his environment. For it seems that much of the time his hand his forced. He never chooses to do the things he does, they just happen to fall into his lap, and he solemnly goes with the flow, almost knowing that the path is wrong, but having no real choice. By the end, he descends into madness that so consumes him, he becomes more of a demon than a man, an idea that Miike uses quiet effectively in "Izo". On a side note, this is my favourite samurai film. Partially because Nakadai rules, and partially because Okamoto is a visual genius. MH

4. Kyuzo (Seiji Miyagichi) from "The Seven Samurai"

Out of all the characters gathered here, he most likely has the coolest introductory scene: a crowd is gathered around two men stripping leaves from bamboo sticks. They face each other and ready themselves for the approaching duel. After a long standoff, they lunge towards each other, appearing to strike each other at the same time. While the burlier of the two exclaims his disappointment at the stalemate, the other coolly replies that there was no draw, proclaiming himself the victor. The burly man angrily protests and insists upon a rematch with real blades. Despite the other man’s stern warnings, they face each other again, and a very tense moment later, they clash once more. With a sharp cry and slash of a sword, the small man cuts his stubborn opponent down. The friendly contest has ended in death. The small man is Kyuzo, a taciturn swordsman who, in the classic "Seven Samurai", impresses Takashi Shimura’s Kambei and later decides to join his cause to defend a small village from cruel bandits. Throughout the film, he maintains the air of a true professional and earns the respect of his peers time and time again. In one scene, he sets out into the pouring rain to practice his swordplay. The image of him, soaking wet, silently drawing and re-sheathing his sword says everything about his serious nature and deadly ability. Incredibly, actor Seiji Miyaguchi had absolutely no experience with swords before appearing in the film, with editing, cinematography and his own acting talents all helping uphold the thoroughly convincing impression that Kyuzo is a seasoned warrior. Whether the main focus of a scene or quietly occupying a corner of the frame, he possesses a distinctive and strongly felt onscreen presence, constantly displaying great dedication to his comrades, the threatened villagers (who aren’t always entirely deserving of pity) and his skills. The young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) looks up to him as a heroic figure and unabashedly regards him with childlike awe and immense respect – and quite understandably so. It is highly likely that many, after watching Kurosawa’s masterpiece and encountering the several diverse characters it contains, will long afterwards consider Kyuzo to be the embodiment of what a true samurai should be. MSC

3. Musashi Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) from "Samurai Trilogy"

No one samurai has had more influence than Musashi Miyamoto. Born Shinmen Takezo sometime in the 1580's, he developed his own unique style of sword fighting utilizing two swords simultaneously. While he underwent some schooling in swordsmanship at an early age, most of his skills were learned on his own, through practice and numerous duels. He went on to write the "Book of the Five Rings", a martial arts classic that can still be found in many martial arts schools throughout the world. While much of his life is difficult to verify, the most accepted tale is based on historic novelist Eiji Yoshikawa epic 900 page fictionalized account of Musashi's life. A child of anger and rage, Musashi first began dueling only to gain fame, but over the course of time, dueled to perfect his technique and his consciousness. He believed that one could not be a great swordsman without being skilled in the arts, and so was an accomplished painter and calligrapher. His life has been depicted in numerous films, anime and manga, the most famous of which is the "Samurai Trilogy", directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, the first film of which won the academy award for best foreign film in 1954. His most famous duel, with Sasaki Kojiro, ended when Musashi carved a bokken out of an oar and killed him. This duel, depicted in the final chapter of the "Samurai Trilogy", was used liberally by Quentin Tarantino in "Kill Bill 1 & 2", in both the Bride's duel with O-ren Ishii and her final confrontation with Bill. This is the samurai who is known as the greatest of samurai. Never defeated in a duel, he sought only perfection in himself, the epitome of bushido. MH

2. Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) from "The Seven Samurai"

It goes without saying that of all the samurai films in the history of cinema the one that pops into peopel minds almost instantaneously is Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai". While all of us on the Pow-Wow crew knew that we immediately wanted to include Seiji Miyagichi's Kyuzo on our list (see number 4) for his nearly superhuman combat skills and his cool, taciturn nature, qualities that scream "samurai" to fans of Japanese films and film in general. Besides Kyuzo, though, we also knew that there was another character in "Seven Samurai" whose exlusion from this list would have been impossible - Kambei Shimada portrayed by Takashi Shimura. The image of samurai in films has for the most part been one of noble, top-knotted warriors whose mastery of their razor sharp katana borders on the mystical and whose Zen-inspired reserve at times borders on the inhuman. Shimura's Kambei on the other hand utilizes his wits just as much, if not more than his sword, is equal parts stern taskmaster as he is fatherly confidente, and he doesn't even have a top knot - in fact he shaves his head the first time we see him so that he can disguise himself as a wandering monk in order to save a young child being held hostage by a nefarious ronin. It's that ingenuity that catches the eye of the trio of farmers who have come to town looking to save their village from marauding bandits and marks Kambei in the audience's minds as the defacto leader of the group of seven samurai long before they have been assembled. Kambei knows what's on the line with this unorthodox mission and Shimura, a veteran of other Kurosawa productions as "Rashomon", Drunken Angel" and Ikiru", plays him with a world-weary air, his calloused hand rubbing his bald scalp in concentration, and devicing simple if ingenious ways to test the metal of potential samurai (see Marc's take on Kyuzo for the wonderful details on that scene). It's this pragmatic wisdom and compassion for these desperate farmers that makes that possible and Kambei quickly becomes the moral centre for Kurosawa's 3-hour epic. Kambei would also become the template for every hard-bitten military and mercenary leader that would appear on the big and small screen after that, from the "Magnificent Seven's" Chris Adams and "Ocean's Eleven's" Danny Ocean to Col. Hannibal Smith on TV's "The A-Team". CM

1. Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) from "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro"

Forget the top ten samurai or ronin--Sanjuro might be the most ambivalent hero in the history of cinema. Possessed of incredible martial skill and capable of outthinking most any adversary, he could have had a kingdom of his own… if only it didn't seem like so much trouble. Toshiro Mifune imbues the character with swagger: Sanjuro looks scruffy, in need of a shave and a job, but carries himself with unmistakeable confidence. This translates into job offers, which he is happy to accept provided the price is right. How mercenary is he? We never learn his real name, as "Sanjuro" is a condensation of his price: sanju (30) and ryo. To varying degrees in each of his screen appearances--1961's "Yojimbo", 1962's "Sanjuro" (both dir. by Akira Kurosawa), and for the sake of argument, "Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo" (dir. Kihachi Okamoto) and "Machibuse"/"Incident at Blood Pass" (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki)--Sanjuro would almost certainly have preferred a stiff drink or a nap to the kind of heroic, noble action normally associated with the samurai. He doesn't rush headlong into any situation. Usually he lets the situation come to him, or he sidesteps it altogether. Such is his strength. Sanjuro embodies the real world of the ronin: a place of shifting moral landscape where honor is a code you don't break unless you're getting hungry and the price is right, a time of dirty kimonos and unshaven faces where knowing how the game is played is more important than the edge of your weapon. Sanjuro is the walking, talking, fighting face of practicality in a time predicated upon codes of conduct. He lives with one foot in the world of samurai respectability and the other foot in the gutter, navigating through both with wit and, when necessary, swift and definitive martial skill. Plus he's got a sense of humor, and you can't beat that. EE


Patrick Galloway said...

Great list. BTW, I'm partial to Katsu's Izo. The way he says, upon observing his first assassination, "I can kill ... I'll KILL!" -- brilliant!

Chris MaGee said...

I'm a fan of Katsu's Izo as well. I wish a company like AnimEigo would just bring out "Hitokiri" already! It's such an entertaining film.

Patrick Galloway said...

Until then, there's ...