Rurôni Kenshin is that rare beast, a contemporary popular Japanese film that received a UK release in 2013. A famous manga series in Japan in the 1990s which became a popular TV anime series, the live action film was produced by Warner Bros. for a local release in Japan where it opened at No. 1. A year later it went into 8 UK cinemas with no mainstream publicity that I could see and flopped. I watched it on a rented Blu-ray. Apart from the usual South-East Asian territories such as Singapore, Thailand, Philippines etc. it doesn’t seem to have been released elsewhere in cinemas but still seems to have made more than $60 million. The success in Japan meant that following recent Hollywood practice, two sequels were made in a joint production and both were released in 2014.
For anyone not already a manga fan (I’ve only read a few), the generic mixes of these films developed from manga series can present problems. The original here was written as a shonen manga – targeting a male audience, mainly of teenagers. Ostensibly this film references the classic genre of the chanbara or swordfight film. But this isn’t quite what that term might suggest, although there are important links. The lead character is a young and extremely talented swordsman. In the opening sequence he’s fighting for the forces who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the Emperor in 1868. Still a teenager, but having already killed many men, Himura Kenshin gives up his title as an assassin – ‘Battosai’ – and becomes a ‘wandering samurai’ with a sword that has the blade on the inside of the curve (the leading edge being blunt). This means he can still dominate in swordplay but he won’t kill any opponents. Since the restoration he has vowed to help people and communities.
Ten years later Kenshin finds himself helping out Kaoru, a young woman whose father has died leaving her the control of his dojo – a martial arts school, fencing in this case. The young woman is threatened by a samurai who has adopted Kenshin’s old identity and is murdering people and leaving Battosai’s calling card.The dojo also becomes a target for a corrupt business man who is pushing opium and building up an army of fighters. Kenshin is going to be involved in many fights.
The focus on young characters and the theme of atonement and service marks the film out as having its shonen roots. It then acquires other influences. A set of different genre elements have been imported from Chinese martial arts. In his Film Business Asia review Derek Elley suggests that some of these come via action director Tanigaki Kenji who has worked in Hong Kong with leading filmmakers such as Donnie Yen. I was aware of the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Mainland China connection at different times just in the depiction of the late 19th century world. The two factors that were new to me in a Japanese film were the aerial leaps in the swordfights (wirework?) and the various references to ‘schools’ of swordmanship and specific moves – just as might be found in Chinese martial arts. These links suggest wu xia films and there is also the possibility of supernatural elements as the villain deploys a form of paralysing hypnosis. A final element is Japanese pop music which re-emphasises the shonen angle and the focus on youth. The lead is played by Satō Takeru, a young actor well-known for lead roles on television and in another popular TV/film franchise, the long-running Kamen Rider, another manga based series about a superhero. A good-looking and gentle young man, Satō becomes a very believable action hero in the choreographed fight sequences.
The film is long by Western standards with not enough plot and deep characterisation to sustain it, but I enjoyed the spectacle and was intrigued by the shonen angle. Young samurai are found in the classic Kurosawa swordfight films, but usually only as apprentices to the masters – though they are sometimes allowed to have romances. This film is set in a later period which has featured in both the Tom Cruise picture Last Samurai (US/NZ/Japan 2003) and Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) by Yamada Yôji. One other link to Kurosawa is the performance of Aoki Munetaka as a ‘streetfighter’, a brave-hearted warrior wielding a huge old sword – and reminding us of Mifune Toshiro’s performance as the would-be samurai in Seven Samurai. He too will move into the fencing school to support Kenshin and the small community (two young men, two young women and a boy) provide the ready-made ‘family’ for the sequels.
This film would be useful to study in relation to the ideas about contemporary Japanese cinema in Chapter 5 of the Global Film Book.
It’s been a long time since Wong Kar-Wai’s previous full-length feature, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. I gave that a miss and the one before that, 2046 in 2004, although clearly important didn’t really work for me. So, like many others I suspect, I was hoping for a return to the Wong of In the Mood For Love, one of my favourite films of the last twenty-five years. The Grandmaster seems to have taken Wong nearly a decade to prepare and shoot/post-produce and it is in many ways an impressive piece of work. Unfortunately, however, the UK release is the severely shortened version of the original 130 minute Chinese cut. But this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and he has often re-cut films after festival screenings etc. The difference here is that although he has re-cut it, it would seem that Mr Evil – Harvey Weinstein – is once again involved as a distributor.
Wong’s purpose appears to have been to address ‘cultural difficulties’ expected to face Western audiences. Some (quite a lot) of material was removed and the nonlinear Chinese cut re-organised into a more conventional linear narrative. I’ll have to watch the Hong Kong Blu-ray from YesAsia to see what all this means.
The 108 minute film I watched in the cinema offers a narrative with four possible strands. The first is a partial biopic of ‘Ip Man’, the Southern Chinese master of Wing Chun kung fu who settled in Hong Kong in 1950 and proceeded to teach a succession of martial artists including Bruce Lee. The second strand is about the history of kung fu in China during the 1930s/40s and the ‘succession’ to the Northern ‘Grandmaster’ Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Ip Man is part of this story which is set in the context of the Japanese invasion of first Manchuria and then Southern China after 1937. This story, which involves the different forms of kung fu (three from the north), involves ideas about honour codes that link this narrative to both Japanese samurai stories and the American Western (and possibly the gangster film – the music for Once Upon a Time in America is listed in the credits). The third narrative strand concerns the potential relationship between Ip Man (Tony Leung) and Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) – the daughter of the Northern Grandmaster. Finally, the film explores a personal Wong Kar-Wai story, familiar from most of his films – the experience of Chinese ‘exile’ in Hong Kong in the early 1950s (complete with some Hong Kong archive footage ‘squashed’ into the wrong ratio which won’t please Keith).
None of these four strands is fully worked out – or, at least, that is how it seems from a first viewing. Neither the kung fu fans or the arthouse fans of Wong are likely to be satisfied. Even so, there are many pleasures to be had from the film. Enormous care has been taken in choreographing fight scenes (credit to Yuen Woo-ping) and production design by Wong regulars Chang Suk-ping and Yay Wai-ming. Japanese composer Umebayashi Shigeru’s score is immediately recognisable, though here he is joined on the soundtrack by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly – who IMDB lists as working on several French-produced ‘international’ thrillers. The cinematography is by another Frenchman Philippe Le Sourd whose previous credits are not extensive but who acquits himself well here.
Given the focus on martial arts skills there is a great deal hanging on the performances of the two leads Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi. Both have previously worked in wu xia films, the best known being the Zhang Yimou epics such as Hero in which they worked together. These required wire work and swordfighting skills. For The Grandmaster they needed to be world-class kung fu artists and there are many stories about the length and the extent of their training. I’m not a kung fu expert but the moves look impressive to me. Tony Leung is about as good as it gets as an actor in global cinema but I think he isn’t given enough to do in The Grandmaster (having said that he ‘does nothing’ wonderfully). Zhang Ziyi actually has a bigger role than the film’s overall story might suggest. Other than the two leads, the mystery for me is why two of the other leads are marginalised in this shorter version. Chang Chen who is given third billing in the credits has had a major sequence removed and the Korean actress Song Hye-keo who plays Ip Man’s wife also disappears from the narrative in the second half of the film. There is no explanation (that I remember) of why she can’t join her husband in Hong Kong after 1950.
My understanding is that the 130 minute cut is superior – but still has the mix of genres and with a non-linear narrative poses other issues for audiences. I think that I still want to see the longer cut. My sense is that the film will not do very well in UK cinemas but that a full length Blu-ray might do well. This comparatively expensive ($25 million) film did very well in China and other East Asian territories plus France and the US to reach $64 million worldwide.
Here’s the US trailer for the shortened version:
and this is the version promoted by Shaw Brothers Cinemas in South East Asia:
This relatively unheralded film turned out to be the biggest box office local film of the year in South Korea, beaten only by Tom Cruise and the latest Transformers film in the chart. Perhaps most surprising about its success is that a large portion of the dialogue is spoken in a virtually extinct Manchu language – so the mainstream audience in Seoul were confronted with subtitles as well as several onscreen titles explaining aspects of the history. If this makes War of the Arrows sound like a dry historical document, fear not. This is a lean and sinewy action thriller.
Korea in the Joseon period, 1623. A teenage boy and his young sister flee from Seoul after a coup d’état in which their father is killed as a loyal officer of the ousted ruler. The boy Nam-yi has been given his father’s bow and instructed to look after his sister Ja-in. They are taken in by one of their father’s friends in the mountains. Thirteen years later Ja-in decides that she can’t always live in hiding and decides to marry the son of their protector. Nam-yi doesn’t think much of this idea but is forced to accept her decision and prepares to leave. He is by now a cynical man and we get hints of his archery prowess. It looks like he will become a bitter warrior, a kind of Korean version of a ronin in a Japanese samurai film. However, on the day of his sister’s wedding when he has just left town, Manchu cavalry arrive and swiftly take possession of the area. This is the ‘Second Manchu invasion of Joseon Korea’ in 1636. Half a million Koreans are captured and marched away to Manchuria. Nam-yi is now a fugitive looking for his sister and displaying prodigious archery skills in his battles with the invaders. Eventually he will find himself up against a crack squad of Manchu mounted archers who he must overcome to rescue Nam-yi and her new husband.
A straightforward conventional action picture, this film demonstrates the strength of Korean Cinema in terms of acting, cinematography and overall presentation. Writer-director Kim Han-min previously directed two other genre films, both described as ‘thrillers’ on IMDB. War of the Arrows looks wonderful, the action sequences are exciting and there is a novelty (for me, at least) in the concentration on archery skills. I was very impressed by Park Hae-il as Nam-yi (having previously seen him in The Host). The actor does not resemble the usual action hero but he utilises all his skills to make the character convincing. The following excellent review on Koreanfilm.org says much more about the film from a more informed perspective. I agree with the comment that this is much more like a 1950s Hollywood Western in its focus on the characters and the hunt/chase than a conventional historical drama. I’m also interested in the comments about the choice of subject matter – the humiliating defeat of Korean forces during the Manchu invasion – and how this relates to the more typical choice of narratives that fit the ‘national popular’ categories (i.e. Korean War epics or films where the Japanese are the bad guys). The Koreanfilm.org review praises the film but criticises the ‘submission’ to the use of CGI and under current conventions of the action film. It suggests that more focus on the philosophy of the martial arts being practised in a Kurosawa Akira mode would have been a better bet. I’m not really in a position to comment on CGI but this alternative suggestion is one that I didn’t think of when watching the film, but on reflection it sounds an interesting idea.
I’d recommend this film to anyone interested in action films and East Asian Cinema more generally. Here’s the best trailer I could find (try to ignore the dreadful voiceover):
This is the earliest Kurosawa I’ve managed to acquire (on a Hong Kong DVD). The picture quality isn’t too bad but the sound is poor and the English subtitles very variable and sometimes incomprehensible. It was Kurosawa’s third film overall, made in 1944 but released only three months before the Japanese surrender – at the same time as the writer-director got married – when cinemas in Tokyo were being bombed.
This sequel to Kurosawa’s first feature in 1943, that had been a hit for PCL/Toho, is generally acknowledged to be the director’s least successful film. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that is “least satisfying artistically and perhaps most overtly propagandistic”. It’s difficult to argue with either observation. But there are several interesting points to explore.
The story focuses on Sugata, a martial arts student training to be a master in a school known as ‘the Station’. The school’s master is said by some commentators to be based on Kanō Jigorō (the man associated with the transformation of traditional jujitsu or unarmed combat into the formal sport of ‘judo’). The action is set in the 1880s in Tokyo/Yokahama. Sugata (Fujita Susumu) is a strong but rather wayward young man who in the first film must learn from his master that there will always be someone physically stronger and that a successful fighter will use intelligence as well as strength. He is thus able to defeat a dangerous enemy in combat. The other main plot point is that Sugata turns down the love of a young woman in order to pursue his studies.
In his autobiography, Kurosawa makes plain that he undertook making the sequel only because he was ordered to do so by Toho and that he needed the money. (He claims that he was paid around $3000 – ¥150 – for the script and direction, but that he spent much of this on location.) The fact that his heart wasn’t in it perhaps explains why some of the action sequences suffer badly in comparison with the earlier film which had been praised for the innovative techniques used on what was otherwise a conventional story. The other main problem with the film is that it looks as though much of the original script never made it into the final film – perhaps simply because the budget was so low and production generally was difficult in Japan in 1944. Certainly the attempt to carry on the relationship with the lover spurned in the first film seems perfunctory at best. Yoshimoto lists the film at 82 minutes – my DVD says 81 minutes, i.e. about 79 mins at film speed.
However, there are moments in the film where Kurosawa’s ability to utilise a range of filmic techniques becomes evident. Two of these are used in sequences now taken to be ‘propagandistic’. The story of the sequel repeats the original formula. Sugata is still struggling with his temper and the challenges that a martial arts would-be master must face. At the beginning of the film he rescues a rickshaw runner from being beaten by an American sailor and is later inveigled into watching and then participating in a contest with an American boxing champion. During these fights the baying crowd of Europeans at the American embassy is shown in a distinctively Eisensteinian montage of close-ups of European faces as a Japanese is defeated. What is puzzling here is how Toho found so many Europeans as extras in 1944. An IMDB posting suggests that they were neutrals (Turkish, Swedish?). Certainly these crowd scenes are more striking than what is actually happening in the ring – which is partly the point, since the action is not ‘worthy’ of being ‘entertaining’ and Sugata tries to stop the first contest because it is derogatory towards the ‘Japanese arts’. The second example is more subtle but relates to the first.
The martial arts master lays down three rules in his school – no drinking in the dojo (the school’s fighting arena), no fighting without the master’s permission and no fighting as entertainment. Fighting the American without permission breaks two rules and Sugata in his despair breaks rule three. When the master arrives in the dojo, he doesn’t mention the discarded sake jug on the floor, but then proceeds to play a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ – manipulating the jug with his foot, tossing it and turning it in order to demonstrate moves. Kurosawa uses fast-cutting between the master’s dancing feet and Sugata’s desperate looks to convey a subtle message. Yoshimoto suggests that this is a propaganda message in which a warrior is given permission to fight, not for his own glory but for the good of the whole community (i.e. the school in the story, Japan in 1944). Kurosawa himself tells us in his autobiography that one of the reasons that he was keen to marry in 1945 was to experience marriage before the ‘death of 100 million’ expected to take place if Japan surrendered.
The sake jug sequence is matched by another scene in which the transformation of a student is shown through a sequence of ‘lap-dissolves’ working as a time-lapse image, a technique used at least twice more in the film. But such scenes only show up other desultory scenes shot in MLS/LS against painted backdrops. However one feature of the story’s other main narrative strand deserves mention. This involves the appearance of the two younger brothers of the man (Higaki) who was defeated by Sugata in the first film. The younger of the two brothers is depicted as mentally unbalanced and Kurosawa decided to utilise aspects of noh theatre in his portrayal. The actor was made up with a white face and dark (red) lips and given a long-haired wig and a branch of bamboo grass to carry (another symbol). He moves in repeated quick runs and lurches and the overall effect is at once comical and disturbing. This use of noh devices recurs in several later films. (In a Criterion essay, Stephen Prince suggests that his performance also references epilepsy which Kurosawa himself had suffered.) The two brothers are seeking revenge and they pose a challenge to the school with their more brutal karate form of martial arts. (As I understand it, judo depends on feints, throws and ‘locks’, whereas karate includes strikes with the hands and feet.)
The main theme of the film is what interested Kurosawa most – the master-apprentice relationship and the sense of the younger man learning from experience. This is picked up in the revenge plot when the original Higaki brother returns, now a frail and ill man, but one who recognises what he has learned through his fighting with Sugata.
Fujita Susumu went on to appear in later Kurosawa films and became a well-known actor in Japanese Cinema. Mori Masayuki who appears in a minor role as one of the other students went on to become a major player with Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa.
Reference: Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa, Duke University Press, 2000)