This short feature (80 mins) sees the Japanese auteur of ‘cyberpunk cinema’, Tsukamoto Shin’ya, exploring what he can do with the chanbara or swordfight film. This follows on from his previous film, Fires on the Plain (2014), a remake of Ichikawa Kon’s classic anti-war film from 1959. There is certainly a possible connection between this new film and its predecessor.
The film opens with the forging of a katana, the classic samurai sword, shown in close-up. We then meet the central character, a young ronin or ‘masterless samurai’, Mokunoshin (Itematsu Sosuke). He appears to be working for a farmer in his rice paddy and in his free moments sparring with the farmer’s adolescent son, with both using wooden staffs rather than swords. They are being watched by the boy’s sister Yu (Aoi Yu) when a pair of older samurai enter the village, engaged in some kind of duel. The victorious samurai is Sawamura (played by the director himself). Tsukamoto often appears in his own films but although I recognised him it wasn’t until later that I realised that he played a secondary role in Martin Scorsese’s remake of The Silence (US-Mexico-Japan 2016).
In the first section of the film I found myself wondering when the film was meant to be set. As far as I could see there were no markers of the era and no dialogue exchanges that suggested when. Kurosawa Akira’s jidaigeki or ‘period films’ included some, like Seven Samurai (1954) set in the late 16th century or early 17th century, but most of the ‘samurai films’, as they are known in the West were far more conventional and formulaic and tended to be set in the latter days of the 250 year Tokugawa shogunate, the so-called Edo period. All the reviews of Killing from Venice and Toronto suggest that it is indeed an early 19th century setting. Presumably this info was in the Press Notes. The Glasgow programme suggests that Tsukamoto was ‘inspired by Kurosawa’. Hmm!
Sawamura tells Mokunoshin that he is on his way to Edo and that he is trying to recruit samurai to fight for the Shogun against rebels in Kyoto. He offers the young samurai the chance to join him and Mokunoshin agrees. The farmer’s son also wants to join and Sawamura agrees to take him as a reserve, convinced by watching the sparring between the two young men. The second ‘inciting incident’ is the arrival on the edge of the village of a group of bandits. This heavily-armed and gruesome-looking group are probably not samurai but rather ruffians with plenty of experience of fighting. Do we anticipate a battle with three against many? I won’t spoil the narrative as the film looks set for a UK release via Third Window Films, but what underpins the final section is a philosophical question posed by Sawamura and aimed at Mokunoshin. A samurai sword is intended for killing. Can a man really be a samurai if he has not used his sword to kill? Mokunoshin is a young man beset by several problems, questions of honour and gratitude towards the farmer’s family, the raging hormones of a young man living close to an attractive woman and strong feelings about how to fight.
The action in the last section of the film is shot in almost expressionistic style with flashing blades, hand-held photography and the action itself something of a blur. A set piece fight under a natural bridge on a muddy path is contrasted with a chase up a hillside in the long grass and bracken and beneath the trees (the vivid greens of the forest clearings and paddy fields define the background while the samurai are presented in more mute colours). The film screened at both Venice and Toronto last year. It seemed to please critics but some raised questions about whether it would please fans of the director or fans of the genre. It’s a low-budget film made quickly but with verve and a music soundtrack by Ishikawa Chu (his last film before he died). I enjoyed the film and it’s good that there can still be new takes on the chanbara. I think I still prefer Kurosawa and the other filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s. Tsukamoto is reported as saying his inspiration was partly Ichikawa Kon’s 1973 film The Wanderers, a film I saw on its release in the UK back in 1973. Perhaps I’ll try to find it and watch it again.
This is a classic samurai film and enjoys the talents of two stars: filmmaker Kurosawa Akira and actor Mifune Toshiro. Both bring their special talents to an entertaining and exciting action movie. Like much of their work the film has been remade several times, including as a spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and as a Hollywood prohibition/action film, Last Man Standing (1996).
The film is set in 1860, just prior to the Meiji period and the rise of modern Japan. Mifune plays a ronin, that is a masterless samurai whose traditional functions have vanished and who takes on whatever work he can find. In this case in a small town he is offered work as a bodyguard (the English sense of the title) by rival merchants. The merchants are the emerging class in this period, but here they rely more on criminality than trade, forerunners of the modern Yakusa.
The main character and the film’s story are strongly sardonic. The opening sequence shows our hero passed by a dog carrying a severed hand. And the violence implied here is a central right through the film.
The cinematographer on the film was Miyagawa Kazuo. He had worked with Kurosawa on the earlier Rashomon (1950) as well as with other major directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirô. As in some of the director’s other films Kurosawa and Miyagawa make great use of the telephoto lens. There is a depth of field in the shots, but a rather flat image as the action is foreshortened. Among the distinctive editing techniques, performed by Kurosawa himself, are frequent wipes, a technique rarely seen in post-war (WWII) cinema. And the music track by Satô Masaru uses distinctive instrumentation including wood blocks.
Kurosawa had set up his own production company. The first film was a variation on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960). Mifune was the lead actor. Yojimbo was the second film from the company . Both film were also scripted by Kurosawa.
The film was popular in Japan and Kurosawa made a sequel titled with the character’s name, Sanjuro (1962). Once again Mifune played the lead. Yojimbo had a relatively large international release and has remained a regular title for revivals over the years. On its initial release in the Britain the BBFC gave it an ‘A’ Certificate.
The film’s format was black and white TohoScope. almost identical to CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1: with Perspecta Stereo sound., Now Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening the film in their ‘reel film’ series on Saturday January 6th. So it can be seen in its original 35mm format: what a treat.