Saturday, December 3


Which Samurai film should I see?

If you've been paying attention to the calendar for the Balboa Theatre, which launched a 16-title Samurai film series yesterday, perhaps you've been asking yourself this question as I have. Perhaps unlike me, you don't live in the Richmond District, so you want to be sure that any trips you make out here are certain to be rewarding. I'm no sensei when it comes to these movies; I've only seen half the titles the Balboa is showing. But let's see what I can do to help you make a decision anyway.

Don't like Samurai films? Think they tend to glamorize violence and patriarchal power? You need to see Harakiri (now playing through Dec. 6), Masaki Kobayashi's evisceration of feudalistic structure of Samurai society. Not really an action film (Kobayashi insisted his actors use real swords, which certainly deglamorizes the few fight scenes), it is really a political film, highly critical of the corruption Kobayashi saw as both inherent in feudalism and still dangerous in 1962 when he made the film. A perfect anti-Samurai film.

Or perhaps pure entertainment is your first concern. Well, you can't go wrong with Yojimbo (Dec. 15-16), can you? Between Toshiro Mifune's snarling and stalking around, a bizarre atmosphere set by Masaru Sato's cool sixties score, and a plot so delightful it's been nicked by at least a half-dozen other films starting with a Fistful of Dollars, this is one of the most fun "foreign films" I've seen, and I can't wait to see it again. If you're more East Bay inclined it looks like the Parkway is playing it too, on the 13th.

Wait, you say you've never even seen a Samurai film before? That you resemble an intimidated peasant in the face of a series like this one? Well, make sure you at least make it to the seminal Seven Samurai (Dec. 17-18), the only film I can think of to have won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and to be the basis for an anime series and video game. If you haven't seen Akira Kurosawa's talents applied to this most ambitious and gratifying undertaking, you've missed a big piece of cinema.

What does any of this have to do with art, though, you might ask. The best way to convince the inveterate high-brows among you is probably yet another Kurosawa film, Throne of Blood (Dec. 7-8), which is a combination of such discerning sources as Macbeth and the traditions of Japanese Noh theatre, but is also much more.

Perhaps names of famous directors and cultural references don't impress you at all, though. You want to see something completely unassuming and straightforward, a pure look into the essence of the genre. My best guess is to try one of the films about Zatoichi, the blind swordsman; of the three being shown I've seen the New Tale of Zatoichi (Dec. 7-8) and found it to be a modest but still rewarding film. It made me curious to see the other two being shown, Zatoichi the Fugitive (Dec. 13-14) and Zatoichi on the Road (Dec. 21-22).

Or maybe you're like your genres in their "apocalyptic phase" as Robin Wood has put it. If the Wild Bunch is your favorite Western and Rosemary's Baby your favorite horror film, you might just think the Sword of Doom (Dec. 19-20) the best entry in this series. I don't know if Wood has seen the film or would agree with my lumping it in with these two "apocalyptic" titles, but I actually like it better than either one; the director Kihachi Okamoto uses an extremely modern style in portraying a ronin (masterless samurai) on a path toward becoming a force of utter chaos. The hallucinatory, climactic battle sequence is spectacular.

Then again, maybe you knew all this already. As I said, I'm no Samurai film expert, just a budding enthusiast. And so I turn the question back on myself, and hope a kind reader might answer in the comments below or an e-mail: of the many titles I'm unfamiliar with, which Samurai film(s) should I see? Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (Dec. 15-16)? Shinoda's Assassination or Inagaki's Samurai Saga (both Dec. 11-12)? Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai (Dec. 9-10) or Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (Dec. 13-14)? Okamoto's Kill! (Dec. 21-22)? Please let me know.

Samurai Rebellion isn't as uncompromising as Harakiri, but I think it's a strong and important film for Kobayashi to maje anyway. I don't know if you're familiar with the background story for Harakiri but basically, the studio was so displeased with Kobayashi's subversion of the genre that they wouldn't give him that level of creative freedom again. As a result, he made films like Kwaidan which, while aesthetically perfect, lacked that kind of overt social criticism that the Human Condition trilogy and Harakiri had. Samurai Rebellion was a step back towards that direction again after making "safe" films.

I haven't seen the Inagaki film, but I'd say that Assassination is my favorite Shinoda film; it's kind of a dark, modernist period film if that makes any sense.

Of the last three, I've only seen Three Outlaw Samurai, and it's a pretty good film, although Gosha is nowhere near in the league of Kobayashi or Shinoda in terms of composition.
Samurai Rebellion is excellent. It's more on the Harakiri social commentary end of the spectrum, but focusing more on family and societal relationships.

The one to avoid is Bandits vs Samurai Squadron, which is long, tedious, and confusing, though it does have a slight disreputable charm.

I covered a similar samurai revival festival when it hit NY some time back. A lot of the films overlap. Here's the summary:
Thanks for the tips, guys. I will definitely make sure to catch Assassination and Samurai Rebellion at the very minimum. I'd like to see one of the Gosha films (even though the one film of his I've seen, Sword of the Beast didn't particularly wow me) but it looks like I have schedule conflicts for Three Outlaw Samurai, and I'll have to see if I'm in the mood for long, tedious and confusing when Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron comes up.
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