Seven Swords has been greeted with some of the most savage reviews I’ve read of almost any Hong Kong production, so much so that I wondered if people were simply trying not to look unhip. This film was, in the eyes of the critics, meant to be the triumphant return of director Tsui Hark to a variety of Asian film he helped refine and bring to the West — the wu xia, a genre best known to American audiences through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero or House of Flying Daggers. The savagery was, well, savage: “He blew it,” one critic wrote. “The film is a mess.” I suspected the mess in question may be highly subjective, a case of people expecting one thing and getting another.
And the more of other people’s reviews I read, the more it seems to tilt that way. Critics seemed to go out of their way to find things to complain about: the cinematography was all wrong, the fight scenes didn’t make a lick of sense, the acting was inconsistent, the hairstyles looked goofy. Some rose to the film’s defense by claiming the original 4-hour version of the movie had to be trimmed to two and a half hours for the sake of earning a release at all, and that we should not be so harsh to what is essentially a murdered film. I don’t subscribe to any of these views, and I most certainly don’t support the view that the film is a wretched mistake and deserves to be burned at sea. Read more
I once said to someone that the decisions that affected my life the most seemed so inconsequential at the time that I barely remembered making them. The job that determined the course of my career to this day, I jumped at because it seemed like fun. The woman I’m still married to, I met by accident. The same sort of logic applies in Samurai Rebellion, a grand and somber tragedy where the downfall of all cannot be pinned on a single moment’s misstep. One thing simply leads to another — inevitably, in so closed-ended a fashion that by the time it is over, we wonder how it could have ever turned out any other way.
Rebellion stars two of the greatest Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, as vassals in the service of a daimyo in 1725 Japan. It is peacetime, so there is not much for them to do: they test weapons for sharpness, check the storehouses, and do their best not to feel like irrelevancies. Isaburo (Mifune) feels particularly ill-suited to this sort of life: as he confesses to Asano (Nakadai), swordsmanship is the only thing he feels he’s any good at. Asano knows this is only partly true — yes, his friend is indeed an accomplished swordsman, but also has a sense of moral outrage that other men sometimes never manifest in the whole of their lives. Read more
Sword of the Beast plunges us immediately into its story with so little forewarning that for a long time we’re not sure if the character we’re seeing is worthy of our sympathy or our derision — just what’s needed in a movie loaded with moral ambiguities. When we first encounter Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira, of Zipang and the undeservedly obscure Face of Another), he’s hiding out in the tall reeds from men who have presumably come to kill him. A woman, possibly a prostitute, offers herself to him, and he obliges. Almost too late does he discover she was paid by the very same men to distract him, and after one of the film’s many vigorous and expertly choreographed swordfights he’s on the run once more.
Is he a criminal? He certainly has the air of one — the disdain for authority, the loner outlook, the unkempt appearance (the latter shown most hilariously in the movie’s opening shots of his unclean bare feet). It comes as more than a bit of surprise to discover that Gennosuke is in fact a samurai, fleeing men of his own clan for having murdered one of his own superiors. The dead man’s daughter and her fiancé are among the many giving chase, along with a master swordsman and his own collection of retainers. One of Beast’s ongoing conceits, as we will see, is that Gennosuke may well be the most moral of the bunch — or at least have the clearest picture of what right and wrong are at this point.Read more
To-ri is the sort of production I love to discover: a showcase for a number of different works not created for the sake of commercial success, but simple artistic expression on the part of the creators. One of the great liberating possibilities of digital technology is that it’s now become much easier to create a movie that is exactly what you want it to be, without spending tons of money, and without requiring that it be released in theaters to recoup its cost. The final product can be released directly to DVD or even downloaded. This doesn’t guarantee that the best of the best will find an audience — what would? — but it makes it a lot less difficult for a filmmaker to find an audience at all.
To-ri (the title means “Bi-rd”) seems to have been made in this spirit: it’s not a commercial project, but a set of short films compiled and directed by Tadanobu Asano. Asano may already be familiar to readers of this site — he’s been described the Japanese Johnny Depp, a heart-throb actor who has also starred in projects high in both artistic and commercial value: Gojoe, Electric Dragon 80.000 V, Maborosi, Away with Words, Distance, Zatōichi, Party 7, Ichi the Killer, Bright Future, Gohatto, and dozens more. The films he appears in are usually never less than interesting, and while To-ri does not star him (except in one scene as a corpse, interestingly enough) it forms what I took to be a fascinating cross-section of his tastes and interests as a filmmaker.Read more
I’ve always been a little hesitant of the “hidden influences” theory of popular culture — the idea that the real driving forces behind all the things we’re surrounded by are not the prime movers themselves (U2, the Beatles, the Stones, Elvis, etc.), but the people they took their cues from. I’m not against the theory in the abstract, because it makes an awful lot of sense. Consider the number of bands who hit it big after being inspired to do their thing by people who were dismissed or ignored entirely at the time: could The Ramones have been possible without the vastly less famous New York Dolls, for instance? My main reason for being touch-and-go about the theory mostly revolves around the way some people have run with it to such a degree that they ignored common sense — Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, for instance, has some good ideas about such things buried beneath hundreds of pages of tendentious twaddle.
When you come up against one of those influential sources first-hand, though, the theories take a back seat to the raw thrill you get from the material itself. I got that charge while reading Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man, not simply because this is the first time most English-language audiences will have ever read his work but because it seems virtually impossible that someone like this could not have influenced most anyone who read him. His work is that universal and accessible. For over thirty years Tatsumi has worked in manga, often for miserable money, creating comics with unvarnished surfaces but startling depths, and getting published mostly in magazines like Tezuka Osamu’s experimental-works outlet COM — places where a great many modern masters of the art themselves got their cues.
The Push Man is the first in a planned series of collections of Tatsumi’s work courtesy of graphic-novel publishers Drawn & Quarterly. The fact that there is more of his work outside of this one volume is in itself startling: I half-expected his career to have been brutally abbreviated, like Nathaniel West or Delmore Schwartz. No story in the book runs to more than sixteen pages or so, and none of them need to be more than that. They arrive, they deal a stinging blow, and leave. Read more
Watching Criterion’s restored print of Ugetsu reminds me of the way the proud colors of the Sistine Chapel ceiling remained buried for centuries under a somber patina of grime. The shimmering beauty of this movie, one of the greatest to come from Japan and certainly one of the greatest ever shot in black-and-white, was virtually invisible for decades no thanks to the wretched condition of the prints that were screened at festivals and used for the earlier home video transfers. When I first watched it on VHS all those years ago I almost had to second-guess how lovely the movie really was. Now, on the new DVD, there’s nothing to guess at.
Ugetsu has more than beauty to its credit. The plot is relatively familiar territory (it was adapted from a series of short stories), but the telling is not — and the greater understandings drawn from the material by the director, Kenji Mizoguchi, stayed with me every bit as much as the gothic mood of the piece. Mizoguchi was one of Japan’s first great directors, starting in the silent era and continuing through almost to the mid-Fifties. Ugetsu was made in 1953 and borrows equally from the devices of the silent and sound eras, since it is almost always better to show an image in a movie when a line of dialogue might be used instead. Read more