The Sword of Doom

The latest samurai flick I was able to watch, The Sword of Doom, was unfortunately a bit of a disappointment. I’d read positive reviews of it by fans of the genre, so I picked it up during my last Barnes and Noble Criterion Collection sale binge.

There were some definite bright spots to the otherwise dark, unsatisfying watch, though.

First off I should note that The Sword of Doom is based on a novel of the same name. It’s also, I believe, the third take on said novel. There was a movie adaptation in 1957, then the Satan’s Sword trilogy in 1960, and finally The Sword of Doom in 1966. The Sword of Doom only covers the first part of the story, and it seems a sequel was planned but never made.

Anyway, the story focuses on a twisted swordsman played by Tatsuya Nakadai – a name you might not know, but whose face you’ll surely recognize if you’ve seen enough samurai films.

The movie starts off by letting you know what you’re getting into – a girl and her grandfather are traveling as pilgrims along a mountain path. The girl goes to fetch some water, and while she’s doing so her grandpa prays at a little shrine. Before long he’s interrupted by Ryunosuke (Nakadai), out for a little stroll. He’s overheard the old man praying for death so that his granddaughter can be free of obligation to him. Ryunosuke unfeelingly obliges, cutting down the old man.

Throughout the rest of the film we follow Ryunosuke in his cruel, violent exploits. We also get a look at some other characters, mostly victims whose lives he’s affected for the worse.

Toshiro Mifune makes an appearance as a sword master, and thankfully we get a nice action scene out of him.

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There’s also another cool character – a seemingly mild-mannered merchant who in protecting his foster daughter shows that appearances can be deceiving. The dude is actually a rogue ninja-type who knows how to handle himself (and others).

Camerawork and acting are noteworthy; the use of shadow is especially noticeable. The plot does get bogged down from the amount of minor characters bouncing around; I sometimes had trouble keeping track of all the names.

The most disappointing part of the story is that it’s all one big Chekhov’s Gun fakeout. The brother of one of Ryunosuke’s victims, seeking justice for his kin and begged by Ryunosuke’s own father, sets out to train under Mifune’s character in preparation for an ultimate confrontation with the evil samurai.

In the end, though, nothing comes of this. The film ends on a cliffhanger, with Ryunosuke descending into a berserk madness fueled by the weight of his sins. Even were there to have been a sequel, however, the Internet informs me that the novel itself never allowed for a battle between Ryunosuke and his heroic antagonist.

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Disappointing, and yet I’ve come to expect these kinds of endings from Japanese films. Still, the acting is good, the action is good, and there are some interesting characters. Worth a watch, but there are plenty of other samurai movies I’d recommend above this one.

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Single-Issue Voting

Recently I was talking with Kaiju and a mutual friend about “lesser of two evils” voting. That is – both are bad choices, maybe both support an abhorrent policy, but one is clearly a worse choice, so you vote for the other one. Like Bob and Jim both favor cannibalism, but at least Jim is willing to let everyone walk around with a pointy stick to defend themselves. Jim’s got my vote!

I’m not sure if I’m 100% on board with the lesser of two evils vote, but it’s at least a reasonable and justifiable position.

What I’m not sure I get is the reluctance of some people to be “single-issue voters.” Ok, I mean if you’re talking about trivial issues, fine. If you won’t vote for Karen soley because she supports an ordinance to put up more city traffic cameras, that might be kind of dumb. You should be not-voting for Karen because she also supports selling weed in school cafeterias and claims it’s part of a balanced diet.

But if there’s something you think is an intrinsic good or evil, I honestly have trouble understanding how a bunch of much less morally gravid issues can alter the calculus.

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Sure he wants to wipe out half the population of the universe, but he also supports universal healthcare and sees education as a human right! I’m voting for Thanos.

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I don’t like that Negan practices slavery, or that he executes people without due process. But the economy is booming and crime is down, under him, so…

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I don’t like that Moloch demands child sacrifice, but I don’t want to be a single-issue worshiper…

I know it turns some people off, and no one wants to be judged, but seriously. If you honestly think abortion is murdering an infant, or if you honestly think the second amendment is rudimentary in one’s right to defend oneself and one’s family, or hell, even if you think cow farts and cars are going to spell ultimate doom for mankind – those are serious enough issues that you should probably vote for the candidate who falls on your side of the aisle on them, no?

But anyway don’t mind me. I’m just some internet schmuck.

Just go vote your conscience.

-Bushi

bushi

Three Outlaw Samurai

I recently cobbled together some time to watch the chambara classic Three Outlaw Samurai. The film was apparently set up as an origin story for a TV show of the same name.

81y-syp-8vl-_sx466_Compared to some of the other samurai films I’ve watched in recent months, this one was pretty enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very Japanese – you’ve got plenty of tragic death and loss, but the dynamic of the three protagonists makes for a fun watch. Each of the characters is simple and somewhat archetypal, but there’s also a certain depth to the plot and cast of characters as a whole.

The first samurai we encounter, Shiba Sakon, initially presents the kind of swagger we usually get from Toshiro Mifune. Looking for shelter, he stumbles upon a group of dirty, ugly peasants in a mill who have kidnapped their lord’s daughter. In many other traditions, the hero would slice up the thugs, rescue the girl, return her to her father, and spurn any sort of reward.

Shiba, however, listens to the peasants tell their side of the story, and ultimately decides to help them out! They’ve only kidnapped her, after all, because of their lord’s oppressive rule and he just won’t listen.

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We encounter our second samurai hero after Lord Igawa rounds up a few warriors to go take care of the peasants and get his daughter back. Sakura Kyojuro is a wandering samurai who’s gotta eat, and rescuing a damsel in distress sounds good. On the way to the mill, one of the villagers jumps him, thinking he’s just a hired goon (which he is) going to kill his friends. Sakura dispatches the man with minimal effort. Thinking him a bandit, he just shakes his head and clucks his tongue.

When Sakura and band arrive at the mill, Shiba explains the situation. Coming from farmer stock himself, Sakura sympathizes and changes sides. This guy, the stocky samurai with the heart of gold, is probably my favorite of the group. He’s brave, compassionate, and hey, he fights with a spear! Incidentally, when he finds out later that the guy he killed was one of the villagers, he feels terrible and tries to make amends.

Our last of the three, Kikyo Einosuke, is harder to peg. For most of the film, he’s the lord’s hired dog, but he doesn’t actually kill anyone. He mostly just leads the other goons around and banters with Sakura. Although he seems to admire the vagabond samurai, he also loves living the high life.

At one point he aids one of the good guys in escaping from the lord’s manor, but it’s not until the lord betrays him, killing his hooker-girlfriend and trying to have him killed, that he turns and joins the other two outlaw samurai.

And once the band is together, well. They’re a force!

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Like many other samurai movies, Three Outlaw Samurai is jam-packed with social commentary. There’s good and bad to be seen in all of the characters, making for an engaging, stimulating watch. Recommended!

-Bushi

bushi

 

“Cultural Appropriation” in Fiction

Let me start by saying that I find the concept of “cultural appropriation” itself to be wrongheaded, foolish, and kind of absurd. It assigns some kind of collective ownership of the nebulous basket of language, tradition, customs, food, clothing, fashion, and all kinds of other ill-defined elements that supposedly belong to a given people.

Nevermind the fact that peoples and nations interbreed and change and that cultures develop and assimilate and adapt.

And who is supposed to arbitrate these transgressions? If one single Chinese person indicts me for enjoying their dim sum, am I guilty of creating a problematic situation?

Does it matter that another Chinese person rules that it’s ok for me to eat dim sum, but that I may not make it myself? Or that a third, more rational native doesn’t give a crap?

Does it change the calculus when the majority of a country or culture like having their culture appropriated (the real term is “appreciated”)? I can tell you from my time living in Japan and consuming Japanese media that the people over there are flattered and pleased when foreigners try on kimono, or dress up as a popular anime character, or take an interest in  Japanese language, lore, history, whatever.

It’s ridiculous to think cultures should be treated like private (group) property.

And so I was disappointed when I was listening to an otherwise quite interesting discussion of an old weird tale yesterday, and the speakers posed the question of whether a white man writing about a black protagonist was cultural appropriation.

Really?

Thankfully they were gracious enough to rule that this was not the case – after all, the white (racist) narrator was really who the story was about.

I’ve gotta say, I find it quite troubling and a bit confusing, how such big fans of speculative fiction could conceivably buy into the idea of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the fiction they read.

Scifi and Fantasy are full of stories about aliens and other non-human beings. But they’re not real, so I guess this is in-bounds. Well, women write male characters and men write female characters. Should this gender appropriation be pooh-poohed?

Is Captain Blood cultural appropriation, because it sees an Irish protagonist written by an Italian author? Or is this okay because they’re both white ethnicities? Do “White People” all get lumped together into one culture?

Is Othello problematic because its noble Moorish (often portrayed as African) hero was written by a white Christian?

Should books written by White People only feature white characters? If you think so, it sounds like you’re ready to nix an awful lot of cool SFF and other great literature. And why? Because a few emotionally unstable people have nothing worse in life to worry about than some white dude writing a story about a black guy?

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(Whoops – forget that last one – he’s one of those white hispanics!)

Are Japanese manga and anime highly problematic for featuring so many Caucasian characters?

And if you answer “yes” to all these questions, or even if your response is more nuanced or qualified, what’s the solution? Do we need a tribunal to determine which cases are acceptable and which are “problematic,” and then to rule on a remediation?

It’s such a silly piece of business. I’d be tempted to ignore it if I didn’t see the idea as such a threat to creativity and freedom of expression. Of course no one’s talking about outlawing cultural appropriation, but if it’s such a bad thing, I could imagine things moving in that direction in some quarters, someday. And really is there much practical difference between outlawing something and drubbing it out of polite society?

-Bushi

bushi

Crying like a man

Getting the baby into a routine, we’ve been playing music for him during bath time and on the changing table before bed. I’m in charge of the playlists, of course.

He seems to really like when I sing along to Dean Martin or Johnny Cash.

It has thusly occurred to me that while “real men don’t cry” is usually an axiom violently rejected or vehemently espoused, depending upon who you ask, allowances should be made.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Samurai Rebellion

Not to be confused with Samurai Revolution, Samurai Rebellion is a 1967 samurai flick starring an aging Toshiro Mifune.

This one pushes back a bit on the usual image of the samurai as an unerringly obedient servant-warrior.

Mifune plays a middling vassal to the lord of Aizu. As a young samurai, his sole focus was in swordplay and the martial arts, which in the current age of bureaucratic samurai aristocracy have become somewhat undervalued skills. Consequently, he considered himself fortunate when the head of a more prestigious family, impressed with his swordplay, asked him to marry his daughter.

Isaburo’s (Mifune) marriage is a cold one, unfortunately. His wife is a shrew and there is no love between them. But he’s a stoic man and he tolerates her. She bears him two sons.

This is all important backstory for the main plot of the film. Let’s fast forward.

Isaburo’s lord has become displeased with his mistress (who has already born him a son), and orders that she be married off to Isaburo’s son. The samurai and his family are initially displeased with this order and try to resist, but after the deed is done, Isaburo and his son are glad. Ichi winds up being a good wife and daughter-in-law, and she provides his son with the loving marriage Isaburo never had. She bears a daughter, and everyone is (for the most part) happy.

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Suddenly the lord’s first son dies of an illness, and his son with Ichi becomes the new heir. And of course it is unfitting that the heir apparent’s mother should be married to a vassal.

The lord orders Ichi returned to the castle. Isaburo and his son resist, calling the order an unjust and tyrannical order, stealing a vassal’s wife.

Their lord orders them to commit seppuku for their insolence, and they answer they that will be glad to comply…when his head and those of his stooges are delivered to them.

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What will happen? Watch and find out! Just so happens this one is available (for now) to watch online, here.

Without giving away too much, I will say that while I didn’t find the ending very satisfying (it’s not as bleak as some other J films I’ve seen, but neither is it happy), I found the movie’s focus on justice and love over blind loyalty and “honor” to be refreshing. Mifune, as always, is excellent, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

I did notice the tip of a boom mic in one scene, but whatcha gonna do…

-Bushi

bushi

 

Samurai Revolution

I just finished watching Kudo Eiichi’s Samurai Revolution Trilogy (not to be confused with Samurai Rebellion) – 13 Assassins, The Great Killing, and Eleven Samurai. All three films are available on Kanopy, should you have access through your local library. If not, you can probably get them through the Criterion Collection.

Eiichi’s three films share many commonalities, but interestingly differ in approach and style.

13 Assassins (1963) revolves around a plot to kill an evil daimyo, who rapes the wife of a samurai and then cruelly murders her husband. One of his retainers commits suicide in protest, but the affair is covered up because the daimyo is the Shogun’s younger brother and will soon be elevated to a powerful position.

The Council of Elders is instructed to “act with discretion” by the Shogun, but one of the men cannot abide the disgraceful behavior and the certain chaos that will accompany the daimyo’s rise. He therefore secretly summons one of Japan’s most formidable samurai and convinces him to lead a suicide mission to slay the evil lord.

In 13 Assassins, the heroes are competent and brave. Their plan is well-crafted and executed, and justice is clearly on their side.

Their main nemesis, as is so often the case, isn’t really the daimyo himself, but his chief retainer and bodyguard, who matches wits (and ultimately swords) with the leader of the samurai band. Despite his distaste for his lord’s behavior, he serves loyally to the end.

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A great film, and my favorite of the bunch.

The Great Killing (1964) tells the story of a samurai conspiracy to stop the ascent of the Elder Councilor, who has maneuvered himself into a position of great power. Soon the Shogun will retire, and the Councilor’s puppet is set to be installed as his successor. Many samurai perceive this to be a great injustice and the Councilor to be evil, and so they plot to kill him.

Unfortunately for them, their conspiracy is uncovered and they are hunted down and rounded up. Many of them are tortured for information. One of the protagonists, a loyal vassal, is confused for a conspirator. His wife is slain and he is captured, but then escapes and winds up joining the plot.

Notably, it is a woman (who comes across as strong and self-possessed; not the typical demure Japanese flower you might expect) who recruits him to the cause.

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Ultimately the last holdouts of the rebellion, who are notably flawed and even evil in their own ways, decide to strike at the puppet Shogun-to-be, as he is the easier target.

Their attack is clumsy and uncoordinated, in contrast to that of 13 Assassins. The assassination breaks out into a disorganized brawl, and each member of the conspiracy is killed before he can accomplish his objective.

In the end, it’s a samurai who wasn’t even involved in the plot who goes berserk at his friend’s death and slays the target before being cut down himself.

There’s a great analysis of this film to be found here.

This one wound up being my least favorite of the three. It’s dense, confusing, and only one of the protagonists winds up being sympathetic. In a way, it’s kind of an anti-samurai flick.

Eleven Samurai (1967) takes kind of a middle path between the other two (good synopsis here). Once again a cruel and unjust daimyo is protected from his behavior by his relationship to the Shogun. After trespassing upon the territory of the neighboring fief and murdering a fellow lord, things are hushed up and the facts altered. It is proclaimed that his lands were rudely encroached upon and a stray arrow struck the offending lord. As punishment, the slain lord’s fief is to be dissolved and his clan abolished.

Of course a plot is crafted by the victimized fief to take their revenge. Notably, one of the men who was to join the plot dies of an illness, and his sister takes his place (another interesting strong woman type role).

Somewhat similar to 13 Assassins, the heroes in this tale act like heroes. They’re mostly competent, brave, and loyal. They’re also fairly skilled fighters. Unfortunately for them, their well-laid plans keep being thwarted, and their final attack winds up being an impromptu attempt to catch the lord before he is able to reenter his territory.

The final scene is action-packed. Several of the assassins, cut and dying, throw themselves upon a fire to ignite gunpower they’ve stashed in their clothes. Another of the samurai hurls daggers (darts?) at foes. Of course there’s swordplay, too.

In the end, the original conspirators are all killed accomplishing their mission. The lone survivor is a ronin who joined their cause along the way.

The thing that struck me most about Eleven Samurai was the lack of that samurai fatalism in the leader of the group. He admonishes his men more than once, saying that their lives are his to spend as he will, but that they should not be so willing to throw their lives away. Although he accepts the likelihood that they will all die, he also seems to allow for hope that some of them may survive.

Likewise he grieves when his young wife kills herself in a show of loyalty to him (sometimes the wives of samurai would commit seppuku to follow their husbands in death), and exclaims that she needn’t have died.

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There’s a lot about these three films to process. They’re still rattling around inside my mind, anyway.

-Bushi

bushi