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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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

 

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

The glories of war: King and Country

War is a popular subject matter across all forms of entertainment, and it’s small wonder. They say that prostitution is the oldest profession, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said it was soldiering.

War and violence can be complicated subject matter. From a Catholic point of view, as I understand it, an act may be evil without being (gravely) sinful. A man may kill in defense of self or family or country and be judged righteous.

The catechism of the Church says this regarding war:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of mode[rn] means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

While there are certainly many tales of the evilness and ugliness of war (for it is Hell, after all) and stories of the gray middle ground, the ballads of glory, nobility, bravery, and heroic sacrifice – these are the stories of war that boys and men so enjoy. They are uplifting and inspiring and highlight the heights to which men may rise in their nobler moments.

And yet we also do well to remember that the stories of Charlemagne and of Arthur’s knights are heavily romanticized.

Among war movie buffs it’s a common lament that there aren’t enough flicks about World War I. This is because it was a terrible, tragic, hellish mess. Surely there is some redemption to be found in every war, but at least WWII is easy to romanticize. Villains like Hitler and the Nazis and the fanatical kamikaze bombers allow for stark portrayals of evil and the heroes who stood against them.

WWI, meanwhile, saw the dawn of modern warfare. Terrible leaders, often aristocrats, clinging to the Old Ways sent countless peasants to fight and die in the mud; to choke on frightening, deadly new gases; to be shaken to the edge of madness by the incessant pounding of devastatingly powerful artillery.

What brings this long ramble to my tongue (or fingers, as the case may be)?

I recently watched King and Country (available for streaming on Kanopy, which many libraries offer for free with membership). The film, released in 1964, is based upon the play Hamp. It tells the story of a British army private, one Arthur Hamp, during WWI.

Hamp is the last surviving member of his company. The others were all killed in previous battles, sometimes right beside him. Eventually he reaches a breaking point. He is blown into an artillery hole filled with water and mud, and he nearly drowns. He then decides to “go for a walk.” A simple, yet honest-to-a-fault young man, Hamp tells his legal counsel that he didn’t intent to desert, but neither did he intend to return. He simply didn’t think about it.

His defender, Captain Hargreaves, starts off as a cold and unsympathetic advocate. As the film progresses, however, he begins to feel for Hamp. The boy, only 23, joined the army voluntarily at a dare from his wife and mother-in-law (who both sound like dreadful wildebeests). Hamp’s lieutenant calls him a good solider, and even offers to perjure himself as a witness to try and get the boy off.

The most senior officers, however, the ones running the war, are much less circumspect about Hamp’s life. They are arrogant, detached, and self-assured about the proper way to conduct a war. The Captain Court Martial, when the court is convened, makes offhanded remarks about saving time. The medical officer refuses to consider the possibility of shell shock, calling Hamp a coward and admitting to examining him for 5 minutes and proscribing him laxatives to address the private’s complaints of sleeplessness and extreme anxiety.

Meanwhile, several of Hamp’s fellow privates catch a rat and hold a mock court martial of their own. They eventually convict the rodent and pummel it to death with stones until it dies in the mud. This parallel serves to show the tragic attitude of the senior officers concerning the lives of their men.

Back in court, Hargreaves gives a stirring defense of Hamp, finally imploring the court to remember what they are fighting for and not to come down on the side of killing the boy who had voluntarily joined to defend his country. Let justice be done, or else the deaths of all the British soldiers will have been for nothing, he says.

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The Captain sits down after this stirring and eloquent defense, and for a moment everyone is silent. The members of the Court Martial appear contemplative and almost ashamed. Then the convening officer remarks: “matter of opinion.”

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It is all wasted.

The court finds Hamp guilty, but recommends mercy in light of his commendable service prior to the infraction. They send this verdict up the chain of command. Back comes a reply – the company is to advance up the front on the morrow. Mercy is denied. Hamp will be executed to “improve morale” in light of the advance.

Hargreaves is present when the sentence is read to the prisoner. He stumbles back to the command post and falls in the mud, a strongly symbolic moment. One of the elite has finally recognized the plight of the common soldier. Alas, there’s little he can do.

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He confronts the Captain Court Martial, who defends the decision but then admits there is no way to know if these executions for desertion really do anything to improve morale. They share a bitter drink.

The next morning the firing squad is convened. The shaky lieutenant and Hamp’s fellow grunts obviously do not relish the task, but they must do their duty. One member of the detail intentionally aims his gun away.

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Hamp survives the volley. His lieutenant pulls out his revolver to finish the job, but hesitates in obvious distress. Hargreaves gently takes the gun and approaches Hamp. The private apologizes for prolonging the event.

Yet

Again gently, Hargreaves puts him down.

End

Not a happy story. But a tale need not be uplifting to teach a worthwhile lesson. King and Country is definitely a worthy watch. The acting and cinematography are top notch. Especially for those who don’t know much about the first World War, it’s worth watching a film about the nightmare that inspired Tolkien’s creation of Mordor.

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-Bushi

bushi

A Glut of Content

Last month I wrote about Netflix and how I’d like to drop it (maybe someday!). Recently I find that I’m not even watching Amazon Prime Video all that much, aside from an occasional episode of Baylon 5. Of course adding endlessly to my Watch List remains a great pleasure.

I touched upon this the other day, but the amount of content out there now is just amazing. Now that time has gone from valuable commodity to luxury item, I find myself mostly looking for two things in my video entertainment –

1. Value for cost

2. Chunkability

By value for cost, I mean that I am willing to pay for something if I really want to watch it (like Criterion Collection J movies on sale at Barnes and Noble this month!). But with so much free, decent-quality content available out there plus the two subscription video services I’m already paying for, I’m not going to shell out to watch Premium YouTube or Hulu AllStars or HBO Mega. It’s gotta really be worth it.

This can be taken even further when you consider the free trials available out there. After the baby was born, I did the Hulu one-month free trial so I could rewatch Last Man Standing and Adventure Time. When I get more time, I’d like to try out Film Struck, as well…

Chunkability is my way of saying I can watch it in short, easily digestible pieces and put it down constantly without losing too much. This is a huge benefit of video over video games right now, actually. Watch a 20-minute episode of something; chunk and chip 15 minute-increments out of a 45-minute episode. Movies are doable, but shows with shortish episodes are best.

If I had to enumerate to 3, I’d say I crave entertainment untainted by politics and the culture war. Unless I’m watching a Crowder video, I’d rather be enjoying art or movies or comics or scifi for itself and not struggling to look past its wokeness. I work in a DC liberal bubble – I don’t need to be reminded that conservatives are Nazis and that we are literally living in a Handmaiden’s Tale.

 

So what kind of stuff do I watch? Well here are a few flavors I like to lick:

PA TV

The Penny Arcade guys don’t just do comics. I used to watch an occasional First 15 (where the dudes just play the first 15 minutes of a random video game and comment as they go). Surprise – Jerry and Mike are funny and interesting guys.

Well, the gate is open now. I recently finished watching PA: The Series, and I am working my way through Strip Search now. I’m generally not a big fan of reality TV, but the PA flavor combined with the novel theme of “comic artistry” scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.

Cinemassacre

I’ve been watching The Angry Video Game Nerd for years. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But the guy’s love of video games and cinema is contagious, and the low budget special effects he peppers in have grown on me.

Red Letter Media

Come for Mr. Plinkett’s renowned Star Wars reviews, stay for Scientist Man.

I didn’t used to care much for Half in the Bag (the team’s regular movie review show), but I’ve come to appreciate these guys. I don’t always agree with them, but they’re good critics and just funny dudes.

Other

There’s plenty of great stuff out there – from Eric Rap Battles of History to Legolambs’ musicals to Jordan Schlansky videos, depending on your tastes. Go out and discover!

So I’ve got plenty to tide me over while I wait for my old samurai movies to arrive…

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-Bushi

bushi

Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?