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Two equally matched daimyo (warlords) one concerned with heaven the other concerned with earth. Part 1 of the Japanese film Heaven and Earth (1990).

JPFmovies is excited to get back to quality Asian films.  There is a reason Heaven and Earth was Japan’s number one film in 1990: it is one hell of a flick.  Most Japanese films of this genre look at the battle of Sekigahara; for those of you that don’t know this was the bloodiest battle in Japan’s history and finally united the country.  Heaven and Earth, however, centers around the battles of Kawanakajima which was series of 7 battles over 20 years between two equally matched rivals Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin that lasted until 1564.

Shingen and Kenshin could not have more contrasting leadership personalities and styles.  Kenshin fought wars “to bring peace to his people” versus Shingen who wanted to expand his empire “to the seas.”  Shingen (the more famous of the two) is often portrayed as some sort of liberator treating his people well but in truth, he was a cruel as many of the other warlords of the time-routinely massacring peasants and prisoners of war unlike Kenshin who took a higher road.

One of the main reasons Shingen wanted the lands occupied by Kenshin is because the were very fertile which was a precious commodity in Japan that does not have much agriculture.

Back to the film.  Heaven and Earth also presents the audience with two interesting items.  The first is a letter that survives to this day that Kenshin sends to his allies asking for men, equipment and other items necessary for war.  The second are two very accurate formations from each side:  Kenshin’s “Winding Wheel” vs. Shingen’s “Crane.”  The film does a great job of recreating the relatively complex fighting formations.  The winding wheel was an offensive maneuver allowing units that had become exhausted or depleted to be replaced with a fresh unit, thus enabling the attacker to maintain the force and momentum of the attack. A very carefully organized and complex maneuver, its use indicates that Kenshin’s troops must have practiced it to the point of perfection. Kenshin’s vanguard was commanded by his younger brother, Takeda Nobushige, and as Kenshin’s winding wheel fully engaged the Takeda front ranks, Nobushige was killed in the desperate close combat.

Kenshin’s leading units were mounted samurai, and as the “wheel” wound on, the pressure on Shingen’s force began to tell as unit after unit was driven back from its position. Shingen’s “crane” was an offensive formation and not designed for the defense, but the troops executing it were well disciplined and the formation was managing to hold its own.  The momentum of the “wheel” brought Kenshin within reach of the Takeda headquarters where Shingen had been fervently trying to control his hard-pressed army.  This resulted in a rare face off between the two leaders.  Shingen was personally attacked by none other than Kenshin himself.  Unable to draw his sword in time, Shingen, rising from his camp stool, was forced to parry Kenshin’s mounted sword strokes with his heavy wooden war fan. Shingen took three cuts on his body armor and a further seven on his war fan until one of his bodyguards charged forward and attacked Kenshin with a spear. The spear thrust glanced off Kenshin’s armor and struck his horse’s flank, causing the animal to rear. Several other samurai of Shingen’s guard then arrived and together they managed to drive Kenshin off.

Exciting?  Yes! And by all accounts as historically accurate as one can really get looking back hundreds of years.  Stay tuned for part 2 of the Heaven and Earth review.  Next time we’ll look at the Wheel vs. the Crane too!

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2019 in Movie Reviews

 

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Now To NHK’s Musashi Part 2.

“‘There are many enemies’ applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both sword and companion sword and assume a wide-stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions. Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords.  Waiting is bad. Always quickly re-assume your attitudes to both sides, cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together, as if tying a line of fishes, and when they are seen to be piled up, cut them down strongly without giving them room to move.”  Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Book of Water

We are now halfway through our look at the greatest samurai of all-time Miyamoto Musashi.  Today we are going to take a look at NHK’s 2003 series following the life of Miyamoto Musashi as far as the other two films series have taken us.  As you can see from the past two posts, my opinion of all three epics is starting to gel.  To date, it should be pretty obvious that I don’t think much of the original Mifune/Inagaki trilogy but I am significantly more impressed with the five part series directed by Uchida as recently posted.  Now with 49 episodes, NHK goes even deeper into the trail Musashi chooses both physically and spiritually as he wanders throughout Japan.

In each of our past posts, we stopped at Musashi’s finest moment to date, when he takes on the entire Yoshioka Kyoto fencing school and not only survives this battle, but actually wins it.  Although winning comes with a heavy price, killing the 10-year-old “commander” of his opponents, Musashi is willing to pay this price to win and survive.  You would not know of this historic battle if you only watch the original Mifune/Inagaki films which have drawn criticism as “sanitizing” Musashi’s story.  Since we left off at the battle of Ichijoji in both of our previous posts, we will do the same here when studying the NHK series.

Remember the origins of the battle at Ichijoji are rooted in the Musashi’s killing both of the teaching brothers from the Yoshioka school with relative ease that set events in motion which culminate in the legendary clash.

Here is how the History Channel remembers the Battle at Ichijoii.   

Characters are one of the strengths of the NHK series, which takes the time to explore each personality in depth. Let’s take a moment and briefly summarize who our main characters are and where we’re at in the NHK series.  “Matahachi” is the childhood friend of Musashi who fought at the battle of Sekigahara with him—he has gone downhill becoming shiftless and lazy.  “Ostu” is the flute-wielding romantic lover of Musashi who is wandering Japan looking for him.  “Sasaki Kojiro” is the master of the Ganryu style of swordplay and is Musashi’s greatest opponent.  “Yagyu Munenori” is the son of the enlightened sword master Yagyu Sekishusai.  He is a highly skilled and famous samurai who is on a par with both Musashi and Kojiro.  Unlike Musashi, who lives his life for the moment, Munenori is involved heavily with politics and power.  “Jotaro” is a young follower of Musashi who treats him like a son and “Hon’iden Osugi” is the mother of Matahachi and bitter enemy of Musashi.

“Takuan” is an enlightened Zen monk. He often gives spiritual insights to help Musashi overcome personal obstacles. Not only is Takuan spiritually wise, he also is a humble and down to earth individual which makes him very well-liked. There is no bigger influence in Musashi’s spiritual life than Takuan. However, there are lesser influences, such as the sword sharpener who refuses to sharpen Musashi’s sword because it will be used for killing and not for beauty. Looking as though he has just entered the Twilight Zone, Musashi responds, “A sword, sir, is meant for fighting.” Later, the sword-sharpener’s wife exhorts Musashi to live so that he can learn to appreciate beauty – foreshadowing Musashi’s becoming an artist later in life.  

Meanwhile Otsu has doggedly been pursuing Musashi and passes out due to exhaustion.  She is brought to a rooming house where she is being cared for by strangers.  Low and behold who is there to “help” Otsu?  None other than Osugi a/k/a “Granny” who, for labor and menial tasks, still considers Otsu her daughter-in-law (the equivalent of indentured servitude) while contemporaneously casting her as a mortal enemy because of her relationship with Musashi.  Osugi tells Otsu that Musashi was killed in a duel.  Otsu is grief stricken but word comes around that a ronin has defeated both teachers of the Yoshioka schools and that a third winner take all battle is pending.  Otsu knows that could only be Musashi so she leaves the pleasant company of Osugi and heads out to find Muashi—Osugi now becomes furious both with Musashi for surviving and Otsu for leaving.   

While Matahachi’s mother is cursing Otsu and Musashi, he delves into the semi criminal world meeting a strange sorcerer who pays him to spy on some rich lords (or else be killed) and then he finds Kojiro’s diploma and a bag of money and begins to pass himself off as the great swordsman as well as getting conned out of his new found wealth.

Before we get to the great battle, Musashi meets his greatest rival Kojiro–and even gets a bit of advice from him.  Otsu finally catches up with Musashi, scaring him senseless, while no one really knows where Matahachi’s less than virtuous lifestyle has led him.  And unlike in the five part series, Jotaro sticks around as Musashi’s disciple throughout the entire journey.  We are also treated to a little more exposure to Osugi a/k/a “Granny,” Matahachi’s very cranky mother who continues to blame Musashi for all of her son’s problems.

As you ponder these clips, notice the theme that is being developed – Musashi’s spiritual quest. What makes Musashi stand out so dramatically from other swordsmen of his era, NHK seems to be arguing, is his singleminded focus and refusal to be distracted by such mundane issues as earning a living or starting a family. As often happens to people on a spiritual path, teachers appear to advise Musashi when he needs it – and as also often happens to people on such paths, Musashi develops a motley collection of supporters and people who care deeply what happens to him. NHK also takes time to include small segments showing us the modern locations of Musashi’s journeys – almost as if the series was developed partly in order to be shown in school.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Black Hawk Down Experience.

Black Hawk Down is one of my favorite movies of all time—no question about it.  The film was directed by Ridley Scott (who also directed Gladiator starring Russell Crowe) and was based on Mark Bowden’s book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.  I was lucky enough to read the book before seeing the movie.  According to conventional wisdom, reading the book first usually leads to being disappointed with the film and its content and portrayal of events.  However, I have never been much for conventional wisdom.  Bowden’s book is outstanding and so is Ridley Scott’s film.  As far as I am concerned, in the inevitable book vs. movie comparison, it is a horse apiece.

Black Hawk Down creates what veterans of the battle describe as a very realistic representation of combat conditions.  Because the film puts you the viewer in the middle of  the battle experience,  the harsh violence of the movie seem all the more realistic and also justified, not gratuitous.  One of the most remarkable things about Black Hawk Down is that in spite of the chaos created by what many have termed “the fog of war” represented on screen, the film vividly maps out the soldiers’ strategies and tactics.  Director Scott frames the action so precisely, and through such perfect camera angles and placement, we are able to follow all of the action on screen, almost as though we, ourselves, are participating in the battle.  Most, if not all other directors, could not pull off this kind of controlled chaos–chaos that would have led to a very baffling movie experience.  Clearly, every last detail of this film has been thoroughly choreographed and intricately planned.

The film is based on the true story which takes place in Somalia, 1993: A small team of Army Rangers and Delta Force Troops on a peace-keeping mission, attempt to help avert mass genocide and to protect Somali citizens from barbaric acts of violence and the various militias that run the country.  When one hundred American soldiers are sent into Mogadishu to arrest a handful of influential militia leaders, they find themselves in the midst of a battle no one anticipated or envisioned.  Each soldier is confronted with the realities and horrors of combat as they protect each other from the surging ranks of hostile Somali forces.  Black Hawk Down is a relentless, harrowing, and true story of bravery, in the face of war.

Black Hawk Down comes from a genre that has brought out some of the best in directors, writers and actors, yet against all of this competition, the movie is easily the best war movie ever made.  Yes, I know it’s a bold statement, but I said it, and it’s out there now.  Also, what many “non-believers” of the Black Hawk Down experience seem to forget, among other things, is that the film did win an Academy Award for best sound.  I can’t believe I didn’t mention that earlier.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2010 in Movie Reviews

 

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