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As Promised Here is Number 2 of our LW&C Extravaganza: Baby Cart at the River Styx.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx literally Wolf with Child in Tow: Perambulator of the River of Sanzu) is the second in the series of Japanese martial arts films based on the long-running Lone Wolf and Cub manga series about Ogami Ittō, our wandering assassin for hire who is accompanied by his young son.

The disgraced former Kaishakunin to the shogun, Ogami Ittō is now living off the land pushing his son in the wooden baby carriage as a hired killer.  When he arrives in a small town looking for a room, food and a bath he is eagerly welcomed in by a young woman to their inn.  The manager of the inn sees Ittō as a dirty vagrant and scolds the young woman for letting him stay.  Overhearing this, Ittō calmly goes to his baby cart and hands a bundle of 500 ryo to the manager for safekeeping – probably more money than the manager has seen in one place in his life.  Naturally, the overall level of service quickly changes, but just to tweak him a bit, when the manager tries to wash Daigoro’s feet, the boy kicks water in his face and leaves wet footprints all over the floor.

Ittō’s activities are being watched by the Kurokawa spy clan of shinobi-class ninja, which have fallen in with Ittō’s nemesis, the Shadow Yagyū. They report on his activities to Sayaka, head of Akari Yagyū clan of female assassins. But the Kurokawa are unsure that the women are up to the task of killing Ittō. Sayaka laughs confidently and tells the Kurokawas’ leader to send their best man into the room. She then orders the man to try to exit the room.  He tries to do so by grappling onto the ceiling, but the female assassins set upon him and start hacking off his ears, fingers, arms and legs, leaving a stump of a man (just a torso and head) before he is cruelly finished off.

Ittō, meanwhile, is hired by a clan that has a secret process to make indigo dye.  This secret has let the clan get away with being undervalued for years (saving on taxes et. cetera).  One of the clan plans to sell his comrades out to the shogun and Ittō must kill him.  The turncoat is to be escorted by the feared Hidari brothers, each a master of a deadly weapon – the iron claw, the flying mace and a pair of armored gloves and they all wear enormous hats.

As he travels to his job, Ittō encounters the famed female assassins and has no problem killing them all—unlike that unfortunate ninja.

Then he meets Sayaka, who catches him, his son and the baby cart in a steel net. Ittō cuts his way out of the net and engages in a sword duel with her.  He delivers what should be a disabling blow to her ankles, but the woman fighter jumps straight up out of her kimono to reveal a fishnet body suit and then runs away backwards.

Next, the Kurokawa clan is waiting for Ittō, who puts together his naginata (disguised as railing on the baby cart) and gives the baby cart a shove toward the waiting enemies.  Daigoro, still in the baby cart then activates blades located in the axles of the cart, which cut off the feet of several men.  The battle that ensues between Ittō and the Kurokawas is fierce and Ittō is seriously injured before he has killed them all.

Weary from the endless fighting, Ittō struggles along the road and eventually finds shelter in a shack.  Daigoro, seeing that his father needs his help, must do what he can.  Unable to carry water in his tiny hands, Daigoro carries water from the river in the only vessel available – his mouth.  He spits the few drops he could carry between his father’s parched lips much like a mother bird feeding her hatching.  For food, Daigoro finds some rice cakes given as an offering to a Buddha statue and takes them for his father, leaving his vest in exchange.

Ittō recovers and finds that his son is missing.  Daigoro has been taken by the Kurokawa and Sayaka, tied up and suspended over a well.  If Ittō attacks, they will surely let go of the rope and Daigoro will plunge to his death. Daigoro lets his sandal drop into the well, giving Ittō a gauge of how deep it is.  Itto makes his move as the rope is released, stopping it just in time to save his son.

Sayaka watches silently and makes no move to engage the swordsman, realizing Itto’s technique far outstrips her own and perhaps also out of a sense of honor for the devotion of the father to his child.

Ittō then finds himself aboard a ship, carrying the three Hidari brothers who recognize him and offer a détente in that if one party does not interfere with the other party there will be no need for any superfluous deaths and bloodshed.

The final showdown takes place on a vast desert. The Hidari bodyguards are at the head of a caravan of men carrying a palanquin with the indigo expert inside.  The brother with the iron claw runs forward and thrusts his claw into the sand, which boils up with blood.  There are men hiding in the sand.  He stabs his claw into the sand several times, each time pulling up a hiding warrior by his head.  The rest of the hidden men in the sand emerge and fight, but are destroyed by the bodyguards.

Client Eastwood style, Ittō awaits, alone, at the top of a large dune.  As each brother attacks they are killed by Itto in a grandiose style with fountains of blood and the last one killed in one lethal stroke along his throat, a cut that sprays blood in a fine mist while making a sound like the “howling of the wind.”  The last of the Hidari brothers comments that he wanted to hear the effects such a precise stroke from one of his victims instead hearing it from his own neck as his life slowly flies away.

Ittō approaches the palanquin with the traitorous indigo expert inside, finishing him before gathering Daigoro and again setting off.

Many argue that Baby Cart at the River Styx is the best and most entertaining movie out of all the Lone Wolf and Cub series.  That is merely a matter of personal taste since I think each of the films has their moments.  Because of Tomisaburo Wakayama’s martial arts talents, the scenes are greatly choreographed and very over-the-top.  It’s amazing the inventiveness they came up with at times.  Of course, there is still is plenty of blood in this one that sprays like a garden hose sometimes.  However, it looks like red paint!

If you are only going to watch one of the LW&C series, this is probably the one to watch.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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Ever hear of a castle named after a bird? JPFmovies Looks at Owl’s Castle (1999)

Based on the 1999 novel by Shiba Ryotaro and directed by Shinoda Masahiro the same year, Owl’s Castle is thoroughly tangled in actual Japanese history and a terrific depiction of the politics of the times.  One of the great features of this movie is that it was shot on site at many of the original locations in Osaka and Nara. Owl’s Castle attempts to recreate the politically tumultuous times following the Sengoku Era during which the entire nation was engaged in civil war.  Traditionally three key figures are credited with resolving that anarchy and inching Japan along the path of political unification that would last about 300 years from 1568 until Japan finally opened itself up to the West in the Meiji Era circa 1868.  The three figures were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (ruled 1584-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).

 

Aspiring to the appointment of Shogun by the Emperor, Oda Nobunaga skillfully crushed many of the most powerful daimyos (military families – of which there were about 200 at the beginning of the Sengoku period), resulting in a gradual establishment of a working yet risky unified stability.  Following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, his top general Hideyoshi, though holding the lesser title of regent (kwampaku) rather than Shogun, established himself as the de-facto military leader and immediately set out to further solidify the remaining daimyos under a national government.  In the ruthless pursuit of complete military domination of the country Hideyoshi violently conquered any remaining groups he believed to be unfriendly.  In 1577, having overcome all his national enemies, Hideyoshi amassed a huge army of 200,000 and set out by ship from Kyushu to attempt a conquest of China via Korea.  When the King of Korea refused to allow Hideyoshi’s troops to pass through the country toward China, Hideyoshi fought his way as far north as Rakuro (PyongYang, North Korea). Through gradual realizations of the difficulties in logistics and their potentially being outnumbered by the Chinese, Hideyoshi’s ambitious vision was at last discarded at his death in 1598.

 

Owl’s Castle is set during the height of Hideyoshi’s rule and tells the tale of an assassination attempt by a surviving member of the Iga Clan, one of the groups vanquished by Hideyoshi.  The assassination plot ultimately involves infiltrating the immense and (thought to be) impenetrable fortress built by Hideyoshi, nicknamed Owl’s Castle.  Hideyoshi had built a monstrosity of a castle during the years 1583-1585, modeled after Nobunaga’s mammoth Adzuchi Castle (the ruins can still be visited in Shiga prefecture).  But Owl’s Castle was much grander than Adzuchi, Hideyoshi built a massive edifice using enormous granite blocks surrounded by deep moats and steep embankments.  The castle is known (in real life) as Osaka Castle. It remains to this very day and is considered the grandest and most elaborate castle in Japan.  The infiltration of this castle (and the ensuing escape) marks the dramatic climax of the narrative.

 

The plot itself involves a survivor of the formidable ninja school located in Iga Province (modern day Nara prefecture) which Hideyoshi cruelly slaughtered (including women and children) out of fear of their skill and growing influence.  The locations and regions conquered are historically accurate, making this film a dramatic exploration of the otherwise heralded campaign by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring order to the nation.

 

Most of the film is shot in wide panoramic cinematography, using the actual historical locations in both Nara and Osaka.  Thus we are in for an illustrated history lesson which includes all the major figures, maps, castle interiors, and social life and trends of the time—that is why I am going through the history so much.  For this reason alone you should watch this film.  In addition, however, Owl’s Castle boasts an amazing cast of popular talent, most of whom have plenty of experience in similar productions. The narrative itself, running at 138 minutes, is chock full of character studies and plot-relevant relationships and rivalries. There is also plenty of action ranging from military conquests to hand-to-hand ninja battles upon massive rooftops.  When put all together, along with the aid of an effective soundtrack, this film does deliver what it promises to Japanese audiences: a thoroughly engrossing tale enmeshed in the history and politics of one of Japan’s most formative and memorable periods.

 

Now on to the story itself.  After 10 years of seclusion hiding in an abandoned temple, the formidable ninja Juzo (Nakai Kichii) is called back into action to assassinate the nation’s leading military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Juzo watched his own mother and sister die horribly during Hideyoshi’s brutal conquest of Iga (Nara), which left only a handful of survivors.  The mission will require him to return to Osaka and infiltrate the new castle which Hideyoshi built for himself. Only a ninja of unparalleled skill will be able to scale and penetrate the formidable defenses Hideyoshi resides in.

 

During his mission, Juzo encounters a number of the survivors of the Iga massacre.  They, like him, live anonymously in lowly positions, but are eager to aid Juzo once they realize his mission. All, that is, except Gohei, another well-trained ninja of the Iga school whose allegiance now lies with Hideyoshi and whose aims involve attaining a high-ranking samurai position within the Hideyoshi faction.  The capture or death of Juzo during such an attempt on Hideyoshi’s life would provide the opportunity needed for Gohei to attain this coveted position.

 

Even during the governmental stability established by Hideyoshi, political turmoil and plotting continued making trust and alliances difficult for Juzo.  So he must not only survive the complexities of the political environment, but also develop and carry out a plausible scheme to fulfill the assassination.

 

In my opinion this is a thoroughly entertaining film filled with historical tidbits and is heavy on dialogue (which is not a bad thing).  The degree of dialogue, however, is also matched with highly detailed panoramic scenes of landscapes, architecture and the bustle of 16th century life in Japan.  The polished film visually presents you with top-notch scenes and historical re-enactments. Because it is complex and intricate, this storyline is far from boring while action permeates the film from first to last scene.

 

Anyone interested in Japanese history or jidaieki (history-based films) will enjoy this film and not be disappointed.  The film also presents a much more realistic vision of the ninja instead of the superhuman image seen too often in films, making it enjoyable by martial art and samurai fans as well.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Samurai Fiction: The Original Kill Bill—Sorry Quentin Tarantino The Cat’s Out The Bag.

Quentin Tarantino, meet Hiroyuki Nakano. Oh, wait a minute. Sorry, my mistake. You’ve already met. Well, can I introduce you to Kinji Fukasaku? Oh, sorry, that’s right. You’ve met him too. In fact, Quentin, you know almost everyone in this room, don’t you? Ah well, go and mingle. But just so you know, your cat is out of the bag now. You’ve been mining Asian movies for ideas for years, haven’t you? Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

 

As for the rest of you Tarantino fans out there, if you haven’t done so already, meet Samurai Fiction – a delight of a movie rivaled only by Kurusawa’s Sanjuro. Nobody could doubt the absolute awesomeness of a good Japanese martial arts flick – but likewise, nobody watching one could doubt that these samurai seriously need to chill out and take a five minute break. Well, Kurusawa in Sanjuro and Nakano in Samurai Fiction give us that break, poking a little fun at samurai seriousness while not denying us our martial movement fix for the day. Evidently Tarantino was as delighted as the rest of us by these and other great Asian martial arts films – and he plagiarizes them – oops, I mean pays homage to them – shamelessly.

 

Samurai Fiction’s opening titles, in which samurai performing kata are silhouetted against a red background, were in turn satirized in blue & black in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. Also, Tarantino used Hotei’s famous instrumental track “Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai” (“Battle Without Honor or Humanity” – the title of a classic yakuza movie by Kinji Fukasaku, a major influence on Tarantino) as background music for Kill Bill Vol. 1. Hotei played Kazamatsuri in Samurai Fiction and composed its soundtrack.

 

Tarantino admits that he gets his ideas from old movies mainly Asian and anyone with any knowledge of both movies would see that Tarantino takes names, significant parts of stories and other elements from Asian cinema.  When asked about plagiarizing ideas from other movies, he stated, “I lift ideas from other great films just like every other great filmmaker.” Is that why the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs was STOLEN from Django? Or why one of the fighting scenes in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is basically an exact copy of a scene from Samurai Fiction? Those are more than some pretty big ideas.

 

That said, let’s get down to business.   The film was directed by Hiroyuki Nakano and it is almost entirely black-and-white, and follows a fairly standard plotline for a comedy and jidaigeki samurai film, but the presence of Tomoyasu Hotei’s rock-and-roll soundtrack separates it from the films it was inspired by, such as the works of Akira Kurosawa. A loose spinoff was released in 2001, as Red Shadow.

 

While the film is nearly entirely in black-and-white, paying homage to older samurai movies, this allows for the artistic and dramatic use of color; this is most noticeable whenever a character is killed, and the screen flashes red for a moment. Color is used to dramatic effect at the beginning and end of the film as well to focus the audience in what they are watching.

 

The plot centers on Inukai Heishiro (Fukikoshi Mitsuru), the son of a clan officer. One of his clan’s most precious heirlooms, a sword given them by the Shogun, has been stolen by the samurai Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei). Against his father’s advice, Heishiro insists on retrieving the sword himself. His father sends two ninja after him to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.

 

Kazamatsuri wounds Heishiro, and kills one of his companions. The young noble ends up staying with an older samurai (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa) while he heals from his wound and plans his next move. The older samurai tries to dissuade him from fighting, but Heishiro’s honor won’t allow him to leave Kazamatsuri alive. The older samurai, who turns out to be the master Hanbei Mizogushi, convinces him to fight Kazamatsuri by throwing rocks rather than with swords.

 

Meanwhile Kazamatsuri settles for a few days at a gambling house owned by Lady Okatsu (Mari Atsuki), who falls in love with him. Then one night one of the ninja sent to protect Heishiro bribes her to poison his sake for one thousand gold. She does, but Kazamatsuri tastes the poison and kills Okatsu. He then kidnaps Koharu in an attempt to get the master Mizoguchi to fight him.

 

Mizoguchi reveals to Heishiro that he killed Koharu’s father, and has since never drawn his sword on another man, despite his immense skill. They then go to find Kazamatsuri and rescue Koharu. While Mizoguchi stalls Kazamatsuri, Heishiro takes Koharu aside and says he will marry her if Mizoguchi wins. Kazamatsuri fights Mizoguchi, who only draws his sword after his opponent destroys his wooden sword. He then disarms Kazamatsuri near a cliff. Kazamatsuri, admitting defeat, commits suicide by jumping off the cliff. Heishiro and the others go to the bottom, where there is no sign of Kazamatsuri’s body, but Koharu spots the stolen sword at the bottom of the river, where Heishiro retrieves it.

Flash forward one year. Heishiro has married Koharu, the sword is restored, and Mizoguchi is now an official in Heishiro’s clan.

 

The film has a number of inside jokes and allusions. For example, the stolen sword that is at the center of the plot was a personal possession of Toshirō Mifune, the star of many of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films. One of Heishiro’s closest friends is named Kurosawa.

 

Between the rock and roll background and Hotei’s portrayal of Kazamatsuri’s cool disdain for the skills of the bumbling samurai who pursue him, it’s impossible not to become lost in admiration at Hotei’s ability to slide effortlessly and apparently in a state of total relaxation, from noncombat to combat situations — for example, when he is confronted by young Heishiro and his companions, Hotei as Kazamatsuri is so unconcerned by their presence that he turns coolly away to take a leak by the side of the road before responding to their taunts and challenges.

 

So, Tarantino fans, and those who think American cinema is the cat’s ass, why don’t you smell an Asian one? Why do I watch so many Asian movies? Apparently what I’m really doing is watching the future of American moviemaking, since American directors are so bankrupt of ideas that they have no recourse but to follow foreign filmmakers meekly as they lead them around by the nose.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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