The Sword of Doom (1966)

January 11, 2007

For my recent birthday, my lovely wife was nice enough to give me the DVD (and one of those swanky Criterion Collection editions at that!) of one of my favorite Japanese films – The Sword of Doom. This 1966 samurai classic stars Tatsuya Nakadai – the Japanese film legend who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors (I blogged about Harakiri, another of Nakadia’s classic samurai films, several months ago) and who, coincidentally, happens to share my birthday. It’s a fairly violent film for the time in which Nakadai portrays Ryunosuke Tsukue, a talented but merciless samurai who seemingly finds pleasure only in killing. sword2.jpgHis actions early on set up the plot for the remainder of the film, as Ryunosuke is forced into hiding when several people start looking for him to avenge the death of a samurai he killed. The Sword of Doom is not a simple revenge film, however, as the story has a surprising bit of depth. 

Director Kihachi Okamoto does a wonderful job bringing the story to life. Like many of the classic samurai films, part of the appeal of the film is in the atmosphere itself. Okamoto juxtaposes the violence of the film with some beautifully captured details – the slow beating of the Japanese drum, the nuanced subtelties of the swordsman’s stance, etc. – to really bring mid-nineteenth century Japan to life. The acting is also wonderful, and in addition to Nakadai, the film also stars Toshiro Mifune – one of the other Japanese stars most recognized internationally.

Yet the real crown jewel of the film is the story. The original novel was written by Kaizan Nakazato, who began the epic work in 1913. It would continue to appear serially in newspapers until his death in 1944. Nakazato never finished the work (although he did publish forty-one volumes!), but its popularity nonetheless led to numerous film adaptations in Japan. Most of these adaptations were trilogies and, indeed, The Sword of Doom was intended to be part of a longer series but was never completed – which explains the ridiculously abrupt ending that confuses most Western audiences.

The story centers upon the actions of Ryunosuke. While his tacitness throughout most of the film limits the character’s speaking role, Nakadai nonetheless ably portrays the character as a complex figure torn apart internally by his inner demons. Indeed, while one might be tempted to dismiss Ryunosuke as a one-dimensional character, it becomes increasingly difficult to do this as the film wears on and a world-weariness and insatiability about the character is revealed, lending him a rather Byronic quality. sword.jpgThe actions of Ryunosuke and their far-reaching consequences is what ultimately ties together the film’s numerous subplots, which are masterfully balanced and interwoven throughout. The tension mounts and these subplots finally come to a head near the end of the film, when the idealist serving as Ryunosuke’s counterpoint waits outside for his nemesis so he may avenge his brother’s death. Ryunosuke, meanwhile, is inside battling enemies both imagined and real. Unfortunately, due to the unfinished nature of the story, viewers of this version of Nakazato’s story will never know the outcome.

This film really resonates with me for some reason, but I’m not sure it’s one everybody will enjoy. For one thing, it’s a rather bleak film. (As my wife likes to say, I like “gray” movies, and this one’s no exception. You can probably count the number of times somebody smiles in the film on one hand.) For another, the many characters can get confusing and the lack of closure to the work can be frustrating. However, for me, its mixture of classic Japanese culture, exciting samurai duels, and a suck-you-in type story makes it one of my favorites.

One last sidenote: the Criterion DVD came with an insert containting an informative essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. If you want to read more about the film, Criterion has that essay here on its website.

Dark Water (2002)

October 27, 2006

I can see why some people give mixed reviews of the original 2002 Japanese version of Dark Water. For those only familiar with the J-horror genre through such offerings as The Ring and The Grudge, this film will probably darkwater.jpgnot be what they expect. Dark Water is not as scary as these movies, or rather, it’s scary in more subtle, refined ways, relying much more on psychological and atmospheric horror. In this way, it’s more like the original Japanese version of Pulse. While I was not a big fan of Pulse, however, I actually sort of liked Dark Water.

Like many of the J-horror films, the supernatural terrors lurking in Dark Water are effective because they are based in fears found in everyday, contemporary life. Pulse, for example, contemplates some of the fears inherent in the increasing isolation of the human spirit in the technological age. Similiarly, The Grudge looks at the inescapable and cyclical nature of domestic violence. In the case of Dark Water, the horrors are based upon the hardships of a single, working mother and her fears that she will be unable to provide for and protect her daughter. The film unfolds two parallel plots simultaneously – the one involving the daily struggles of Yoshimi Matsubara as she is embroiled in a heated custody battle for her daughter Ikuko; the other involving a supernatural presence that lives on the floor above them in their new apartment building. It turns out the presence is the ghost of a young girl about Ikuko’s age who inexplicably disappeared a few years earlier. As events begin to take their toll on Yoshimi’s already fragile psychological state, the viewer begins to wonder if the supernatural occurrences are real or if they are merely reflections of her internalized fears as a struggling parent.

The film is directed by Hideo Nakata, who also directed the Japanese version of The Ring (Ringu) and its sequel, as well as the American remake of the sequel. As he does in those other films, Nakata does a pretty good job of creating a dark, suggestive atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is, however, a little slow paced, and even though it kept me engaged throughout, I sometimes found myself wishing it would get to the point with just a little less tedium.

What I think sets Dark Water apart the most is its story. Based on the novel by Koji Suzuki (who also penned the Ring trilogy), the script so effectively interweaves its supernatural aspect with Yoshimi’s struggles as a parent that it probably is one of the saddest horror films I’ve ever seen. darkwater2.jpgUnlike other horror movies, Yoshimi isn’t simply in a life-or-death battle with horrific forces. Rather, the supernatural forces she faces – be they real or imagined – are representative of her fears as a parent, and her success or failure as a parent is dependent upon the outcome of this conflict. Having seen her relationship with Ikuko and how much she cares about her, it’s difficult not to pull for her as she faces her own inner demons.

Dark Water isn’t without some flaws, and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s one of my favorites in the genre. It is, though, a well done film with a mature, complex story, and it’s brave enough to take some chances and do something a little different from the status quo.

Harakiri (1962)

August 14, 2006

hara.jpgGood as it is, Harakiri is probably not a film for just anybody. There are probably even fans of the classic samurai movies who might not like it (in fact, the genre’s signature swordplay isn’t even present until about three-quarters of the way through the film). Essentially, Harakiri is an epistemological film, presenting two men’s contrasting storylines together, leaving it to the viewer to judge for him/herself what really happened. As such, it relies heavily on narrative and dialogue. As aesthetically pleasing as the classic Japanese film-making style is – with its beautiful scenery; its crisp, clean shots; and its slow, drawn-out takes – it can make for some admittedly slow-paced viewing when there’s no action to move the story along. The fact that all the dialogue is in a language as flat and unaccentuated as Japanese does nothing to alleviate this problem.

And yet, attentive viewers who give this film a chance will find their efforts rewarded with a complex, richly textured narrative that becomes increasingly engaging as each new piece of the tale is unveiled. The basic plot involves some down-on-their-luck samurai who, unable to find work due to the reigning peace, start showing up at the gates of some feudal lords and begging for permission to commit harakiri (ritual suicide) in their courtyards. The film follows the case of a particular elder samurai who comes to a lord to make such a request. His request is granted, but before he commits harakiri, he decides to tell the house about his background. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that both the samurai and the feudal house are connected by certain past events. Their interpretation of these events, however, are decidedly different.

The film certainly delivers an anti-authoritarian message, critizing the way the powerful rewrite the events of history in order to justify its rule and how it disguises its wrongdoing behind a facade of honor. I do not know as much as I should about modern Japanese history, but I really wondered to what extent this film was made in response to WWII. Filmed less than two decades after the War’s close, its message could easily be aimed at those leaders who justified fighting the War for their own glory, meanwhile ignoring the hardships it caused its people. Indeed, it seemed like more than just a coincidence that the dispossessed samurai were originally from a clan located in Hiroshima. I haven’t looked into this, but I would be interested to find out more in this regard.

Without a doubt, Harakiri is one of the best written Japanese films I’ve seen. Not only that, but it is beautifully shot and showcases the acting of some of the legendary stars of the Japanese cinema. It’s an intellectually demanding and sometimes slow film, and thus might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Yet, the potential rewards to be attained from its viewing certainly make it a film worthy of the effort.