Welcome to Mokurai's Temple!

Japanese Films

Fu Rin Ka Zan (Samurai Banners)
Genroku chushingura
(47 Ronin)
Heaven and Earth
Jigokumon
(Gate of Hell)
Jubei Ninpucho (Ninja Scroll)
Kagemusha
Kaidan
Kakushi toride no san akunin (Hidden Fortress)
Kumonosu jo (Throne of Bood)
Ran
Rashomon
Rikyu
Samurai Assassin
Samurai Trilogy
Shichinin no samurai
(Seven Samurai)
Shogun
Sonny Chiba
Ugetsu Monogatari
Yojimbo

Japanese Gardens and Aesthetics

Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Essential Dharma

Folklore

The Clan of Matsuyama

SCA Resources
(The Chatelaine's Box)

Links

HOME

Welcome to my moderately obsessive movie review page. Each of these films is about Japanese culture. I have chosen them and rated them in terms of how useful they are to SCAdians attempting to portray a Japanese persona. The Japanese have a knack for high authenticity in their cinema. This is especially true of directors like Kurasawa Akira (most of the good films here are his). However, there are pitfalls - grade B movies, post-period settings, and overly artistic costuming or set design are the most common. To help separate the mochi from the gomi, I humbly present this page. Feel free to let me know of other films you have seen that you think are worthy of mention (either really good or really bad). Also feel free to comment on or correct details in my reviews or synopsis. Domo!

Fu Rin Ka Zan (Samurai Banners) (1969)

+++++

Feudal Japan, 1543 to 1562. Yamato Kansuke is a samurai who dreams of a country united, peaceful from sea to sea. He enters the service of Takeda, the lord of Kai domain. He convinces Takeda to kill the lord of neighboring Suwa and take his wife as a concubine. He then convinces the widow, Princess Yu, to accept this arrangement and to bear Takeda a son. He pledges them his life. He then spends years using treachery, poetic sensibility, military and political strategy to expand Takeda's realm, advance the claim of Yu's son as the heir, and prepare for an ultimate battle with the forces of Echigo. Has Kansuke overreached? Are his dreams, blinded by love, too big?

Mokurai says...
Although stylistically it may come off as a little dated and cheezy, this is a very good film for recreators of 16th century daimyo culture. I recommend it.
It is based on a novel about Yamato Kansuke. The facts surrounding his life and role in the Takeda clan are somewhat shady (all I have found so far is that he existed, was a ronin Shingen hired and was supposed to be a good tactician), but he was a real samurai retainer and is an excellent example of a ronin with talent who rose to the top.
This is one of the few films I have encountered that shows a samurai army as it probably looked - with the banners of several samurai retainers and daimyo, and many styles of armor! For that reason alone, it is worth seeing. It also shows off daimyo daily life quite well including homes, garb, fortesses and military camps, etc. The politcal aspects of the story, such as Princess Yu of Suwa, the war with Uesugi Kenshin, etc. are all based on fact. I have to assume the melodrama is fictional.
Side note - the original title, Fu Rin Ka Zan, translates to "Wind, Fire, Forest, Mountain" amd was the kanji Takeda Shingen used on his personal battle standard. They are derived from Sun Tzu's axiom that an army should strikeas fast as as the wind, destroy as rapaciously as fire, move as silently as a forest, and when entrenched, be as immovable as a mountain. Kurosawa plays this up in Kagemusha as well.

Running time: 166
Also Known As:
Samurai Banners (1969)
Under the Banner of the Samurai (1969)
Directed by: Hiroshi Inagaki

Genroku chushingura (47 Ronin) (1941)

++

Lord Asano,a daimyo of the Tokugawa shogunate, is publicly insulted and discredited by the machiavellian Kira Kozunosuke who covets his position at court. Unable to restrain himself, he attacks the schemer in full public view on the grounds of the shogunal residence. This is unthinkable and a grave offence under Tokugawa law and Asano is forced to commit seppuku. His samurai retinue are dispersed as masterless ronin. The leader of the samurai, Oichi, plots with a loyal band of ronin to seek revenge for their master's dishonor.

Mokurai says...
So goes the classic story of the loyal 47 ronin. This was a true historical occurance which quickly passed into the realm of legend. The ronin in question kept silent for well over seven years (I think) before reconvening secretly and going after Asano-dono's arch enemy. The story ended with their willing suicide by seppuku. (after all, their act of revenge was technically illegal) Ever since, the 47 ronin have been immortalized in poems, kabuki dramas, ukiyoe art and several books, manga and films. The one listed here is probably the oldest.
Unfortunately, this film is not a useful piece for SCA recreators. The story, factual though it is, is post period. In fact, it is difficult to say if the ideals of loyalty and revenge expressed by these men were even in full flower in our period. Bushido was codified and enshrined as an ideal during the peacful days of the Tokugawa shogunate when something had to be done to keep all the bored samurai in line. (what do you do with fighting men when there is no war?) Perhaps the story is inspiring fo us regardless. But don't base your garb on anything you see in these films.

Runtime: Japan:214 / USA:241 B&W
Also Known As:
47 Ronin, The (1941) (USA)
47 Samurai (1941)
Chushingura (1941)
Loyal 47 Ronin, The (1941)
Loyal 47 of the Genroku Era (1941)
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi

Heaven and Earth (1990)

+++

Mokurai says...
Heaven and Earth is a fictional story based on the life of Uesugi Kenshin, a great daimyo of the Sengoku period (roughly the first 60 years of the 16th century). The story's focus is limited to Uesugi's battles with Takeda Shingen (see Kagemusha) on the Kawanakajima plain in a region of Japan known as the Kanto. These two larger-than-life warlords were closely matched in skill and prowess, but had conflicting ambitions. (as the film's title implies) They were born nine years apart. Each had taken the tonsure and attained high levels in different Buddhist sects. Both were descended from great families (Uesugi from the Fujiwara, Takeda from the Minamoto). Both were brilliant tacticians. Their armies clashed at Kawanakajima in 1553, 1554, 1555, 1556, 1557, and 1563. The battles are considered to have been indecisive stalemates. The film covers at least three of them and also seems to end in a stalemate. The balance of the plot deals with Uesugi's struggle to come to grips with the burden of ruling his clan, and his abortive love affair with the daughter of a retainer. All seemingly total fiction, although the names are real and it is known that early in his career (before a civil war with his brother), Uesugi wanted to become a pilgrim-monk.

Heaven and Earth is a very stylish film with a strong visual appeal - watch it on a big screen. The color and photography is beautiful. Unfortunately, this is also a slight drawback for research. Architecture and material culture are excellent, showing castles, homes, fortifications, garb and battle field maneauvers of the period. The style of the film is a drawback when if comes to armor and heraldic display - the director chose to represent the opposing forces by color, Takeda in all red and Uesugi in black and white. This forms a stunning effect in the battle scenes, but most likely is not accurate. Most armies of this period would be more colorful - a mish-mash of different commanders' mons (heraldic devices) and personal armor. Ashigaru (foot-soldier) samurai, usually of the peasantry, were beginning to show elements of "uniforms" as their commanders bought cheap munition grade armors, and the use of sashimono (back banners) spread. But as far as I know, this was no where near as prevailant as the film suggests. It is more accurate, I believe, to imagine a battle field full of varied colors, armor styles, and heraldry, much like a Eurpoean battle field of the high middle ages. (or Pennsic!)

Tired of this yet? No? Good. Because I also have to say that Uesugi's arquebusiers seem like total fantasy in terms of their armor and "shields." If anyone has any evidence of this sort of teppo equipment, please tell me. The Do Uesugi wears through the second half of the film seems to be a sendai-do, but has only one hinge on the left side - and it is silver - woahh! Silver!?! Not laquered!?! Hmmmm.....

On the other hand, I think they did a good job portraying Takeda's armor. It is based on a scroll painting of him and looks just about right.

Runtime: Japan:215 Bright, vivid, stunning Color!
Also Known As: Ten To Chi To (1990)
Directed by: Haruki Kadokawa 

 

 

Jigokumon (Gate of Hell) (1953)

+++

In 1350, during an attempted coup, one of the court's ladies in waiting disguises herself as the lord's wife, and a loyal samurai conveys her from the city. This diversion allows the royal family to escape. After the coup fails, the samurai asks his lord to let him marry the woman as his reward. The lord grants the request and then discovers she is already married to one of the ruling family's lieges. The samurai clings to his desire, importuning her to leave her husband, then challenging the husband to release her. Although the husband stays calm and she stays faithful, the samurai remains intemperate and stubborn, with tragic consequences.

Mokurai says...
I enjoyed this film even though the plot is a little slow. This is one of the few films I have yet encountered based in the Kamakura period. As such, it is an excellent view of the culture and material culture including armor, clothing, architecture, and even ox carts(!). Strongly recommedned if you want to portray this period or possibly Heian.

Japan 1953 Color
Runtime: Japan:89
Also Known As: Gate of Hell (1953)
Directed by: Teinosuke Kinugasa 

 

 

 Jubei Ninpucho (Ninja Scroll) (1993)

+

A Journeyman ninja by name of Jubei stumbles upon a plague, an evil clan of demons, a national crisis, and a beautiful ninja girl.

Mokurai says...
Hey, what more could you ask for? Well, this is of no use for research at all. But it is one of the best samurai legend genre anime I have ever seen. It is incredibly well-animated. Story is pure comic book. THIS IS NOT FOR KIDS! It is extremely violent, gory and has those pesky "adult situations." I include it here to make the point that a number of us doing Japanese came from an anime/otaku background. A lot of us have seen this anime or others like it (especially the younger members of our group). Nothing wrong with that. I love this stuf, too. But please see some other films and do some real research! Take your inspiration and run with it. End of sermon.

Runtime: Japan:94 Color/Animated
Also Known As:
Jubei Ninpocho: The Wind Ninja Chronicles (1993)
Ninja Scroll (1993)
Directed & written by: Yoshiaki Kawajiri 

 

  

Kagemusha (1980)

++++++

When a powerful warlord in medieval Japan dies, a poor actor recruited to impersonate him finds difficulty living up to his role and clashes with the spirit of the warlord during turbulent times in the kingdom.

Mokurai says…
This is my personal favorite film. I love the plot. I love the directing and the visuals. I love the view this film provides of the lifestyle of a 16th Century daimyo. Simply wonderful. If you are building a 16th century samurai persona, study this film first! The only flaw I see is that Kurosawa once again goes for an artistic feel in the portrayal of heraldry and battle standards. The armies of these daimyo never looked this color-coordinated! Otherwise, an excellent film.

Runtime: Japan:179 / USA:159 Color
Also Known As:
Double, The (1980)
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) (1980)
Kagemusha the Shadow Warrior (1980)
Shadow Warrior (1980)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa 

 

Kaidan (Kwaidan) (1964)

+++++

This film contains four distinct, separate stories. "Black Hair": A poor samurai who divorces his true love to marry for money, finds the marriage disastrous and returns to his old wife, only to discover something eerie about her. "The Woman in the Snow": Stranded in a snowstorm, a woodcutter meets an icy spirit in the form of a woman who spares his life on the condition that he never tell anyone about her. A decade later he forgets his promise. "Hoichi the Earless": Hoichi is a blind musician, living in a monastery who sings so well that a ghostly imperial court commands him to perform the epic ballad of their death battle for them. But the ghosts are draining away his life, and the monks set out to protect him. "In a Cup of Tea": a writer tells the story of a man who keeps seeing a mysterious face reflected in his cup of tea.

Mokurai says...
This film is an extremely artistic, surreal experience. It ofen looks more like a moving painting than a photo-play. The screenplay is based on the book "Kwaidan" by Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century author who lived in and studied the folk culture of Japan. Of the four stories, the first three are solidly based on traditional folk tales. The fourth, "In a Cup of tea" is set in the Edo era and may be a modern invention (my impression, I have no sources for this). All three are beautiful. Hands-down favorite of my friends and myself is "Hoichi the Earless". It is a great story and the film version includes wonderful images of the battle of Dan-no-Ura (don't trust the armor completely, though. Some details seem to have been "ghostified") and amazing biwa music! Watch this one, then go read some Japanese folklore.
Garb and material culture are decent with the exception of the armor. The Hoichi story also shows a little of life in a Jodo monastery - a nice treat for those of us who appreciate such things. Monk garb!

Japan 1964 Color
Runtime: USA:125
Also Known As:
Ghost Story (1964) (literal English title)
Kwaidan (1964) (alternative transliteration)
Weird Tales (1964)
Directed by: Masaki Kobayashi 

Kakushi toride no san akunin (Hidden Fortress) (1958)

+++

During Japan's feudal wars, two cowardly farmers (and would-be war heroes) stumble upon an attempt by a defeated army general to get the last member of his ruling house - a willful young princess - to safety in friendly territory. Along with the princess, there is the clan's hidden treasure of gold. Greed and cowardice clash with bravery and a daring plot.

Mokurai says...
This is the Kurosawa film George Lucas admits was the original inspiration for Star Wars. It is a rolicing adventure and includes a good measure of humor (unusual for a Kurosawa piece). For our purposes ad recreators, it is not of too much use. Most of the time, the main characters are stumbling about in the wilderness wearing rags. There is plenty of 16th century armor to see, and a little garb, but that's about it. Perhaps the coolest scene in the film is Mifune Toshiro's spear duel with an old arch emeny. Awesome! Not sure if that constitiutes valuable historical information.
One other part of the film of cultural interest is a scene invlving a village festival. The "fire festival" which centers around a huge bonfire and a wild dance. While this festival is fictional, it is based on real festivals (matsuri) which may be seen all over Japan. The excuses for the parties vary from place to place but often are associated with harvest,, planting and fertility, etc. Large matsuri include elaborate parades, dances, etc.

Runtime: Japan:139 / USA:126 B&W
Also Known As:
Hidden Fortress, The (1962) (USA)
Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress (1958) (International: English title: literal title)
Three Rascals in the Hidden Fortress (1958) (International: English title)
Directed by: Kurasawa Akira

Kumonosu jo (Throne of Bood) (1957)

++++

A transposition of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' to medieval Japan. After a great military victory, Lords Washizu and Miki are lost in the dense Cobweb Forest, where they meet a mysterious old woman who predicts great things for Washizu and even greater things for Miki's descendants. Once out of the forest, Washizu and Miki are immediately promoted by their daimyo. Washizu, encouraged by his ambitious wife, plots to make even more of the prophecy come true, even if it means killing the daimyo.

Mokurai says...
Ooooooo.... scary..... Seriously, this film is pretty creepy for it's day. As usual, Kurosawa has created an excellent film. It is in B&W, so it is a bit difficult to make out details, but the material culture and depiction of samurai life (16th Century) is all very accurate. Study it if you can. "The Scottish Play" translates quite well into feudal Japan. Haunted locations, such as forests or mountains, were a major part of Japanese folklore. So too were mediums and malevolent ghosts. Even the name of "cobweb forest" is a nice touch since spiders are considred to be particularly evil. The Shakespearian tragedy is ideal for the Japanese love of pathos and tragic death. Watch this one during your Halloween party.

Runtime: Japan:110 / USA:108 B&W
Also Known As:
Castle of the Spider's Web, The (1957)
Cobweb Castle (1957)
Macbeth (1957) (USA)
Macbeth (1961/II) (USA)
Spider Web Castle (1957)
Throne of Blood (1957)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa

 

 

Ran (1985)

+++++

This is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear. An aging warlord decides to split his kingdom between his three sons, who will live in three separate castles. The two eldest sons are quite happy, but the youngest thinks his father has gone mad, and predicts that it won't be long until the two older brothers are fighting with each other.

Mokurai says...
Ran is one of the best-know of Kurosawa's films. It is certainly easy to find at your local rental store. Personally, it is not one of my favorites. I find it plodding in pace and extremely depressing (and a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism and monologues - in a word, "overkill"). Never the less, it is a great film. Kurosawa succumbs to the temptation of making all his samurai color-coordinated (see my write-up on Heaven and Earth). But otherwise, this is yet another picture-perfect study film for those of us doing 16th century Japan. Portrayals of women's garb are especially useful in this one. (and watch how they move!) So are the armors - my favorite is the leather jinbaori worn by Saburo-dono's chief retainer. Way cool!
Kurosawa transposes King Leer decently into feudal japan. But it is a bit less seemless than Throne of Blood. Here, he has to turn Leer's daughters into sons, for instance. Also, I have no evidence yet of there being fools in feudal Japan (that's "professional entertainers" mind you). I know there were various street performers and acrobats, but I have never heard of a lord keeping one on retainer. It would be a neat persona concept if it were true!

Runtime: USA:160 Color
Also Known As: Chaos (1985)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa 

 

Rashomon (1950)

++++

Rashomon is a Japanese crime drama, that is produced with both philosophical and psychological overtones. An episode (rape and murder) in a forest is reported by four witnesses, each from their own point of view. - Who is telling the truth? What is truth?

Mokurai says...
Rashomon is part of the Akira Kurosawa canon and (yes, you guessed it) a great film, innovative for its time. As a period piece for study, it is less useful since most of the action takes place in a forest. There are few architectural/material culture features, except of course for the ruined Rashomon gate from which the film takes its title. This was the main entrance to Heian-era Kyoto, it quickly fell into disrepair around the 11th century as the city underwent a period of decline, it was rebuilt many times but eventually was neglected and destroyed. The gate in the film, as well as the garb of the characters suggests a setting in the late Heian or early Kamakura period. Garb is accurate. The medium in the film is perhaps the most interesting cultural feature. Mediums were common in ancient Japan and reularly assisted in healing the sick. (not too sure about their use as witneses in court cases...) They usually work with a Buddhist priest who would drive an evil spirit out of a sick person and into a medium. The spirit would speak through the medium and would then be banished by the priest. The bandit character is based on a legendary bandit who terrorized Heiankyo and about whom many stories were told. A few were even flattering, unlike this one. Garb is fairly accurate as far as I can tell. The most interesting feature is the lady's traveling hat. The film's main merit is definately in its plot, characterization and psychology, not to mention Kurosawa's brilliant direction.

Runtime: Japan:88 B&W
Also Known As: In the Woods
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa 

 

 

Rikyu (1989)

+++++

The Japanese "Man for All Seasons", Rikyu deals with the clash between politics, art and free speech. The principal characters are the tea master Sen no Rikyu and his patron Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Can art, beauty and truth flourish under oppressive government? What happens when an artist becomes the favorite confidante of a ruler?

Mokurai says...
You'll be lucky to find this one. It had a very limited video release in the U.S. (Thank you Toshi-dono for copying your laserdisk for me!)
This is the only film I know of to deal with Rikyu. Sen no Rikyu (1521 - 1591) was the great master of the tea ceremony. Although he did not invent the ceremony (which had its beginnings in zen temples in the fourteenth century), he is generally credited with creating Cha-do, the way of tea. That is to say, Rikyu refined the tea ceremony into a meditative art all its own, and developed a rich tapestry of aesthetic practices and principals around it. He is largely responsible for many essential elements of Japanese aesthetic thought down to the present day.
Rikyu also had a place in history as an artist/philosopher/scholar whose patron was the great Taiko, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598) who unified Japan in the late 16th century. (the "Napoleon of Japan") This was a mixed blessing for Rikyu. It allowed him to practice his cha-no-yu and popularize his ideas through the Taiko's court, but it also meant dealing with Hideyoshi, a suspicious and high-tempered man. Eventually, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu's death. The film deals with this story fairly well, although some of the nuiances of what occured are lost. You may want to read a bit about Rikyu before seeing the film. Also, there is a European character in the story whom I am not sure existed.
Material culture-wise, this is a good portrayal. You don't actually get to see much of the tea ceremony, but what you do see is very nice. The film certainly demonstrates the fads of the day - a zest for anything European (especially on the part of Hideyoshi) and loud (read: LOUD!) clothing styles. It was an eccentric time artistically, for sure.

Japanese Runtime:115
Directed by: Hiroshi Teshigahara 

 

Samurai Assassin (1965)

++, +++ for the manga!

Japan 1965

This is the first of a series of films based on the popular manga Lone Wolf and Cub which began in the early seventies. One of the most popular manga of all time and brilliantly drawn. The plot is classic samurai vendetta saga-stuff. Ito Ogami is Kaishakunin to the Shogunate - the officer in charge of overseeing and often carrying out executions of samurai who have offended the government. He is framed by members of the infamous Yagyu clan, who lust after his position and the prestiege and power it carries. Samurai Assassin follows the first issue of the manga, detailing how the Yagyu frame Ogami and how he subsequently becomes a wandering ronin selling his deadly warrior skills as a paid assassin. Eventually, his goal is to have enough money to expose the Yagyu. The real twist on the story is that Ogami's infant son Daigoro accompanies him on his adventures! hence the alternate English title of "Baby-cart Assassin".

Mokurai says...
Ok. Ok. This is not an entry for serious study. It's just fun! I have found the "Assassin" films to be over the top, total bubble gum. (Just the thing sometimes after a long day)
The manga Lone Wolf and Cub is also bubble gum, but is done with such style, and so well written, you have to respect it. It was re-printed in America for a couple of years and you may find it in a local comic shop. I have actually found some issues to contain notes on cultural elements which are useful, or at least interesting. Some of the drawings of period objects are also handy. For example, you can find clear line-drawings of things like candle sticks, furniture, eating utensils, etc. But... it is all Edo-era, and has to be taken with a grain of salt regardless.

Directed by: Kihachi Okamoto 
Produced by: Toshiro Mifune (!) 

 

The Samurai Trilogy

+++

Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

With his closest friend, Matahachi, Takezo (the town's wild, orphan kid) leaves his village to join an army on its way to battle. After their side loses, they seek shelter in the isolated home of a widow, Oko, and her daughter, Akemi. Oko seduces Matahachi, who forgets his betrothal to the virtuous Otsu. Oko, Matahachi, and Akemi go to Kyoto, but Takezo returns to the village. Matahachi's family rejects Takezo's report and has him arrested for treason. A monk rescues him from death and sentences him to the study of the samurai code. Otsu and Takezo fall in love, and she promises to wait for him when he sets off on the road as a knight errant. He is given a new name; Miyomoto Musashi

Samurai 2: Ichijoji no ketto (1955)

After years on the road establishing his reputation as Japan's greatest fencer, Musashi returns to Kyoto. Otsu waits for him, yet he has come not for her but to challenge the leader of the region's finest school of fencing. To prove his valor and skill, he walks deliberately into ambushes set up by the school's followers. While Otsu waits, Akemi also seeks him, expressing her desires directly. Meanwhile, Musashi is observed by Sasaki Kojiro, a brilliant young fighter, confident he can dethrone Musashi. After leaving Kyoto in triumph, Musashi declares his love for Otsu, but in a way that dishonors her and shames him. Once again, he leaves alone.

Samurai 3: Ketto Ganryujima (1956)

A humble and simple Musashi abandons his life as a knight errant. He's sought as a teacher and vassal by the Shogun. He's also challenged to fight by the supremely confident and skillful Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi agrees to fight Kojiro in a year's time but rejects the Shogun's patronage, choosing instead to live on the edge of a village, raising vegetables. He's followed there by Otsu and later by Akemi, both in love with him. The year ends as Musashi assists the villagers against a band of brigands. He seeks Otsu's forgiveness and accepts her love, then sets off across the water to Ganryu Island for his final contest.

Mokurai says...
I have mixed feelings about this trilogy. First of all, it is based upon the five-part novel by Eiji Yoshikawa (19??) and I am not sure how accurate a recounting of Musashi's life the books or the film are. On the other hand, it IS Toshiro Mifune playing Miyamoto Musashi. How can you go wrong with that? Whether it is legend/drama or a historical account, it is still a good story about the greatest swordsman who ever lived. Mifune gives his usual classic performance, and I also enjoyed Hakuin and the other monks Musashi meets along the way. (personal bias) For cultural research, the films are a decent visual impression of the early Edo period. Unfortunately, this makes them not overly useful to SCA members. The views of famous buildings in Kyoto and Nara are an exception to this, as is the garb of the zen monks which changed very little of the centuries. Overall, it is a nice look at the samurai ideal of honor. But if you really want to study Miyamoto Musashi (or, more importantly, the arts of combat as he saw them), read The Book of Five Rings.

Runtime: Japan:92 Color
Also Known As:
Legend of Musashi, The (1954)
Master Swordsman (1954)
Miyamoto Musashi (1954)
Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
Samurai (1954)
Directed by: Hiroshi Inagaki 

 

 

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (1954)

++++

A village is constantly attacked by well armed bandits. One day after an attack they seek the wisdom of an elder who tells them they cannot afford weapons, but they can find men with weapons, samurai, who will fight for them, if they find samurai who are in down on their luck and wondering where their next meal will come from. They find a very experienced samurai with a good heart who agrees to recruit their party for them. He selects five genuine samurai and one who is suspect but the seven return to the village to protect it from the forty plus bandits.

Mokurai says...
What? You mean you haven't seen this movie??? Ok, I'll let it slide for now. But even if you have no interest in Japan at all, you gotta see this. It may be Kurosawa's masterpiece in a lot of ways.
The plot is essentialy as stated above and is a great story. Culturally, the premise is sound. In the 16th century, farmers were certainly easy prey for roaming bandits and often the line between bandit chief and warlord was a fuzzy one. As for ronin, there were certainly plenty of them. How willing they would have been to go defend a poor village is anyone's guess. A ronin's main job was to become un-ronin. That is, to find employment. Seven Samurai makes mention of the practice of battlefield stripping and the killing of "samurai on the run" by peasants. This was a very common practice, indeed. For material culture, this film gives a good impression of town life, farm village life and garb, etc. The primary samurai outfits we see are the hakama/kataginu uniforms of mid-rank samurai - 16th century work-a-day on-duty clothing. I'd love to see more kataginu in the SCA... Note that only the samurai are wearing hakama and kataginu. If you are a samurai persona, wearing just a kosode (kimono) is not period.
My other favorite bit in this film is the peasant-grade sake. It is milky in color. If yu want to know what it may have tasted like, try "new sake". This is the stuff Japanese use for New Years celebrations and other special occasions. It is very sweet.

Runtime: Japan:160 / Japan:203 (original release) / USA:141 / 160 (international version) B&W
Also Known As:
Seven Samurai (1954)
Seven Samurai, The (1954)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa 

 

Shogun - the mini-series (1980)

++

John Blackthorne, an English ship pilot, whose vessel wrecked upon the Japanese coast in the early 17th century is forced to deal with the two most powerful men in Japan in these days. He is thrown in the midst of a war between Toranaga and Ishido, who struggle for the title of Shogun which will give ultimate power to the one who possesses it.

Mokurai says...
Yes, I admit it. When I was about 12, this mini-series really turned on my interest in historical Japan. Anyone else out there care to give testimnoy? The novel is much better than the film, but in both cases, James Clavel changed the names to protect... himself. This is classic Hollywood/American histori-fiction "based on a true story!" stuff.
Yes, there was an Englishman who got stranded in Japan around 1601 and who became a favorite of Tokugawa Ieyasu. His name was Will Adams and the book The Needle Watcher - The Will Adams Story, British Samurai, by Richard Blaker tells his story. The plot in Shogun is pretty much a flimsy re-invention of the events leading up to the battle of Sekigahara. I am not convinced that it accurately portrays anything. Heck, at one point, they try to tell us that the entire economy of Japan depends on the Jesuit's "black ship" and it's cargo run each year. Sheeeah. Right. Themes of samurai culture are played with simplistically, such as the scene where a retainer commits seppuku because he was stupid enough to fall into the pit where the gaijin sailors are being held. Pa-leeze. Then there's the kindly old franciscan friar in the dungeon. Ugh. And let's not forget the ninja assassin who tries to kill Blakthorne. I buy the fact that there were shinobi, but this guy (complete with mysterious cult tattoo in the shape of a vajra) takes the cake. if I ever hire an assassin, he won't be a member of that outfit, I can tell you.
Ok, my apologies. On to the material culture - it is decent. I think our comrade Baron Effingham could quible about some details, but as far as I can tell, the garb is basic late 16th, early 17th century stuff - hakama and kataginu. I don't recall seeing any hitatare or other more formal wear. The ladies garb seems essentially correct, but may borrow some elements from the future - such as Edo-era hair styles. I defer to Effingham.
All in all, I'd say this series (and make sure you see the whole thing, not the cut-down 2-hour format re-release) can serve as a useful gateway drug to real samurai culture and history. But I think that's about it. If you're 12, it's great. If you are old enough to read a college-level history book, well......

Also Known As:
"James Clavell's Shogun" (1980) (mini)
Directed by: No one seems to want to admit it.

Sonny Chiba - Anything starring

minus ++++ , + if sake is added

Mokurai says...
Let me put it this way... At the end of my annual Moon-viewing party, aoprund midnight when most of the guests have gone home and a few of us are still slaying the last bottles of sake, I throw in a really bad samurai movie. The party as a whole has been tasteful and elegent with people writint poetry and sipping their sake, choyu and tea. The movie I choose to unwind with naturally has to be god-aweful and appealto people who are very tired and very inebriated. Sonny Chiba comes through every time! Talk about dreck, jeez! If you have only ever seen Sonny Chiba movies and think you know about samurai and ninja, Mokurai will be chanting a special sutra just for you!

 

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

+++

In the civil wars of 16th century Japan, two ambitious peasants want to make their fortunes. The potter Genjuro intends to sell his wares for vast profits in the local city, while his brother-in-law Tobei wishes to become a samurai. Their village is sacked by the marauding armies, but Genjuro's kiln miraculously survives, and they and their wives head for the city. However, Genjuro soon sends his wife Miyagi back home, promising to return to her soon, and Tobei, in his keenness to follow the samurai, abandons his wife Ohama. Meanwhile, a wealthy noblewoman, the Lady Wakasa, shows an interest in Genjuro's pots, and invites him to her mansion.

Mokurai says...
Another good ghost story, among other things. haven't seen this one in a while, but I think the garb and material culture was acceptible for study. More important is it's display of Japanese ethics and melodrama. We get to see how a humble bushi might gain promotion in the army. (hey, it worked for Hideyoshi...) We also get a taste for the lifestyle of the old aristocracy as represented by the ghosts. I want to say that the ghost story is based on an actual one from in-period, but don't quote me on it till I re-find it in one of my books. Certainly, stories of haunted mansions and love-lorn ghosts are common. Ugetsu has the feel of a classic "entrapment" model legend.

Runtime: Japan:94 / Sweden:97 B&W
Also Known As:
Tales of Ugetsu (1953) (USA)
Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain (1953)
Ugetsu (1953)
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi

Yojimbo (1961), also Sanjuro (1962), etc.

++

A wandering samurai enters a rural town in nineteenth century Japan. After learning from the innkeeper that the town is divided between two gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. His efforts are complicated by the arrival of the wily Unosuke, the son of one of the gangsters, who owns a revolver. Unosuke has Sanjuro beaten after he reunites an abducted woman with her husband and son, then massacres his father's opponents. During the slaughter, the samurai escapes with the help of the innkeeper; but while recuperating at a nearby temple, he learns of innkeeper's abduction by Unosuke, and returns to the town to confront him.

Mokurai says...
These are the famous "nameless samurai" films that inspired the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and several other movies. Yojimbo is the original. Sanjuro and Sanjuro meets Zatoichi are "further adventures". Really fun. Great sword choreography. Nifty characters and plots. Good humor and action.
Not Period.

Runtime: Japan:110 / USA:75 B&W
Also Known As:
Bodyguard, The (1961) (International: English title: informal literal title)
Yojimbo the Bodyguard (1962) (USA)
Yojinbo (1961) (Japan: modified Hepburn romanization)
Directed by: Kurosawa Akira