Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cinemawesomeness 101: Samurai Flicks

I've spent the last few days taking in what the Asian Film Festival of Dallas had to offer. (A Korean version of Hansel and Gretel, documentaries like Kimjongilia and The Jack Soo Story, K-20: Legend of the Mask, anime and so much more that I didn't get to see.) In the two weeks before that I watched three samurai movies from the 50s and 60s. I think I may be on a kick. So, it occured to me: what better way to throw my lovely readers into the vast world of foreign film than with the ancient art of butt kicking?

Try to forget about what Hollywood has taught you. Forget CGI. Forget what American studios were doing in the 50s and what they do now. Enjoy the culture. Let these Japanese directors teach you about their history, about honor, love and art the way they see it.

One thing to keep in mind is the formality of the Japanese language. Because the translation is not so direct, you may read a subtitle and think it sounds strange. It may take a few lines before you get a real feel for what's going on, and sometimes your brain has to work a little harder to fill in the blanks. This can also make the acting come across as overly dramatic, awkward or cheesy at times. Don't let it turn you off right away. Once you get used to it, you really fall in love with the beautiful, honest way that Japanese actors express themselves. Or at least I did.

Open up your Netflix queue and let me blow your mind.

1. Harakiri (Kobayashi, 1962)
About the ritual public suicide of the down-and-out samurai. Also an extremely vocal piece of political commentary. I start at such an intense place because I think that the humanity (or lack thereof) shows the viewer how connected we are as a species, even coming from such vastly different worlds.
2. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954)
I finally saw this after wanting to for so long and wonder how I ever talked about film before. It's really long, yes, but just do it. It defines the genre and pioneered the epics that you see today. Genuinely entertaining and incredibly moving. It's an epic tale of battle but pay attention to the details, they are, in my opinion, where Kurosawa stands out.
3. Sword of Doom (Okamoto, 1966)
If you're a brave soul, go for this dark, disturbing masterpiece. I am not so brave but I do love gnarly sword fights, so I was sold. A bit of a convoluted plot but complex, intense, haunting and merciless, nontheless.
4. The Twilight Samurai (Yamada, 2002)
There aren't many true samurai films made in recent years but this counts. Perhaps easier to relate to and more inviting than some of the older samurai films, it's a story of love and honor on a more intimate level. Heartbreaking and warming, lovely to look at.
5. Kill! (Okamoto, 1968)
I hesitate to repeat a director when there are many to choose from but this is a different take on the genre, which I think is important. It's an early dark comedy, more loose and forgiving. I read that fans of westerns might like it and I can see that. Entertaining without such intensity. Oddly funny.
Okay, that was really difficult. I narrowed it down to just true Japanese samurai films and kept it to 5 so as not to overwhelm. It was hard to leave out Rashomon, Ran, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and others but I wanted to give some variety. If you get hooked, there are so many more out there to choose from.

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