• The Samurai trilogy

    Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island is the last part of the so-called Samurai trilogy about accomplished artist, author, fencer, philantrophist and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi. While the first movie focused on the protagonist's challenging life as a teenager and the second film portrayed the changes he underwent in his early twenties, this movie shows how the protagonist became one of the most prestigeous samurai in Japanese history in his late twenties and beyond.

    The plot focuses on the fight between ronin Miyamoto Musashi and samurai Kojiro Sasaki who were the most skilled fighters of their time. It also shows how Miyamoto Musashi finishes his traveling and establishes a little farm with a cunning boy and impuslive horse trader who want to become his disciples. Miyamoto Musashi has become calmer, gentler and smarter as he protects local villagers against a group of bandits. The movie also explores Miyamoto Musashi's relationship to faithful but unstable Otsu and manipulative yet passionate Akemi.

    This movie is the greatest part of the trilogy because it features everything that made the first two films great but increased the overall quality of these components. The cinematography is most impressive and especially the final duel on the island is beautifully choreographed and shot. The character development is particularly strong for both side character and the protagonist who truly becomes an accomplished ronin by the end of the trilogy. The fight scenes are diversified and feature a much more intellectual note than the two previous entries. In one scene, Miyamoto Musashi scares off a group of angry gamblers by dexterously removing flies from his bowl of food with his chopsticks. The different subplots come together and the fates of the different characters are revealed until the end of the titular duel. It would have even been possible to make another movie telling how the surviving characters continued to live but this lack of proper conclusion prevents the story from overstaying its welcome and invites to purchase Yoshikawa Eiji's novel Musashi.

    On a side note, this movie indirectly promotes celibacy. Miyamoto Musashi only becomes an accomplished ronin when he renounces his love of woman even though his convictions are shown to be somewhat shaky towards the end of the movie. His decision isn't complicated to understand as both Akemi and Otsu exaggeratedly stalk the protagonist and distract him from his way of the sword on numerous occasions. Some people might describe these scenes as misogynistic but they aren't. It's actually refreshing to see a rational alternative to desperately trying to be in a relationship.

    In the end, this concluding third part is also the greatest film of the impressive Samurai trilogy that has stood the test of time as some of the greatest jigaideki movies ever made. If you like this movie, make sure to check out the impressive Zatoichi movie collection as well as Kurosawa Akira's works of the fifties and sixties.

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  • The Samurai trilogy

    Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple is the second part of the so-called Samurai trilogy by Inagaki Hiroshi about legendary historical figure Miyamoto Musashi who was a highly accomplished samurai who wasn't only a great fighter but also an intellectual philosopher and a skilled artist. This movie shows how a young ronin travels the country for enlightenment and training for several years to become an accomplished samurai.

    The main plot of the movie focuses on Miyamoto Musashi challenging a martial arts school. He also meets respectable opponent Sasaki Kojiro who he will eventually fight in the last film. His relationship with Otsu is further explored as she patiently waits for his destiny to be fulfilled.

    In comparison to the first movie, this sequel has more fight scenes that are quite dynamic, epic and tense. The movie starts with an impressive duel and ends with a fight between Miyamoto Musashi on one side and eighty martial arts school students on the other side. The film has an overall quicker pace than the first part and is thoroughly entertaining.

    All beloved characters from the first movie are back in the sequel and Mifune Toshiro's acting skills are once again quite impressive even though he seems to be acting too impulsively at times to portray a character who has undergone changes to find peace of mind. Mifune Toshiro fits the role much better in the energetic first film and accomplished third movie of the trilogy.

    The main reason why this movie is the weakest part of the trilogy is because it skips three years in the life of Miyamoto Musashi and fails to tell how the protagonist has changed. This is even more inappropriate regarding the side characters. The last time we saw the protagonist's childhood friend Matahachi, he was engaged to Otsu but had parted with beautiful Akemi and her manipulative mother Oko to protect them against bandits. Three years later, he has suddenly married Oko who is though having a romantic relationship with Toji who works for a wealthy martial arts school owner whom he expects to marry Akemi and hopes to make lots of money in the process. It's never explained how Oko and Matahachi got married, how their relationship failed and how Toji met the unstable trio.

    Despite a few plot holes and some lack of character development, it's essential to watch Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple as a link between the energetic first film and the accomplished third movie. This second part is still entertaining with its wonderful cinematography, improved fight scenes and plot filled with sinister intrigues. Don't jump on the tiring Game of Thrones bandwagon and watch this movie instead which offers similar contents with more style.

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  • The Samurai trilogy

    Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is the first part of the Samurai trilogy by director Inagaki Hiroshi featuring lead actor Mifune Toshiro based upon based the novel by Yoshikawa Eiji about the famous philospher, duelist and author of The Book of Five Rings. This movie won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

    It tells story of teenager Takezo who dreams of fame and glory in battle but fails miserably along with his unstable childhood friend Matahachi. Manipulated by beautiful Akemi and her egoistic mother Oko on an isolated farm, the two men are separated as Matahachi follows the two women and ends up marrying Oko while Takezo attempts to go back to his village where he is perceived as a criminal and rejected by distant family members. He attempts to inform Matahachi's mother Osugi and fiancee Otsu that his friend is still alive but they plot against him and Takezo ends up being a fugitive.

    The most fascinating thing about the movie is the development of the main character from careless teenage warrior Takezo to careful adult ronin Miyamoto Musashi. Mifune Toshiro plays this role very emotionally and energetically as if the character had been specifically created for him. He has often incarnated quite emotional characters and is a war veteran himself which helped him empathize with the historical figure he portrays.

    Despite a few inaccuracies in relation to the source material and actual historic events, the movie convinces with a detailed plot filled with intrigues, jealousy, love, redemption and revenge. The motives of the different characters aren't always clear and might sometimes even change which makes the movie entertaining and unpredictable. The manipulative Akemi and the unstable Otsu are memorable characters that are going to play important roles in the two sequels as well. Priest Takuan also plays an essential role and provides philosophical depth to the movie that is equally action film and period drama.

    One must also point out the movie's stunning cinematography. The movie was shot in Eastmancolor and is one of the first Japanese colour movies. This technique gives the film an epic touch and accentuates the gorgeous Japanese landscapes, villages and temples seen throughout the movie. The film manages to bring the late sixteenth and early sevententh century to life which makes it timeless despite its age.

    Even though the movie has aged very well, some elements are somehwat antiquated by today's standards. The portrayal of Japanese women in particular isn't very flattering as they are all shown as being very egoistic, manipulative and unstable. The fight sequences are choreographed with care but look somewhat stiff at times.

    Still, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto is one of the very best jidaigeki or samurai films ever made. The settings are breathtaking, the plot is intriguing and the characters are increasingly fascinating. Anyone who likes action movies, period dramas or Asian cinema in general should watch this film as well as its two sequels that tell the most important events in the life of a legendary figure.

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  • Hana-bi / Fireworks (1997)

    Fireworks is a beautifully shot philosophical drama that is both nihilistic and life-affirming at the same time.

    It tells the story of a police officer whose life takes a turn for the worse when a routine mission goes wrong, killing one of his partners, crippling another and only sparing one other police officer. The protagonist violently avenges his colleagues' fates and is then forced to retire from police work. Coping with remorse, he robs a bank to offer money to the widow of his deceased colleague and expensive materials for his suicidal crippled colleague who manages to find a new purpose in life in painting surrealistic works of art. The protagonist uses the rest of the money to pay off some yakuza loan sharks and pay for his wife's medical fees who suffers physically from leukemia and mentally from the death of their child in the past. The protagonist undertakes a trip with his wife visiting numerous monuments in Japan but he is bothered by greedy yakuza who want to steal what's left of his booty and police officers including the surviving former colleague who has figured out that it was the protagonist who robbed the bank.

    The thing I admire about this film is the beauty that can be found in darkness. The crippled police officer is abandoned by his wife and child but manages to find beauty in nature and crafts wonderful surrealistic works of art that were actually created by actor, director and writer Kitano Takeshi himself. The protagonist's wife is quiet and sad throughout most parts of the movie due to her terrible disease and the loss of her child but on their trip through Japan, she opens up, manages to smile again and shows genuine affection for her husband. The protagonist who was about to give everything up after the routine mission gone wrong finds the purpose to make people around him happier which rekindles his own will to live.

    Hana-bi beautifully mixes thoughtful dialogues, surreal imagery and appeasing landscapes on one side with gloomy flashbacks, intense action scenes and brooding tension on the other side. This combination is perfectly balanced which keeps the movie equally entertaining and profound. The closing scene must be pointed out as being quite revolting while still being slightly ambiguous. It certainly offers some food for thought and will be remembered for a very long time once you have watched it.

    Kitano Takeshi's Hana-bi is a film that will equally appeal to more sophisticated audiences who are looking for a profound drama that offers some food for thought and to fans of intense yakuza flicks that the director shot in the early stages of his directing career. FRom this point of view, Hana-bi might be the film that summarizes Kitano Takeshi's long career best. The film deserves its international acclaim as it showcases Kitano Takeshi's numerous talents without getting pretentious. The facts that the actor's own painting were used in the film and that he had been through a life-threatening experience himself just a few years before this movie was released make Hana-bi his most personal movie as well.

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  • San tai Yon ekkusu Jugatsu / Boiling Point (1990)

    Boiling Point, originally titled 3 to 4x October in reference to a baseball game shown in the movie, is the first film where Takeshi Kitano was in full charge as writer, director and actor. The movie is quite experimental as it is a mixture of a gangster film, drama and black comedy. Its style foreshadows Takeshi Kitano's later successful movies like Fireworks.

    The movie tells the story of Masahiko Ono, a young man with an unspectacular life who is considered the worst player of his terrible baseball team, has a boring job as gas station attendant and has never got on a date with a woman. One day, he confronts a rude yakuza who intimidates him at the gas station. The young man's life goes through dramatic changes from then on. With growing self-confidence, he starts dating a charming waitress of a local restaurant, becomes a better baseball player and gets in touch with members of the underworld. However, the confrontation with the criminal also has drastic consequences as Masahiko Ono's friend and mentor gets beaten up when he tries to solve the conflict between the gas station attendant and the organization. Masahiko Ono decides to take revenge and travels to Okinawa with a friend where they get in touch with a pitiless criminal and his associates to purchase weapons.

    On the negative side, the movie has a dragging pace and especially the long baseball sequences are quite unspectacular. The first ten minutes of the movie actually show an amateur baseball game. Other directors would have shown a few scenes consisting of one or two minutes in total but Takeshi Kitano takes his time to plunge us into the protagonist's boring life. The movie is also confusedly meandering between its numerous genres. Some scenes have a gloomily dramatic tone but suddenly turn into gritty violence only to switch to black humour dealing with debatable taboo topics like sexual abuse. It doesn't help that it's hard to empathize with the protagonist who is often shown as being quiet, emotionless an dim-witted. Takeshi Kitano himself only appears halfway through the movie and leaves before the final showdown as he only portrays a side character.

    On the positive side, the film had a consistent gloomy mood from start to finish, even in its more humorus parts because they always had somewhat tough undertones. Some of the characters are quite memorable such as the rude and tough barman, former yakuza and protaginist's friend played by Taka Guadalcanal. Takeshi Kitano portrays a pitiless gangster with unpredictable fits of anger who regularly hits his girlfriend and even rapes his best friend. The entire movie is filled with anti-heroes who have failed to find their way in life. The film has quite a few iconic scenes. The movie's showdown is unexpectedly radical. There is an awkward brawl in a bar when people fight each other while dancing, singing and having dinner. My favourite scene is when the tough barman insults a female customer who complains about the smelly restrooms and invites her to go pee outside and take her friends with her.

    In the end, Boiling Point is an odd movie with almost as many weaknesses as strengths. It's an acquired taste and certainly unlike any movie you have ever watched. Even by Takeshi Kitano's eclectic standards, Boiling Point stands out as a particularly experimental film. Perhaps this film will grow on me but its weirdness makes it hard to digest. Beyond its awkwardness, the movie still has some depth as the intriguing conclusion leaves room for interpretation. If you like experimental Japanese cinema and don't mind swear words, brutal fights and abusive behaviour, you should give this film a try.

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