Friday, 29 October 2010

Sakurada Mongai no Hen - The Sakurada Gate Incident

This is a very different film from the 13 Assassins - as the title might indicate, although it sounds more impressive in Japanese, and it too involves an attack on an unpopular feudal lord by a bunch of political dissidents.

This time, however, it based on a real event and its aftermath - the assassination of the minister (Tairo) Ii Naosuke, in 1860, in which the action plays a relatively small but important role. More realistic than 13 Assassins, I have to say that it was not nearly so exciting. Perhaps not surprisingly, as it is a drama, rather than 'chanbara'. It is the story of hopes and subsequent disillusionment as the 'great act' proves to have far less impact than was hoped, and the plotters gradually see their plans fall apart, promises broken and treachery from their friends as the government closes in on them. As with other films that have portrayed the incident, the overall mood is far from positive, which contrasts quite strongly with those that deal with other themes from roughly the same period such as the Shinsengumi or Saigo Takamori.

Although this sounds like a recipe for for an interesting film, I can't whole-heartedly say that it was. Part of the trouble is that the story didn't really hold together in a single narrative - it seemed like a series of vignettes, arranged roughly chronologically with terse and possibly meaningful dialogue vaguely related to the narrative stream. Transitions were handled with narration and on-screen text that proved a bit of a challenge to my Japanese (one of the problems with historical dramas, even if your Japanese is at a reasonable level) - and many of the character were likewise introduced by on-screen text. With subtitles, it would be considerably easier to follow, but even so, not an easy film to watch.

It was good on portraying the stultifying and dangerous atmosphere of the times - the set dressing was, once again, very accurate, and the fight scenes, especially the attack on the palanquin, gave an exceptionally clear impression of how bloody, brutal and downright dangerous sword combat can be. This is another movie with a large amount of blood letting - justified, but not for the weak of stomach.

Strangely, although I caught myself yawning once or twice, it has stayed with me more strongly than 13 Assassins - there is definitely something here that is worth seeing, but I hesitate to recommend it unless you are a die hard fan of this kind of thing. If 13 Assassins was a kind of Seven Samurai, this is far closer to something like Mizoguchi's Chushingura.

Lastly, for sword buffs, an added point of interest is that the main character, Seki Tetsunosuke, (and at least one of the minor ones) studied Kashima Shin Ryu kenjutsu under Kunii Ky├╗uemon. And you get to see him in a duel, too.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

13 Assassins

Well, I saw Takashi Miike's Jusan-nin no Shikaku, or '13 Assassins' which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and found it very rewarding. I would thoroughly recommend it, but also note that it is not for those who don't like violence.

A good cast, with some very well-known Japanese actors, and visually very impressive, not only in the action sequences, but also in the rich and authentic interiors and the lush countryside. Taking a leaf out of Kurosawa's book, there is plenty of rain and mud, but unlike him, blood, too. The atmosphere is established in the opening scenes and remains brooding and heavy throughout - though not without some light relief which is deftly handled, and which never slips into the realm of comedy that some directors seem unable to resist.

I glanced through some of the reviews in the western press (from the Venice film Festival etc), and although it was widely praised, I think the reviewers either did not see the full version, or have become inured to graphic and disturbing violence.

And the violence was, or at least should have been, disturbing - not the fights, which were plentiful and violent, of course, but the casual cruelty of the villainous lord (played by Goro of Smap - and a nice job he did, too). Japanese censors (and audiences) have always been more tolerant of graphic violence in films, and this is a good example. I don't expect it to pass the British or American censors without some serious cuts, and I would certainly not recommend it to anyone who is upset by violence. But at the same time, I wouldn't call the violence gratuitous, but it certainly is graphic. Japanese auteurs are fond of saying that this graphic depiction of violence is meant to bring home its horror, rather than glorify it. In this case it may succeed, especially in establishing the sadism and borderline sanity of the lord who becomes the object of the assassination attempt.

For anyone interested in swordsmanship, the battle scenes will probably be a treat. The swordplay is much better than in the original version (from what I remember) and there is plenty of it. This film keeps within the bounds of the possible, while fully playing up the heroics of the band of assassins. The battle is certainly long enough for most people's tastes - 50 minutes or so, but thoroughly enjoyable, if one can say that about so much blood, pain, madness and death.

In short, it may become a new classic of the genre - and I'm sure it would, if not for the violence. Certainly a more rewarding experience than The Last Samurai, and more action based than Tasogare Seibei etc. - go and see it if you have the chance.

And tomorrow I'm off to see Sakurada Mongai no Hen...!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Unconventional Strategy

I first read about this ploy in Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress", but recently came across an account of it being used in reality rather than fiction.

The fictional account concerns Mouse, Eazy Rawlins' psychopathic friend (and an excellent character in his own right) and his killing of his step-brother, Navrochet. Figuring that he had come in the bar looking to kill him, Mouse had taken note of Navrochet's expensive boots and already opened his fly. When he was taken outside, and a gun put against his head, he played scared and then urinated on his step-brother's boots. Not surprisingly, but unwisely, Navrochet jumped back and was dead before he hit the ground, bullets courtesy of Mouse.

I came across the real-life incident in the memoirs of Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University, and whose face graces the 10,000 yen bill. Not a fighter himself, one of his colleagues in the early days of the Meiji Restoration, Wada Yoshiro, was an expert in jujitsu, and well able to take on several men by himself. Like Fukuzawa, he thought wearing swords in those 'modern' times was outdated. One night, walking home with a group of friends, their way was blocked by a band of local toughs wearing swords and swaggering along the street towards them. Wada strode along the middle of the street towards them, starting to piss as he walked along. Although the situation was tense, the toughs moved out of his way and trouble was averted.

Portrait of Fukuzawa Yukichi by Matsumaro Kikutaro Keio Daigaku

Monday, 18 October 2010

What Plot is This?

It is harvest time in Kyoto now - the views of the fields have probably changed little for hundreds of years. One of the most characteristic sights are the higanbana (higan refers to the Autumn equinox; hana/bana is flower - spiderlily in English) which sprout up overnight by the sides of the fields from early September onwards.

This is a poem I translated several years ago, working with the author, Melvin Wong, to translate a rather thick volume of his work. I was pleased to have the opportunity to work with him on these evocative poems - this is one I particularly liked for its mix of the real and the fantastic - it seems a throwback to some dark happening in the past. Although they were never published, I still rather like them.

Rice Field
The autumn light unhesitatingly
Switched the waving rice
From the green of summer to its own yellow-brown.
With the turn of seasons,
Nothing is forgotten, it seems.
Like roaring flames come the red flowers.
The fresh blood of jealousy erupts
From the multitude of buried dead.
What kind of plot is this?
In a single night
In all the fields around,
The rice,
Before its day of execution,
Is bent before the violence of the coming storm
Blowing ever more strongly.
At the end of the day - no harvesting
And fear increasing all the more -
An eerie sunset

Melvin Wong (Chris Hellman Trans.)

Photo courtesy of Japundit Blog

Monday, 11 October 2010

Swords on the Screen

There are a couple of interesting looking movies out this month. Both of them are somewhat similar in theme, but very different in treatment. The first is Jusan-nin no Shikaku (13 Assassins). It is a remake of Kudo Eiichi 's 1963 film staring Kataoka Chiezo. The original was great for atmosphere, but a bit disappointing in the sword wielding department. This becomes more understandable if you look more closely at his background - he was a rebel who, together with a number of other directors of the time, sought to criticize the samurai culture, using it as a mirror for their own rebellious times. (See Kudo Eiichi for more details.) And so the action is unglamorous and chaotic. Miike Takashi, who directs the new version, is known for the extreme violence in his movies - it seems this will be extreme action at least, but I don't expect much of a sub-text.

The story concerns the thoroughly vile Lord Matsudaira who is given to rape and murder, and effectively stands above the law, as the brother of the shogun. A small group of upstanding samurai decide that something must be done, and decide to assassinate him on his way back from Edo. They convert a vilage on the route into a death-trap and the battle begins. The subtitle for the new version is something like '13 against 300' - it seems that the last hour or so is given over to the ambush. Sounds like fun.

The second offering is a bit more serious and based on a historical incident: Sakurada Mongai no Hen (The Sakurada Gate Incident) of 1860, but it also involves the way-laying and assassination of a high ranking lord, the dictatorial official, Ii Naosuke. It centres on the participants, rather than the action itself, and looks to be a more thoughtful piece of film-making than '13 Assassins'. It is based on the novel by Yoshimura Akira, a well-known writer with a somewhat grim but insightful style. It definitely seems worth seeing.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Zen again - what a pickle

The subject of Zen and the sword is a perennial chestnut. The 'traditional' view that kendo is a kind of 'zen in motion' seems to have gained great popularity both from D.T. Suzuki's "Zen in Japanese Culture" and from Donn Draeger's writings. It seems to have been quite popular amongst Japanese adherents of kendo during the pre-war and post-war periods, and for all I know still is, and various non-practitioners writing about the martial arts seem to have continued this trend, basically following the same sources.

More recently, writers who have some experience in the bugei have countered this early misconception by pointing out a range of other 'spiritual' (for want of a better word) influences on swordsmanship and related arts. In particular, I am thinking of Karl Friday, Cameron Hurst, "The Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan" edited by Diane Skoss, and probably other worthy volumes that I can't recall just at the moment.

Zen still has a strong hold on the regular martial artist's imagination, if the prevalence of the topic on various discussion forums is anything to go by. And, I must admit, there are a few well-known examples of swordsmen who did have a strong connection with Zen (though whether it was an integral part of their swordsmanship or merely(?) their chosen spiritual discipline, and thus part of their life, is a moot question).

For the promulgators of Zen, any connection will do, particularly the use of 'Zen' terminology. While those unfamiliar with Japanese culture might assume the strength of the connection, anyone who has delved a little deeper will be aware that such terminology was not the sole prerogative of any one group, but was used because it could be used to described certain phenomena for which no better terms existed. Similarly, if we talk about someone being egotistical, it doesn't mean that we are committed Freudians. (I recommend Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" for more on how much of our language and ideas are based on philosophies we don't really understand...but this is getting off-track...).

An example of this is Suzuki's discussion of the work Fushikihen, which roughly translates as "On the Unknown/Ignorance (in Swordsmanship)" written by one Kimura Kyuhou in the 18th century. Suzuki includes a short extract from his work in his discussion of Zen in swordsmanship, using Kyuhou as an example of a Zen swordsman. A closer examination of the writing reveals that though he uses some Zen terms such as mushin, and 'drinking the waters of the West River', he also refers to Confucius and Laozi on several occasions, and specifically refers to another work on swordsmanship that refutes the idea of meditation as useful for developing skill in the sword. In fact, the work is mostly Neo-Confucian in vein. (For a full translation see my (quick plug) "The Samurai Mind" to be published in March 2011)

So where does this idea come from? One of the reasons is undoubtedly Takuan. The friendship of this Zen abbot with Yagyu Munenori is well-known, not least through the letters he wrote to him. These have generally been mediated (perhaps primarily, but certainly not exclusively, by Suzuki) as Takuan teaching Munenori the deeper aspects of swordsmanship through his deep knowledge of Zen. There is, of course, something faintly(?) ridiculous about this, but it seems largely to have gone unquestioned.

For a more considered approach, try "Zen and the Creative Process:
The "Kendo-Zen" Thought of the Rinzai Master Takuan" by Dennis Lishka.
(sorry for the long link)
His take is that Takuan is explaining Zen in terms that his audience will understand, rather than explaining swordsmanship in terms of Zen - isn't that more reasonable?