Turning Japanese (I Really Think So)

An Appreciation of Films from the Land of the Rising Sun

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews,   From Issue 728   By: Mark Leffler

30th June, 2011     1

It would take more space than this print edition of Review Magazine allows this humble scribe to list the wrong, dumb and idiotic ideas of Sarah Palin. But she is right about one thing for certain: There is such a thing as American exceptionalism, and one of the evidences of that fact is the greatness of the American Western Film. 

Due primarily to the fine work of John Wayne and directors like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill, America exported to the world the myth of the Cowboy Hero beginning with films like Stagecoach (1939)and reinforced by classics like The Searchers (1956), The Wild Bunch (1969)and The Magnificent Seven  (1960).

What many American film buffs may not know is that some of our greatest Westerns are remakes of classic Japanese films from the Fifties and Sixties.

Magnificent directors like the legendary Akira Kurosawa created iconic classics such as Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Rashamon. His film The Hidden Forest influenced a young George Lucas as he was developing the first Star Wars movies. And The Magnificent Seven is an almost scene-by-scene remake of Kurosawa’s great epic tale The Seven Samurai.

During the Sixties and Seventies foreign movie lovers had to be fortunate enough to live near large cities such as New York or San Francisco to enjoy these great films from the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Eighties and Nineties brought the videocassette recorder and later the DVD player, allowing movie buffs to enjoy Asian films if their local rental chain like Blockbuster or Family Video carried a wide selection of classics from around the world.

Today, Netflix and to a lesser degree HULU are allowing a new generation of cinephiles to see these great and influential films either through rentals or by streaming them through a gaming system like Nintendo or Sony PlayStation or via the relatively new Roku player or a home computer.
Recent innovations like the Roku player now allow viewers to watch these great films on larger screen TVs or fifty inch plasmas, almost duplicating the experience of going to the movies to see them on the big screen.

My own fascination with films from the Far East began as a child watching the first crossover martial arts actor to be seen on American television, Bruce Lee. Lee starred as Kato in The Green Hornet, a spinoff of the popular camp comic book series Batman.  Unlike Batman, The Green Hornet played it straight, and Lee was so charismatic and athletic with his displays of “gung fu” that he paved the way for the martial arts film boom of the early Seventies.

Sadly, he died due to brain swelling as a reaction to a common pain reliever before his film Enter the Dragon was released, an event that would certainly have made him an international film star on a par with the actors from the James Bond series.

Tragic as that loss was, his few films influenced directors like Quentin Tarantino and prepared American audiences for the almost Charlie Chaplin-like antics of Jackie Chan and now the popularity of Netflix has made it possible for Western audiences to enjoy some of the great Japanese movies that influenced American directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Here are just a few films to check out via Netflix as rentals or free streaming movies:

The Seven Samurai  (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954) is a good place to start for film lovers unfamiliar with Japanese cinema. Acknowledged as one of the greatest and most influential Japanese films ever made, it was remade as the epic American Western The Magnificent Seven and is the model for the genre of film where a team of heroes are gathered to serve a noble cause. The legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune has a relatively small but vital role in this film, which portrays the attempt by a group of ronin (masterless samurai) to defend a small village of farmers from bandits.

Yojimbo (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1961 aka The Bodyguard) was loosely adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest. Kurosawa favorite Mifune again stars, this time as a ronin who wanders into a village that is torn between two rival gangster families. This film was remade twice for Western audiences: first by Italian director Sergio Leone as Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring a young Clint Eastwood as part of the so-called Spaghetti Westerns (American Western genre movies shot in Italy)  and later by American director Walter Hill in 1996 as Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis with the story set in the Prohibition era.

Sanjuro  ( dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1962)came out a year later, also starring Mifune portraying basically the same seemingly opportunistic but actually very moral ronin who leads a small group of samurai to rescue a local chamberlain from bandits out to seize power.
It would take a much longer article than this to list all the great Kurosawa films, many starring Mifune, but even a brief list should include such great films as The Hidden Fortress(1958), Rashomon (1950), Ran (1985), High and Low (1963), Drunken Angel ( 1948), Stray Dog (1949) Kagemusha (1980), and Throne of Blood (1967, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

Ikiru (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1952) Kurosawa’s most popular modern film features Takashi Shimura, who would later star in The Seven Samurai, as a Tokyo bureaucrat who is diagnosed with cancer, leading him to reexamine his life and dedicate his waning energies and final months to one final life affirming gesture. Sort of It’s A Wonderful Life for the postwar Japanese population. It won loads of awards.

Samurai Rebellion (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1967) Most samurai films celebrate the bravery, martial skills and bushido (warrior) code, but this film by Japan’s most acerbic social critic takes aim at the often selfish and brutal social order of the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s declining years. Mifune portrays the head of a family that resists the orders of his lord out of his love for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Tragic, but heroic and uplifting too.

Harakiri (released in Japan as Seppuku, dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) Once again Kobayashi takes aim at the samurai code, in this case telling the heart wrenching tale of a samurai who is forced to seek revenge on a clan that has committed an unspeakable crime against his family. Starring Japan’s second greatest actor, Tatsuya Nakadai.

The Wolves ( dir. Hideo Gosha, 1972)  A fine example of the yakuza genre of Japanese films, Nakadai appears as a member of a crime family that is forced into an uneasy truce following his release from prison. Like many Japanese films, the tension builds to a boiling point, focuses on injustice, and in the end erupts into a bloodbath of revenge and retribution.

The Sword of Doom (dir. Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)  An interesting meditation on the morality of the samurai ethic starring Nakadai in the lead role of an increasingly deranged ronin who enjoys killing and Mifune appears in a smaller role as a swordsman who only kills as a last result. Mifune’s cameo role is spellbinding and thrilling, but the film is mostly remembered for the orgy of violence at the film’s end where Nakadai’s character, Syunosuke Tatsue loses his temper and his sanity in a teahouse.

My friend, National Lampoon veteran and Animal House co-author Chris Miller is an aficionado of Japanese film and he remembers screening The Sword of Doom for the first time for his son, Jack. Jack told him that at the end of the movie it appears that Nakadai is killing half the population of Japan. And that’s about what it looks like.

The Zatoichi films and TV series:  This tremendously popular series of movies and TV shows ran from 1962 to 1989, starred Shintaro Katsu and were set in the Edo period when the Shogun decided to prevent the blind from resorting to begging by training them as masseurs. Zatoichi, or “Ichi” as he is known, travels from town to town, much like Kwai Chang Cain in the American TV series Kung Fu. A peaceful and humorous fellow, Ichi seems to always find himself in the middle of some violent quarrel or gangster enterprise which forces him to unleash his sword, concealed in his walking stick. Many of these films are available for free on HULU.com.


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Annie Midcalf

Well done Mark!

January 18, 2018     10:01 PM


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