The Sword of Doom (1966)

I thought Jef Costello of Le Samouraï was the most cold-blooded killer in film but that was till I saw The Sword of Doom. A Japanese film set in the days of samurai, The Sword of Doom introduces viewers to Ryunosuke, a lone samurai. The embodiment of evil, Ryunosuke kills and rapes for something to get an advantage. Despite the masterful, choreographed sword fighting It’s hard to watch. I hoped that Toranosuke, a master who led a school for samurai, would vanquish Ryunosuke and that hope carried me through this film.

It’s no exaggeration that Ryunosuke is pure evil with no redeeming quality. He killed dozens with no remorse. He shows no chivalry whatsoever. He breaks a promise to the wife of a samurai he fights, rapes her, and her husband then divorces her. She winds up stuck living with Ryunosuke, who treats her badly, but then again that’s how a sociopath treats everyone. 

The cinematography is striking as is the choreography of the sword fighting. Even though Ryunosuke is completely loathsome, actor Tatsuya Nakadai (of The Human Condition, Yojimbo,  Sanjuro and dozens of other classics) deserves praise. 

When I lived in China, someone told me that the Chinese like the beauty of violence a lot more than Westerners do. I wonder if this is the case with The Sword of Doom. As repugnant as the hero was, I must say the film was beautiful. 

Below’s the beginning of the essay The Sword of Doom: Calligraphy in Blood by Geoffrey O’Brien. To read the whole essay, click here

Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom is likely to strike the unalerted viewer as an exercise in absurdist violence, tracking the career of a nihilistic swordsman from his gratuitous murder of a defenseless old man to his final descent into what looks like a rehearsal for global annihilation, as, in a kind of ecstasy, he slaughters a seemingly endless army of attackers both real and phantasmal. 

Geoffrey O’Brien, criterion.com

While it’s beautiful, I don’t think it’s essential to watch The Sword of Doom. I don’t recommend it for people sensitive to violence.

Le Samouraï (1967)

Icy and aloof, hitman Jef Costello enters a night club, surveys the room, smiles at the chic woman playing the piano, proceeds to the back office and shoots a man. We don’t know the reason for the hit and we never do. 

The police are called and haul Jef and some others in for questioning and a line up. Some  witnesses’ think Jef is the one and and others insist he isn’t. The piano player knows he did it, but tells the police he didn’t. Why does she do that? 

Though Jef has ice water running through his veins, a beautiful red head agrees to give him an alibi and she sticks to it. The police sense she’s lying but even when they ransack her apartment, she sticks to her story. 

Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï doesn’t feature any samurai’s. In fact, compared with Kurosawa’s or Tokuzo Tanaka’s samurai, you wonder what’s going on? Where’s his posse? Jef Costello is a loner par excellence, a ronin (i.e. a samurai without his feudal lord). Yes, up the chain Jef’s got a boss, but he has no idea who. We do. We see the big boss decide that someone needs to take Jef out. That plan goes awry because Jef’s that good. He’s unbeatable so the boss thinks maybe he is useful and should take on another contract. 

The police investigator admires Jef’s impeccable skills, but is determined to win. Yet his network of detectives can’t catch the elusive Jef. 

I haven’t seen a character this icy. He lives in near poverty in a dingy, gray apartment with a poor bird as his only companion. Even when he kisses significant other, no emotion registers. Yet he’s compelling.

Melville pares down the film to the minimum. Dialog is spare. Alan Delon, who plays Jef, took the role because when Melville pitched it to him, he realized there was no dialogue for the first 8 minutes. While it’s in color, the film mainly consists of grays, black and white. The only red is blood. 

By using the elements of silent films, Le Samouraï compels because it’s so simple, so stark.  

Monk with a Camera

The documentary Monk with a Camera chronicles the spiritual journey of Nicholas Vreeland, whose grandmother was famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Early in his life Nicky was a stylish, well-heeled, privileged boy. He became fascinated by photography in high school and after graduating college became a professional. While traveling the world he photographed the Dalai Lama and became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism. At the age of 31 Nicky went to India, knowing no Tibetan, where he joined a Tibetan monastery. 

The 2014 film recounts his life with interviews of Nicky and of his family, old photos and film of his monastery and trips around the world. Richard Here pops up a lot with commentary. He went from jet setting youth to an abbot of a Tibetan monastery. Much of the film concentrates on his effort to raise money to build a new monastery since the community had grown and was bursting at its seams. Reluctantly, Nicky decides to fund the building by selling his photos in world capitals.

I enjoyed the colorful landscapes and the beautiful photos. Nicky, his mentor and his family were insightful and kept my interest. I do wish the film delved more into the details of Tibetan Buddhism. I was left with questions about the daily life of Tibetan monks. I wondered if Nicky had any “dark nights” of the soul and if so, how’d he overcome them. Unconsciously, I guess I wanted a Buddhist Seven Story Mountain. Still I enjoyed and recommend this documentary. 

Zatoichi #1

My 2nd Zatoichi film.

No Fixed Plans

Salt of the earth, wily, dutiful, sharp, Zatoichi is a beloved character in classic Japanese film. After watching Zatoichi at Large, I learned that there are 27 films with this blind swordsman, who’s blind as the hero. I decided to start at the beginning with Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (1962).

Zatoichi arrives in a village looking for Sukegoro, a yakuza boss whose path he crossed. Before he meet with the boss, Zatoichi cleverly exploits the yakuza who are certain they can outwit this blind man, who asks if he can join their dice game. The wanderer wins a tidy sum, angering his opponents. Sukegoro is miffed when Zatoichi refuses to display his swords play to entertain the men, but the boss shrugs off the disappointment because he’s sure he can use his guest to beat his rival Shigezo’s gang and expand his own territory.

Shigezo’s top swordsman Hirate is…

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Ned Kelly (2003)

19th Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is a folk hero down under and like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been the subject of many films. Starring Heath Ledger, Ned Kelly (2003) recounts the life of this hero turned anti-hero. As a boy, Ned saved the life of a drowning boy and was honored with a green and gold sash.

Yet as his family was poor and his father was imprisoned for stealing meat and after he got out took to hard drinking before he died an early death. On top of this as a poor, immigrant family the Kelly’s were downtrodden and this shaped Ned’s worldview. He was arrested for bushranging. The film begins when Ned’s released from jail for another robbery. His views on the Law are established and harden police target his family. After a problem with the law, Kelly’s mother is arrested to smoke out Ned, the one they’re really after. This leads to the bank robberies and events which culminate in a historic shoot out. 

I’d learned of Ned Kelly on a walking tour of Melbourne. The film includes all the events which made him a folk hero — how he robbed banks and then burned all the mortgages and loans so that no one had to pay the bank back and how Ned fashioned protective armor for head and body to protect his gang and himself from police bullets. Ned certainly was clever.

Yet the film seemed to drag and lacked the wit and charisma in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the film seemed mediocre. It could do with some editing and a tighter story. The writers seemed to have been working off a check list, drowning scene, check, bank robbery with burning the mortgages with a flat-footed line from the banker, check, romantic interlude, check, etc. Ned Kelly’s certainly got a dramatic life. Perhaps one of the other biopics does a better job of portraying it. I can’t recommend this one. It’s not horrible, but there are better things to watch. 

Playtime (1967)

Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime could be a silent film, but it isn’t. There’s minimal dialogue and no meaningful conversations. The film is a critique on modern life – the sterile office space, the noisy, empty social life, and tourism that distances people from what they traveled thousands of miles to see. There’s no story. Time passes. While Tati plays his famous Mr. Hulot, Hulot’s just a bystander, another person lost in modernity. The film does have several clever gags and uses the set well. The glass office building just adds confusion to the business inside. The new nightclub opens while the adhesive for the floor tile is still drying. The hour or so in the night club is a series of catastrophes when everything from the glass entry door to the tiles, and decor break causing all kinds of trouble.

All in all, I missed a plot and developed characters. The film dragged for me, which is odd for a comedy. I suppose if you wanted to study gags, it would be worth your while to take a look, but you don’t need to watch the whole film. 

Happy Hour (2015)

A big thumbs down for me. I know I didn’t watch the whole thing, but that’s my 2¢. Life is too short for this.

No Fixed Plans

I signed up for the Japanese Embassy’s emails and got one inviting me to watch the film Happy Hour online any time between Thursday 7pm and Sunday 7pm. I figured why not. I had enjoyed their virtual showing of Little Forest, though I only watched half of it.

Happy Hour was billed as a slow-burning chronicle of four female friends who’re in their late 30s. I expected some sharing and portrayals of stale marriages, the loneliness of a career woman, and a few of the typical experiences of this stage of life. I expected a modern Ozu and hoped for more, i.e. some unexpected twists.

Friday night when I clicked on the link to the event, I was surprised to see three screens, that look like YouTube screens. I didn’t think much of it. After almost an hour of watching these four characters who were good friends, but nothing special…

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Zatoichi at Large (1972)

A surprisingly terrific film.

No Fixed Plans

Trailer for Zatoichi Criterion Set

I picked up Zatoichi at Large at random at the library. I ws in the mood for a Japanese film and was willing to branch off to something new. Thus I discovered Zatoichi, a fictional hero whose life is chronicled in a series of 26 films. This was film 25.

Zatoichi is a character that draws you in with his contrasts. Paradoxically, he’s blind, but he’s a master swordsman. He’s gruff but follows social dictums fervently. Well, often, if not all the time. He likes to gamble and consorts with prostitutes but he’s highly moral. Sometimes he’s naive, while often he’s worldly and wily. Yet I was drawn to him because he lives in a society where the deck is stacked against him and the poor and champions the underdogs.

In this chapter, the wandering masseuse Zatoichi happens upon a pregnant woman who’d been attacked…

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Masculin Féminin

In general I don’t like Jean-Luc Godard’s films, yet there’s always something in them that intrigues.

Jean-Pierre Léaud (best known for 400 Blows) plays Paul, the kind of lost guy Léaud plays. Paul is an activist, who likes to spray paint his views on Vietnam on cars and walls. He’s in search of love, but awkward and unsure as he pursues Madeleine, a cute singer he meets in a café. Madeleine is also naive and unsure about Paul or love in general. Her main interest is the release of her new record. 

The best part of Masculin Féminin is the dialog between Paul and his hooligan pal, Madeline and her friends as they answer questions about sexuality, love and the issues of the late 1960s. Godard presents these kids as the generation that embraces Coca-Cola and Marxism. 

The Criterion Collection DVD has some good supplements including two interviews — one from 1966 and the other from 2005 — with Chantal Goya, who played Madeleine. 

The film has stuck with me for its look at the innocence of young people who were experiencing a changing society and the film’s abrupt ending. I like how different it felt but also found it very unsettling. Major events aren’t shown or predictable in the least, which seemed like a bit of a con.