After much delay and winter illness, here's the coverage of my top three picks in the samurai cinema genre. It makes sense to group them as their relative rankings to one another can vary on my mood, the phase of the moon, and… well, you get it. So, drumroll if you please…
This may be the most fun film in my whole countdown. Kill!, directed by Kihachi Okamoto and starring genre staple Tatsuya Nakadai, is a dark comedy set in the Edo period. It's sourced from the same story that served as the foundation for Kurosawa's "Sanjuro", but the two films only have a vague resemblance.
Kill!'s main characters are a samurai who is trying to be walk away from his position and live a normal life and a peasant who desperately wants to become a samurai. Though their lives are taking them in different directions they find a common cause when they get caught up in a clan's deadly vendetta… and hilarity ensues, though in a dry, understated way.
This is the film that finally made me understand Nakadai's status as a genre legend. He plays a very different character from most of his other roles, which are often brooding and arrogant. Here he's wonderfully likeable and easy going – almost to a fault. In the long run I think this may be the piece of Samurai cinema that I revisit the most.
I'm now in that territory of films that need little to no introduction. Another dark comedy, "Yojimbo" (Japanese for "bodyguard") is a Kurosawa masterpiece that introduces Toshiro Mifune's nameless samurai. This films plot and setting was pretty much swiped wholesale by Sergio Leone as "A Fistful of Dollars", launching that director's "man with no name" saga. But it's not too surprising as the film is a sort of homage by Kurosawa to the Western film genre.
Mifune's character from this film is just as iconic as Eastwood's in Leone's epic. The character went on to have three more film adventures, though only one more would be done by Kurosawa: "Sanjuro" (Japanese for thirty-something male).
THE SEVEN SAMURAI
Aw, c'mon, you knew it was coming. This is not only this the king of the genre, but it's one of my top five films of all time in all genres. Like "Yojimbo", the story drew the attention of Western film makers who adapted the story to make the successful "The Magnificent Seven", but I feel this original is vastly superior to the American work on nearly every level.
It's a simple story: a bandit-plagued peasant village wants to hire some samurai to protect their town. The group is assembled, the town is fortified, all leading to the big climactic battle scene. But the texture of the story – the characters, the fine personal details, the cinematography and more…. it's just got everything! It's a perfectly rounded cinematic meal.
Words really fail me in capturing what makes the film so special, so I hope you'll just dive in and give it a view, if you haven't already. The fact that such a simple plot can clock in at 207 minutes and be engaging the whole way should tell you something.
Thanks for following… or tolerating my countdown. Next blog will return to my usual random outburst of subject matter and observations.