The flashing steel, flowing kimonos and falling cherry blossoms of samurai films are as familiar to Asian audiences as rolling tumbleweeds and clicking spurs once were to Western moviegoers. In Japan, the period pictures known as jidai geki remain venerable. And although they may never again dominate the American big screen as they did in the 60s, samurai films are still popular in the United States.
Fortunately, the Detroit Film Theatre is offering a primer on that magnificent cinematic period this weekend, Samurai Madness a weekend festival featuring four classics by a couple of directors not often heralded in the West. The weekend also showcases actor Tatsuya Nakadais remarkable skills. As one of the genres greatest performers, Nakadai displays his considerable range in all four featured films.
Internationally, Nakadai was in the shadow of the legendary Toshiro Mifune, often serving as his onscreen opponent in such classics as Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). But in Japan, his pre-eminence was never in doubt. Blessed with unimposing good looks and a stage actors versatility, Nakadai became an immortal of the Japanese screen, as well as a favorite of many great directors in that country, where hes still a star today. His dexterity with a blade is matched by his flexibility as an actor. With his low, rumbling baritone and huge, glittering eyes, he seems especially well equipped to portray deeply conflicted warriors.
Though it was Mifunes scruffy, wild-eyed performances that John Belushi channeled for laughs in the Saturday Night Live skit Samurai Deli, it was Nakadais icy, remorseless killer in the 1965 film Sword of Doom, directed by Kihachi Okamoto, that provided a more likely prototype for the stoic gunslingers Clint Eastwood made famous.
As the ruthlessly driven swordsman Ryunosuke, Nakadai is haunted and chilling, facing his opponents in a self-destructive plunge into darkness. A series of grudges and duels spirals into an existential tumble, and he kills not just to hone his skills but to punish those who believe in anything but themselves. By the time Mifune appears as a sturdy teacher to warn him that the sword is the soul ... evil mind, evil sword, its too late. Director Okamoto renders these duels with razor-sharp edits and sleek camera work unassailably cool even 40 years later.
For all of Swords brutality, there is surprising tenderness at the heart of Masaki Kobayashis Harakiri (1962), a devastating critique of class-structure cruelty. A sudden outbreak of peace in the 17th century has left thousands of samurai out of work and wandering destitute. One such unfortunate soul is Motome (Akira Ishihama), who finds work at a prosperous estate, which leads him to a ritual suicide with a bamboo sword after hocking his real blade. When his father-in-law Hanshiro (Nakadai again), a retired samurai, appears before the clan elders, honor and duty are questioned. As his family unit crumbles and his options fade, Hanshiro tells his story of gradual decline and helplessness as the dispassionate officials listen apathetically. Ultimately, Harakiri explodes into a marvelously orchestrated and visually rich conclusion, but most of the film remains as controlled and rigid as the social structures it lashes out against. Its a tragedy of false vanity, a masterpiece that captures the moment when a man realizes too late that the loss of dignity is nothing compared to the safety of his family.
A similar dilemma is at the core of Kobayashis Samurai Rebellion (1967), a more conventional but equally powerful story of revenge. Mifune plays the lead role, aging fighter Isaburo, who is reduced to a henpecked house husband resigned to boredom. When the leader of his clan forces his former mistress, Ichi, to marry Isaburos eldest son, the family resists the obligation, fearing she will be troublesome. But, surprisingly, love blooms for the young couple, inspiring Isaburo and providing him with a beloved granddaughter. When the clan lord demands Ichi return to raise his heir, father and son rise against the injustice, knowing full well that they cannot win.
After so much high drama and sweeping tragedy, the Monday night screening of Okamotos Kill! (1968) seems almost like an after-dinner mint. Its a breezy, semi-parody that giddily bats around genre stereotypes and conventions while serving as a rousing action piece.
The formidable Nakadai is nearly unrecognizable this time as the rakish Genta, who is as wild and irreverent as his other characters are contained. Ordered to kill a friend, he turns his back on his old life, becoming a wandering vagabond more inclined to use his wits than his sword. He hooks up with a pair of aspiring samurai, including a farmer who gets turned on by geisha with dirty feet, and involves them in a plot to play two warring factions against each other.
Though the themes of these films may feel uniquely Japanese, with so much focus on honor and status, there is no disputing the universal human passions underneath, or the simple fact that coolness crosses all borders.
Samurai Rebellion at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 9; Harakiri at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10; Sword of Doom at 5 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 11 and Kill! at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 12, at Detroit Film Theatre (inside the Institue of Arts).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].