Tag Archives: Samurai

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hideaki Itô, Yūsuke Iseya, Kōichi Satō, Kaori Momoi, Yoshino Kimura, Masanobu Andô,

PLOT: A nameless gunman rides into a town where two rival gangs of samurai scheme to find and seize a hidden cache of gold.

Still from Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

COMMENTS: A hawk grabs a snake in its talons and flies off into a painted sunset. A man wrapped in a Navajo blanket (Quentin Tarantino) rolls onto his back, shoots the bird out of the sky, catches the snake as it falls, and in one swift motion uses a knife to slit the body and remove a bloody egg from the serpent’s neck. While he’s absorbed in that operation, three Japanese gunslingers get the drop on him. Tarantino, using a fake Western accent, then describes a rivalry between the red Heike and the white Genji clans, as he slips into an even weirder take on a cowpoke with a southern drawl mimicking a Japanese accent. Not surprisingly, the nameless man turns the tables on the three interlopers and kills them all, without breaking the egg.

This opening suggests a level of stylized surrealism that Sukiyaki Western Django doesn’t quite maintain. Tarantino’s character is not the non sequitur narrator he initially appears to be, and the rest of the movie generally takes a more straightforward tone. Essentially, it’s a series of spaghetti Western archetypes, clichés, and homages—a Man with No Name, a hidden cache of treasure, a weapon stashed in a coffin—wrapped in a gimmick: the action all takes place in a mythical version of feudal Japan where desperadoes pack both six-shooters and katanas. In the strangest directorial decision, the Japanese cast delivers their cowboy dialogue (“you gonna come at me… or whistle ‘Dixie’?”) entirely in heavily accented English (learned phonetically, in most cases).  Because the actors’ English pronunciation ranges from passable to difficult to understand to nearly incomprehensible, this odd, distancing choice will be an insurmountable barrier for some.

If you can clear the dialogue bar, the rest of Sukiyaki‘s recipe will be familiar to Miike fans: fast-paced action, absurd comic violence, heavy doses of morphing style, and throwaway bits of surrealism. Holes are blown through torsos, through which crossbow bolts are then fired; bright flashback scenes are graded toward the extreme yellow and green ends of the spectrum; babies are found curled up in hybridized roses. We also learn that, in old West saloons, samurai were fond of interpretive dance performances scored to didgeridoos. All this nonsense leads to a heart-pounding, if hackneyed, finale that proves the old maxim that the more important a character is to the plot, the more bullets they can take without dying. After the gunsmoke clears from the village-sized battlefield, a silly closing epilogue will make Spaghetti Western fans groan.

Tarantino’s involvement in Sukiyaki is a testament to the mutual admiration between he and Miike, and it’s noteworthy that his role here comes five years before his own revisionist take on Spaghetti Westerns in 2012’s Django Unchained. As for Miike, in some ways Sukiyaki marks the beginning of the winding down of his weird movie period; his next major work seen in the West was the excellent but entirely realistic Thirteen Assassins (2010), and since 2015 has been spending more time on Japanese television series aimed at elementary school girls than on making weird cinema.

In 2020, MVD visual released Sukiyaki Western Django on Blu-ray for the first time (in the North American market). All of the extras—a 50-minute “making of” featurette, six minutes of deleted scenes, and a series of clips and promos—are also found on the 2008 DVD. The one thing that makes this release special is the inclusion of the extended cut that played at the Venice Film Festival and in Japanese theaters. The box cover claims this extended cut is 159:57 minutes long—a typo for 1:59:57, as the cut clocks in at almost exactly two hours. There are no significant differences between the two versions; Miike simply snipped away insignificant bits from many once-longer scenes, resulting in a shorter, faster-paced, and improved film. (A detalied list of the differences can be found at the always-excellent movie-censorship.com).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly deranged homage to westerns all’italia… dialogue is delivered in phonetic English so weirdly cadenced that self-conciously cliched lines like ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ approach surreal poetry.”–Maitland McDonagh, TV Guide

CAPSULE: SAMURAI RAUNI REPOSAARELAINEN (2016)

Weirdest!

AKA Samurai Rauni

DIRECTED BY: Mika Rättö

FEATURING: Mika Rättö, Reetta Turtiainen

PLOT: Rauni, a homicidal Finnish samurai, searches for the mysterious “Shame Tear,” who has placed a price on his head.

Still from Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This deliberate cult item, with Nordic ninjas and Scandinavian samurai, plays like a low-grade acid trip and raises its artistic sights in the mystical and mystifying final act, but ultimately it’s more Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. than El Topo.

COMMENTS: As much a cross between and  as it is between Finnish and Japanese culture, Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen is a messy would-be cult item that may be too off-putting in its mishmash of tones and its despicable anti-hero for all but the most adventurous audiences. Rauni the Finnish samurai is a scraggly, drunken rapist with bad teeth, clad in a fisherman’s wool sweater and a “Popeye the Sailor” cap. He’s a dick who terrorizes the locals of Meri-Pori, a frozen marsh overlooked by a coal plant and wind turbines, during his drunken rampages, but he’s also a magical fighter who decapitates ninja assassins with a blade of grass. This makes him a problem with no easy solution; thus, a mysterious enemy puts a price on his head.

The inhabitants of the movie’s insular Nipponophilic world randomly wear white pancake makeup like geishas or noh actors, and/or have bizarre accoutrements like a wire-frame headdress draped with a strand of pearls, suggesting the costume designer was either a Finnish thrift store genius or a deranged drunk the crew found wandering in a junkyard. One character is spray-painted gold. The costumes and sets have a punkish, esuqe feel to them, although the exceptional cinematography belies that dime store ambiance.

Most of the movie is an extended quest that’s shaggier than Rauni’s beard, as the samurai tracks down various suspects and former masters and slaughters them. Each scene exists in its own little world, rather than serving the whole. Most impressive is a well-choreographed battle at a buffet table (with a servant who keeps filling up Rauni’s glass as he fights); it alternates between slow and fast motion and, although mock epic in intent, still suggests how clever camerawork and planning can create an thrilling action sequence on a minimal budget. Other sequences drag, like the training montage, or seem pointlessly out-of-place even in this rambling movie, like Rauni dancing on stage at a post-wedding rave. It ends with a true Surrealist flourish, by turns horrific and poignant, as Rauni loses the power of speech and, prompted by nonverbal goblins in a canoe, dives through a door in a lake into an underwater world to finally learn the truth about the price on his head.

Though likely intended as a comedy, most of the humor is either bone dry, or perhaps so inherently Finnish that I couldn’t catch it (when Rauni challenges one ex-master to a series of contests that include a game of “Risk,” it’s about the closest thing to a conventional joke you’ll find). The movie is so odd and personal that it’s almost impossible to predict who will like it and who will hate it, a feature that the marketing campaign cleverly plays up by putting a selection of critics quotes on the back of the Blu-ray that range all the way from one star to a perfect score, and every rating in between. Obviously, if you’re one of those readers who prefers movies marked to ones marked , then this is for you. It will be interesting to see if Mika Rättö will grow as a director—he seems like he could benefit from a more disciplined structure—or whether he’s the kind of auteur who only had one strange movie in him dying to get out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a batshit-weird work of art with a surprising amount of heart.”–Andrew Todd, birth. movies. death (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by director , who called it ” one of the most satisfyingly odd movies that has come out recently.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (1968)

AKA Big Monster War; Yokai Monsters Vol. 1

DIRECTED BY: Yoshiyuki Kuroda

FEATURING: Chikara Hashimoto, Yoshihiko Aoyama, Akane Kawasaki

PLOT: Japanese folk spirits (yokai) unite to fight off an ancient Babylonian vampire who has assumed the form of a local human magistrate.

Still from Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If Spook Warfare makes the List it will be for the bizarre monster designs (including a floating umbrella with a lolling foam rubber tongue) and for the way it tosses in random genres so that it ends up like the work of a Japanese filming a Hammer horror script in the style of a samurai flick. One thing that’s holding it back from making the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies, however, is that it’s part of a series of three films, and we haven’t considered its two siblings yet. (A clip from the second movie, 100 Monsters, made it into Sans Soleil, which seems like it should earn that installment bonus points).

COMMENTS: After a scary, serious opening involving the accidental disinterment of an ancient evil from a Babylonian ruin, Yokai Monsters seems primed to turn into a children’s movie when fifteen minutes in we meet Kappa, a delightfully Muppet-esque duck-turtle hybrid clown with darting ping-pong-ball eyes and a lillypad head. But as the film continues, we get truly frightening images of vampires feeding on victims with gouts of flowing blood, dog assassinations, pantsless children chased by armed guards intent on feeding them to demons, and arrows to eyeballs. Interrupting those bloody sequences are the uncanny/cute yokai (mischievous supernatural creatures who roughly analogous to Western fairies or goblins) doing slapstick gags and paraphrasing scenes from Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Japanese children must have been terrified and enthralled by the spectacle; American kids, who didn’t know yokai from yogurt or Buddha from Buddy Hackett, could add bewildered to that list of adjectives.

The pastiche of tones and styles on display here results in memorable moments ranging from the deliberately delightful to the completely WTF. The cinematography is very good, whether we’re dealing with a storm at sea or quiet shots of Edo-era tea ceremonies. The special effects involving colored lights and kaleidoscope lenses are psychedelic-era standard and date the movie in a delightful way. Of course, since each yokai is uniquely conceived, the film’s most noteworthy feature are the dozens of monsters; here, the designers’ creativity exceeds the production’s ability to realize it. The monsters slide from the heights of imagination down a budgetary slope into the uncanny valley. The stiff rubber masks used for most of the creatures allow no expressiveness; the yokai’s leader, a heavy-lidded, football-headed green gnome, is incapable of blinking. The yoaki end up looking otherworldly, but that other world isn’t a spirit realm so much as it is a bizarro-world of discarded  first drafts.

Although the production values are generally high, many of the film’s other features verge on earning a so-bad-it’s-weird designation. The demonic antagonist’s entire plan, after slumbering for millennia, seems to amount to little more than a scheme to eat a few Japanese children (though in his defense, perhaps to him a province full of kids is just part of a healthy breakfast before embarking on his real mission of world domination). The yokai’s motivation for saving humanity from the Babylonian interloper, on the other hand, is blatantly jingoistic: “If we leave the likes of him alone, shame will be brought on Japanese apparitions!” The strange plot machinations also result in some unusual dialogue that clashes against Western notions of sense: “you suck, Buddha!” cries a yokai imprisoned in a vase. The dizzying dialectic between good and bad filmmaking, disturbing horror and childish comedy, and Eastern and Western notions of storytelling give Spook Warfare the weird vitality to make it worth your viewing time.

In 2005, Spook Warfare was loosely remade with modern CGI as The Great Yokai War, in a rare family-friendly offering from Mr. “Ichi the Killer” himself, . That film is somewhat entertaining, but lacks the gonzo madness of the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a weird combination of bloody horror and comic kiddie movie.”–Hollywood Gothique (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard, who said he was “blown away by its insanity.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: NINJA SCROLL [JÛBÊ NINPÛCHÔ] (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

FEATURING: Voice actors

PLOT: Masterless samurai Jubei joins with an ancient spy and a cursed female

Still from Ninja Scroll (1993)

ninja to thwart a plot by an old enemy to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate with the assistance of the eight Devils of Kimon.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not truly weird, though the Devils of Kimon are novel and bizarre to Western eyes. Ninja Scroll is, rather, a well-made fantasy adventure set in a magical feudal Japan, with gratuitous sex and violence that make it inappropriate for the age group most likely to be entranced by it.

COMMENTS: There’s no scroll, and the main character, Jubei, is a ronin (former samurai now for hire as a mercenary) rather than a ninja; but, accuracy of title aside, Ninja Scroll is an average fantasy adventure with some shocking scenes and startling artwork. Jubei is an archetypal wandering folk hero, helping out the less fortunate out of a sense of duty to mankind rather than avarice. His eventual companions are a more interesting lot: a withered, gnomelike spy from the court of Tokugawa who’s willing to go to any lengths to trap others into working for him, and a virginal ninja woman under a sexual curse who’s even more of a loner than the ronin. The story, often the red-headed stepchild of anime, is a strong point here. The intrigues between the various feudal factions and the character’s backstories are richly detailed, yet free of plot holes and surprisingly easy to follow (although Jubei’s code of honor can be difficult to penetrate at times). Even if you don’t catch all the intricacies of the plot on a single viewing, the basic strands—a quest for vengeance on a wicked old enemy, a succession of monstrous antagonists to defeat, reluctant companions with crossed agendas, dilemmas of honor and loyalty—create a familiar heroic context for the tale that makes it easy to pick up the gist of things. The animation style is naturalistic rather than stylized (that is to say, the characters don’t have huge round eyes and bizarre hair hues). As is frequently the case in amime, which tends to be cheaply produced, the animation is not fluid— most of the time, it’s almost a series of stills, with characters standing stock-still, moving only their lips. But the frame rate picks up dramatically for fight sequences, and excellent editing creates a sense of movement that makes the fight scenes thrilling. There are points where the animation overcomes its budgetary limits and becomes magical, as when Kagero stands in the eye of a swirling cyclone of bees and rose petals. The Devils, partly drawn from Japanese mythology, are as grotesque a gallery of rogues as you could hope to find outside of the Mos Eisley cantina, and a good deal nastier. There’s a giant with stone skin and a taste for rape, a snake-woman who stashes a spare serpent in an unusual hiding place, a dwarf who births wasps from the hump hive on his back, and one Devil is even a homosexual with the hots for the archvillian. The frequent sexual content is sometimes erotic—the nude tattooed snake woman—but mostly gratuitous, as when one clan master delivers his directives while delighting himself inside a village geisha. The violence is also extreme; monster rape, daggers in eyeballs, showers of blood, limbs torn off, and a man whose head is repeatedly bashed into a bloody pulp. The strong (falling just short of ‘extreme’) content adds some cachet to the fantasy film for a certain age group (evidence that this ninjas vs. monster tale isn’t just “kid’s stuff”), but it serves little other purpose. The truth is that the younger, and more male, you are, the more likely you are to groove to Ninja Scroll’s beat. It starts out as a five-star spectacle of awesomeness in your teens and early twenties, but you can expect to subtract a full star for every decade of life that passes until it flattens out and reveals itself as nothing more special than a darn good adventure yarn. And the world could certainly use a few more of those.

Animator/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri was also responsible for the anime standout Wicked City (1987) among others. The British censors understandably cut some of the rape scene for the original UK DVD release, but unexpectedly also removed two scenes with shurikens (throwing stars), apparently believing they constituted “imitable weaponry.” The cuts were restored for the 2004 release and the movie is now uncensored.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“For those more accustomed to Anime or Japanese cinema in general you really won’t find anything new or ground breaking here… Yet it remains a solid entry essentially on all counts.”–Nakadai, Infin-tropolis

BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Lance Mungia

FEATURING: Jeffrey Falcon

PLOT: In an alternate post-apocalyptic past, Elvis has died, and samurai musician Buddy races to Lost Vegas to make his claim the King’s throne—along with every other rock-and-roll outlaw prowling the wasteland.

Still from Six-String Samurai (1998)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: From the plot synopsis alone it should be clear that Six-String Samurai‘s weirdness isn’t in doubt.  Although it has an excellent chance to make the List down the line, something in me resists putting it on after the first ballot.  The mix of action and absurdity in Six-String Samurai is tempting, like a dish at a fancy restaurant that sounds mouth-watering on the menu; but when you order it you discover that, although the individual ingredients are of the highest quality, the flavors don’t quite blend properly. It’s satisfying and too good to send back, but you had hoped for much more.

COMMENTS: This is my second review of Six-String Samurai; a younger me reviewed the film when it first came out, in 1998.  With time, wisdom, and more weird movies under my belt, has my assessment of changed since then?  I reprint that review below, with my contemporary observations to follow.

“The mainstream Las Vegas Review-Journal gives it one star.  The alternative free weekly City Life gives it four stars (out of five).  My interest is piqued; the kid in me wants City Life to win out, but my internal cynic is betting heavily on the Review-Journal.  Reading the plot synopsis—after nuclear war in 1957, Elvis, King of the City of Lost Vegas, has just died, and every guitar-picking, sword-wielding outlaw of the Wastelands, including Buddy Holly and Death himself, is heading to Vegas to claim the throne—it’s easy to guess that this will be a polarizing film.  But, once you get past the “I’m just hip enough to get this/I’m so hip that I’m way past this” dichotomy, it turns out that Six-String Samurai is a fairly engaging, sporadically irritating piece of entertainment.  Although it plays like an assignment from a class in postmodern film making—write a script which will serve to distance the author from charges of Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: SIX-STRING SAMURAI (1998)