Posted on December 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman
I am writing again about one of my favorite subjects: Japanese movies. One of my favorite Japanese movie series is Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. A total of 26 movies were made between 1962 and 1989, and 105 television shows were made between 1974 to 1979 making it the longest-running action series in Japanese history. Oddly enough, all of the movies and television shows feature the same person playing the main role. Shintaro Katsu, the son of a Kabuki actor, was an actor, singer, producer, director and shamisen player who appeared in more than 110 movies, but became synonymous with his role of Zatoichi.
The Zatoichi movies are formula movies in the same fashion as Bond movies and Law and Order television shows. Each movie has a similar storyline and plot. Zatoichi, a traveling blind masseur and sentimental drifter is a man who lives staunchly by a code of honor and delivers justice everywhere he goes during the late Edo Period (1830s and 1840s). He meets old friends or makes new friends who are forced to suffer some kind of harm or injustice by oppressive and/or warring yakuza gangs. In the meantime, Zatoichi, through no fault of his own stumbles into harm’s way. Eventually, Zatoichi overcomes his own problems, and comes to the aid of the unfortunate and innocents. (The Japanese love a good revenge story.) And, after every sword fight, there is the signature way Zatoichi slowly sheaths his cane sword.
Because of his blindness, his other senses are more finely attuned. His keen ears, sense of smell, sensory perception and his wits in a fight, combined with his incredible lightning-fast sword skills make him a formidable adversary. In addition to his sword skills, he also has a fondness for gambling on dice games where, once again, his other senses make up for his inability to see. He wins large amounts of money by his ability to identify whether the dice have fallen on even or odd, and the ability to identify loaded or substituted dice by the difference in their sound.
A number of sequels have been released since the last Zatoichi was released. There was even one that was about Zatoichi’s daughter. Recently (2003) a remake was released with Takeshi “Beat” Kitano playing the leading role of Zatoichi (he also directed the movie). Kitano did an excellent job creating the movie, and his portrayal of Zatoichi was spot on. It won a number of Japanese Academy Awards as well as a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Posted on May 18th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera
Movies can be another fun and interesting way of learning more about another culture, and this applies to Japanese films as well. Traditional Japanese performing arts, such as Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku are audio visual. There is typically very little plot and character development when compared to western performing arts. The main purpose of these entertainment forms is the strict, stylized movements and the colorful costumes and makeup. Japanese movies are typically the same, at least when it comes to plot and character development.
At times, there are often long periods of conversations during Japanese movies, making the movies somewhat slow at times. A good example of this is last year’s “Shin Godzilla”, the latest and 31st movie in the Godzilla franchise. It was the largest grossing live-action movie of 2016 in Japan. You would think, giving the subject of the movie, it would be a fast-moving and action- packed movie. I have seen the movie, and there are several parts of the movie that are 20 minutes or even longer of discussions on how to handle the problem of Godzilla, making the movie a bit slow at times by western standards. (But then, this is Japanese way for the most part, and indicative of the Japanese culture.)
As you know, Hollywood movies take years to make and have huge, multi-million dollar budgets. In Japan, movies are made in months with much smaller budgets. It is not uncommon in Japan for a director to make 3 to 5 movies in a year. Most movie theaters in Japan are owned by the movie studios. Naturally, they will feature their studio’s movies only. So, they need to produce enough movies to fill the theater over the course of a year, and have enough variety to sell more tickets.
Just as with western movies, there are many different kinds of movies. But there are some genres in Japan that are not found in the west. Here are a few of the more common Japanese film genres. It should be noted that many times a movie could be included in more than one genre.
Literally meaning “period dramas”, these movies usually take place during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). These movies rely heavily on costumes, makeup, set design and language. They will often feature Samurai and “bushido” themes, the Samurai code for living, and often feature the conflict between “giri” (duty) and “ninjo” (personal feelings). Examples – Seven Samurai, Harakiri, The Twilight Samurai, Chushingura
These are the “sword-fighting” movies, and are really a sub-genre of the Jidai-geki as they normally take place sometime in Japan’s history. These movies are the equivalent of American westerns, with samurai playing the part of American cowboys. Examples – Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman series, Rurouni Kenshin Trilogy, Lone Wolf and Cub Series, Yojimbo
Anime is hand-drawn or computer generated animation. The name is an abbreviation of “animation” in Japanese, and describes all animation in Japan. However, outside of Japan, the name usually is used to refer specifically to animation from Japan. Japanese anime usually features colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes. Examples – Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, One Piece, Naruto Shippuden, Fullmetal Alchemist
This popular film genre focuses on the lives and dealings of yakuza, the Japanese organized crime syndicates. During the 1960s, a sub-genre called “Ninkyo eiga” (chivalry films) became popular. These movies portrayed the yakuza as honorable outlaws torn between the contradictory values of duty and personal feelings. This changed in the 1970s when another sub-genre, “Jitsuroku eiga” (actual record films) portrayed yakuza not as honorable heirs to the samurai code, but as ruthless and treacherous street thugs. Examples – Battles Without Honor and Humanity Series, Outrage, Abashiri Prison Series
In its broadest sense, these movies include almost any film that includes nudity or deals with sex. This encompasses everything from dramas to action thrillers and exploitation films. Although, some Japanese film scholars reserve this term for movies produced and distributed by smaller independent studios. These movies became popular in the 1960s, but in the 1970s some of the larger studios such as Toei started creating another sub-genre called pinky violence films, which included violence in addition to the adult content. With their access to higher production values and talent, some of these films went on to become critical and popular successes. Examples – Female Convict 701: Scorpion Series, Female Yakuza Tale Series, Delinquent Girl Boss Series
Japanese horror is noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre when compared to western horror films. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and suspense involving ghosts and poltergeists. Many movies also feature ancient folk religion stories of possession, exorcism and shamanism. Examples – Ringu, Battle Royale, Kwaidan, Audition, Onibaba, Ugetsu
Unlike the jidai-geki genre of period dramas, whose stories are normally set in the Edo Period, gendaigeki stories are contemporary dramas set in the modern world. Examples – Shall We Dance, Departures, Vengeance is Mine
Realist films which focus on the lives of common working class People. Examples – Tora-san Series, Tokyo Story, One Wonderful Sunday
This genre features monsters, usually attacking major cities and engaging the military and other monsters in battle. The popularity of these films started in 1954 with Godzilla, and continues today.Examples – Godzilla Series, Gamera Series, Mothra Series, Rodan Series
Posted on September 15th, 2012 by Mike Roberts
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
At first glance, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a foodie’s dream. A documentary made by David Gelb, it tells the story of 85 year-old Jiro Ono, generally considered to be one of the best, if not the best sushi chef in the world. The Japanese government has designated him as a Living National Treasure. His small, unassuming restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station with only 10 seats has become the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating. Sushi lovers from around the world go there, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar.
Posted on August 29th, 2012 by Mike Roberts
Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Tokyo Story
The 1953 film “Tokyo Story” (東京物語 or Tokyo monogatari) by Yasujiro Ozu was selected as “the greatest film ever made” in a poll of movie directors conducted once a decade by the British Film Institute. The organization’s monthly publication, Sight and Sound, reported that Ozu’s masterpiece was the top choice of 358 film directors, including Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. Read the full post »
Posted on March 25th, 2012 by Mike Roberts
As a movie lover, it is interesting to see how some lines from a movie are able to entrench themselves into a culture. For example, who has not heard the lines “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto”, “Go ahead, make my day”, “I’ll be back” and “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” to name just a few. I find myself using these and many other movie-one liners in my everyday conversations. Well, the same thing happens in Japan with Japanese movies as well of course. While maybe a little more difficult for westerners to understand, many of them are worthwhile listing here. Because he is the master, I will focus on Kurosawa in ths blog. We will concentrate on other film makers in a later blog. Read the full post »
Posted on November 4th, 2011 by Mike Roberts
Director, Akira Kurosawa
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love movies. Of course, it is only natural that I love Japanese movies. When thinking about Japanese movies, the name of Akira Kurosawa will always be mentioned. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Kurosawa directed 30 films. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers in film history. His work has been admired by other film directors including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Spike Lee, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino.
Akira Kurosawa was born on March 23rd, 1910 in Tokyo. His father was a retired army officer turned teacher, who came from a samurai family, and his mother’s family were merchants in Osaka. He had a good, solid, classical education which was where he was first introduced to Russian literature which would eventually play such an important role in his films. After studying art at the Dushuka Academy, he was unable to make a living as a painter and illustrator despite the fact that some of his work was shown at annual exhibitions in Nikka with some of the most renowned independent artists in Japan. Read the full post »