5. Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven In Hell (1974)
Based on the manga series (Kozure Ōkami) by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, the Lone Wolf and Cub series of six films depicts the trail of blood-stained vengeance taken by Ogami Ittō, the former official executioner for the Shogunate, and his very young son, who he pushes along in a wood-and-bamboo baby cart rigged with more weapons than 007’s Aston Martin. When his wife is murdered by the Yagyu clan’s assassins and Ogami is disgraced so they can put one of their own in his vacated office, he hits the road, he and his son “living as demons”, obeying no master and respecting no law, while Ogami rents out the services of his highly lethal swordsmanship for 500 gold pieces per job. Along the way, the Yagyu clan repeatedly tries to kill him, and Ogami returns the favor a thousand times over.
Of the six films, I’ve chosen to focus here on the last, and I think the most overlooked, of the series. The Yagyu, now down to very few members, turn to an obscure branch of their clan for help in defeating Ogami Ittō: a group of ninjas who bury themselves in clay pots for an extended period of time, and when they’re brought back up they have the power to dig through the earth like moles. The ninjas wage psychological warfare on Ogami, informing him they’ll kill anyone who comes in contact with or turns to for aid. Eventually he leads them to a snowy mountaintop where their final confrontation will take place.
White Heaven In Hell wisely maintains the one-man-against-an-army motif that had become the standard by the middle films of the series, but goes further by capping things off with a unique show-stopper: Ogami, astride his wooden baby cart fitted with makeshift skis, slaloms down the snowy slope of a mountain, hacking and slashing at men as he flies by. Star Tomisaburo Wakayama deserves credit for having the guts to perform the stunt—that’s clearly him in the long-distance shots, creating one of the most indelible images of the series.
If there are any complaints regarding this film, the only one worth noting would be that the story feels inconclusive. The story in manga form is quite long, ending in the deaths of both Ogami and Retsudo Yaygu, his mortal enemy. Here, Yagyu escapes, and Ogami and his son Daigoro continue on their way. It’s too bad this great series didn’t continue the tale in additional episodes, but what there is makes for unforgettable viewing.
4. 13 Assassins (2011)
The evil half-brother of the Shogun sadistically tortures and murders people for his own amusement, seemingly without any fear of reprisal. This is bad enough, but there stands a chance that he might rise to the highest office in the land, and no one who is aware of his activities wants to see what will happen if he does. Secretly, a band of ronin is assembled with one purpose in mind: to kill the monstrous lord, along with whatever retinue he has with him, as he travels the road back to his fiefdom. They plan to reroute his path into a small village decked with various traps and explosives, hoping that their strategy will help them to overcome the superior numbers of their enemy.
Director Takashi Miike might well be the world’s most prolific filmmaker, as well as its most innovative. Anyone familiar with his work knows he is not averse to an extreme level of screen violence, and has probably done more to push the envelope in that regard than any other living director. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see that, when given the chance to helm a top-drawer samurai epic, he shows an unusual tendency toward restraint. Don’t let that fool you; 13 Assassins is an incredibly violent film, but it avoids to a large extent the bloody excesses of, say, Ichi The Killer or Audition.
The action feels more like that of a samurai picture from the 60’s, yet cranked up to a grand scale. And of course there are the hallmark touches of the film’s director: the scene in which an armless, legless girl, one of the evil daimyo’s more recent victims, writes out a note with a paintbrush clenched in her teeth, is vintage Miike, as are the bizarre, almost comic-book traps the assassins plant throughout the ambush site. After years of producing unique, indescribably strange, genre-bending work at a relentless pace, Takashi Miike shows no signs of letting up, and continues to push himself in exciting and creative new directions.
3. Samurai Assassin (1965)
In 1860, after Commodore Perry’s warships brought the implied threat to the Shogunate of what would happen if it didn’t sign a trade deal with the US, a group of assassins lay in wait for Elder Ii Naosuke’s procession at the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle. He wishes to push toward opening Japan’s ports to the West, ending a centuries-old policy of isolation, and has employed a series of violent purges to erase all resistance. Unfortunately for him, pockets of opposition still exist, angered by his bloody tactics and unshakable in their support of the status quo.
Samurai Assassin covers the (somewhat fictionalized) events leading up to this moment, focusing on Niiro Tsuruchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, a ronin who desires to become a titled samurai with all of the attendant status and wealth. Nothing could be more important to him, having years before suffered the bitter disappointment of being forbidden to marry the woman he loved because of his checkered lineage. But it’s not enough to fight on the side of a clan that might grant him what he wants if they succeed in their assassination plot; his fellow conspirators suspect him of being an informer, and when his name is cleared, they turn their suspicions on his best friend, who he is ordered to kill to prove his loyalty.
Worse, Niiro has a noble pedigree he’s completely unaware of, and that has been kept a secret for political reasons. Having unnecessarily murdered his friend and survived an attack staged by his supposed compatriots, he shows up for the fateful appointment at Edo Castle on the morning of March 3rd (the generally accepted date of the incident) that will change his destiny and that of Japan.
Director Kihachi Okamoto liked to tweak the nose of the notion of samurai honor, and nowhere does he accomplish that with a more cynical sense of irony than in Samurai Assassin. For Mifune’s character to become a samurai, in light of the changes about to take place during the Meiji Restoration, would be an empty gesture—in a short time the title of samurai would come to mean next to nothing.
When the plot point is revealed (spoilers) that Niiro’s unknown father is in fact Ii Naosuke himself (likely not an historical fact but added by the filmmakers for thematic reasons) it only serves to put an exclamation point on the idea that Mifune, obliviously, is completely destroying his place in the world. True to much of the director’s other work, combat between samurai is savage, bloody, and prolonged, further de-glamorizing the glorified ideal of a warrior’s life.
2. The Sword Of Doom (1966)
Based on a novel by Kaizan Nakazato that was for years the longest written work in the Japanese language, Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword Of Doom follows the exploits of the ultimate anti-hero (Tatsuya Nakadai), a truly despicable and soulless samurai who appears to have no moral compass or conscience. He murders without thought, striking down an old man in the opening for no reason and later killing an opponent in what was supposed to be a non-lethal duel. He is a great swordsman, so good in fact that no one feels they can beat him, and so he goes about his various activities unhindered.
The younger brother of the man he killed during the duel seeks to kill him, but knows he cannot defeat his strange fighting style; another sword master, played by Toshiro Mifune, advises a certain technique that he believes can beat this unstoppable monster. Meanwhile, the amoral samurai has taken up with the former wife of his dead opponent, and joined the pro-Shogunate organization the Shinsengumi, all with a total detachment from everything and everyone around him. As time goes on he grows more insane, and finally loses all control in a brothel, where he fights a seemingly endless procession of attackers in a bloody battle to the death that sees no conclusion; the film ends on a freeze-frame of the villain in mid-stroke, madly slashing away in an unrelenting cycle of madness and death.
The Sword Of Doom stands as an incomparably eloquent statement on the moral emptiness that characterizes those who live a life grounded only in violence. That the story takes place toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate says a lot about its subtext—the way of the samurai, as it had been lived for the previous three hundred years, is essentially meaningless and heartless, and by allowing brutal psychopaths free reign to inflict suffering on the defenseless it betrays a hollowness at its core that can only lead to collapse. Nakadai, with the haunted eyes that gave his other roles such cinematic potency, is fantastic in the lead, a cold-blooded beast the audience can only hate with impotent frustration as he shows an unfailing knack for survival.
The famous freeze-frame ending, indicating a perpetual state of savagery, was actually not originally intended to be an enigmatic finale to a downbeat story. This film was supposed to be followed by two sequels (the source material is reportedly very long), but they never happened, and so we’re left with what was completed. Seen without the knowledge that the story was meant to continue in later films, the unresolved threads come across as bitter remonstrations about the futility of a warrior’s life in the face of an ugly, unforgiving world. A rewarding viewing experience, despite its pessimism.
1. Harakiri (1962)
A masterless samurai shows up at the house of the Iyi Clan asking to be allowed to commit seppeku (or harakiri) in their courtyard. With the number of ronin rising as the Shogunate dissolves one clan after another, this has become a distressingly common occurrence. The counselor of the house recounts to the new arrival the tale of another, younger ronin who had arrived earlier in the year, making the same request. Many of these ronin, he feels, aren’t sincere in their insistence that they want to die out of disgrace; many hope that clan leaders will be so impressed with their resolve that they’ll give the hapless ronin a position in their household.
Out of contempt, the clan leaders forced the young samurai to commit harakiri, clearly against his wishes, with agonizing slowness, as he was armed only with edgeless bamboo swords. The new ronin listens to the tale, ensuring the counselor that he fully intends to go through with the ritual. But as they begin to proceed, he informs the assembled household that he knew that he knew the first ronin well, following up with a story of personal tragedy and woe that will lead, once he has finished, to some measure of retribution for the young ronin who was compelled to kill himself in such a callous manner.
Harakiri is a masterpiece of painful, slow-burn revenge, as well as a dramatic on the nature of honer as interpreted through the bushido code of the samurai. The House of Iyi prides itself on its martial honor, and pushes a young samurai to commit harakiri in the most vicious manner possible because they feel his behavior disgraces bushido; yet when the time comes to die, his determination as he tears open his belly with a flat piece of bamboo more then vindicates him—something the Iyi higher-ups manage to overlook. When the older ronin arrives, he further points out the dishonesty lying beneath the veneer of honor they uphold—they are petty and cruel, not the measure of the martial code they claim to support.
From the film’s opening shot, where we see an empty suit of samurai armor staring blankly back at us, we understand some of what Harakiri is saying—bushido and claims to honor are meaningless and empty bluster without the sincerity to back them up. Such actions are rare in times of peace when professional soldiers tend to find themselves out of a job, a situation that becomes more galling when real fortitude is ignored in favor of hollow rituals (a theme the first seppeku scene underscores).
Gorgeously filmed in black and white, displaying startling shot composition and violent tableaus spattered in blood, Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri is not a samurai superhero tale—the audience does not experience the catharsis of flawless revenge, but rather observes the actions of a protagonist who sets out to prove a point, and he does. In keeping with the movie’s biggest theme, that point winds up being erased from official history.
Author Bio: Scot Mason lives in Tucson, AZ. He is the author of the blogs Hawaii Timewarp, Eastern Trails, Scotty’s Movies N’ Tunes, and Tucson Only Kind Of Sucks. He once lived in a shack in the middle of an abandoned sugercane field full of giant spiders and rats, because YOLO.