This week continues Obenjo Kusanosuke's two-part interview with Patrick Galloway, Author of Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook and Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong & Thailand. Enjoy!
OK: Hi Pat! Welcome back for part two of our interview. We left off part one with you mentioning some fabulous films that were directed by some of Japan’s all-time great jidai geki directors. I know from past discussions that you are fan of Mizoguchi Kenji’s films. Mizoguchi was a master filmmaker in his own right but never found the kind of overseas commercial success that Kurosawa enjoyed. Can you tell us what it is about Mizoguchi’s directorial style that is so appealing to you? Why do you think that Mizuguchi remained relatively unknown in some key overseas markets such as America?
PG: Kenji Mizoguchi is considered one of the Big Three Japanese auteurs, along with Ozu and Kurosawa (a triumvirate demarcated decades ago by film critics here and abroad). His style is fluid, graceful and magnificent. There are three reasons why Mizoguchi's profile in the US has never been as high as Kurosawa's: 1) Kurosawa was at Toho, a studio with distribution deals and a chain of theaters in the US (as opposed to Mizoguchi's studio, Daiei, which had neither); 2) Kurosawa's style is far more influenced by American film (he idolized John Ford), and is thus more accessible to American audiences than Mizoguchi's; and 3) Mizoguchi's choice of subject matter was a bit dark for American audiences -- cruelty and prostitution were two big themes for him, not the kind of topics that are going to sell a lot of popcorn. Mizoguchi was much bigger in Europe, particularly in France. Andre Bazin, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard lauded him in Cahiers du cinéma during the 50's, considering him greater than Kurosawa. Style-wise, the fundamental difference between Kurosawa and Mizoguchi is that, as Mizoguchi himself famously stated, his films unfurl like a scroll, rather than moving from cut to cut like the turning pages of a book. Mizoguchi's takes are longer, the camera often moving from scene to scene, rather than cutting like Kurosawa.
OK: And it’s a little strange, but while Mizoguchi got the credit he deserved in Japan, Kurosawa was often panned. Why was that?
PG: Ironically, it was due to Kurosawa's early success in Europe and America. Rashomon won the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1951. Japanese critics, in a stunningly xenophobic turn, assumed that if Western critics liked his films, there must be something wrong with his work, that it couldn't be authentically Japanese (for then, surely it would be incomprehensible to the West). Bear in mind this was just a few short years after Japan's defeat in World War II, and some measure of antipathy towards the West is understandable. Plus his films did exhibit a Western influence. Nevertheless, he was ill-served by these early critiques, and they disturbed him deeply.
OK: Staying on the subject of directors, some have had an incredible ability to make their stars shine brighter than usual on the silver screen resulting in some very special director - actor collaborations. We all know about Kurosawa and Mifune, but take an incredible actor like Nakadai Tatsuya—who possesses an unbelievable range of talent. But is there one director, whom in your opinion made Nakadai’s star burn brighter than it normally does?
PG: Well my first thought is Masaki Kobayashi who gave Nakadai his start, introducing him to the world in profound and disturbing films likeBlack River and the Human Condition trilogy. But Tatsuya Nakadai had already been acting on the stage prior to his screen debut with Kobayashi, and his particular star tends to burn quite brightly no matter which director he's working with. Take a look at his performances in Satsuo Yamamoto's Blood End, Hideo Gosha's Goyokin, Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom, Kurosawa's Ran, Kon Ichikawa's The Key, Kenji Misumi's Zatoichi -- The Festival of Fire, Masahiro Shinoda's Buraikan, Shiro Toyoda's Portrait of Hell, Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, hell, even Tonino Cervi's spaghetti western Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (Nakadai plays a psychotic Mexican bandit in that one). He's always brilliant, always gives 100% and is, in my opinion, the greatest Japanese actor of the 20th century (and beyond ... ).
OK: Do you think Shinoda Masahiro brought out the best in Iwashita Shima? By the way, I was surprised she didn’t make your list of favorite actresses! But seriously, she has an unnerving beauty and sensuality that when combined with her on-screen intelligence, is enchanting to the point of lethality! I intend to rest my case by mentioning her collaboration with Shinoda, who is also her husband, in his amazing Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees. You wrote a very good piece about this film in your book, Asia Shock. Would you agree that this film is a perfect marriage of the jidai geki and horror genres? The film is violent, sexually charged and downright spooky!
PG: I would put Shima Iwashita in the same class as Nakadai, a consummate professional and transcendently gifted performer who tends to shine no matter who she's working for. I think it's the lesser talents that need a director to "bring out the best" in them (like, say, Brad PItt needs David Fincher -- I've never seen Pitt top his performance in Fight Club). So yes, Iwashita's terrific. Having said that, she's not one of my favorites. You mentioned the term unnerving, and that's what I get from her, an ice queen vibe that makes a performance like that in Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees all the more disturbing. The scene where she suckles a severed head -- not for a minute did I doubt her sincerity, and that's pretty shocking! Incidentally, I give her her props in the new book, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades.
OK: What other jidai geki horror films would you recommend?
PG: Well there's Kobayashi's Kwaidan for starters. That's four films in one, so you definitely get your money's worth there, plus a great cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tetsuro Tamba, and Katsuo Nakamura as Hoichi the Earless! Then there are a number of film versions of the classic The Ghost of Yotsuya to check out; I'd particularly recommend the 1959 version directed by King of Japanese Horror Nobuo Nakagawa. Teruo Ishii's The Joy of Torture is fairly horrendous, cataloging heinous acts of cruelty down through the ages. In the new book I discuss freaky jidai geki films like the bloody revenge thriller Shura, the supernatural, Heian era drama Kuroneko and the gruesome Toei exploitation flick Quick-Draw Okatsu (all highly recommended).
OK: Yes, those are indeed very good films. I do think that one of the great things about jidai geki, is that as period pieces, you can drop any kind of genre into them, such as musicals and comedies and make them work quite well. And regarding comedies, I really think that Okamoto Kihachi was able to bring a very sharp and witty sense of humor to his jidai geki directorial efforts. Which of his films make you laugh?
PG: I think Kill! and Warring Clans are two of his funniest, most uproarious films. But what's amazing about Okamoto is his ability to blend comedy with drama, action and violence, often in the same scene! Okamoto fought in World War II and experienced his share of carnage. The dark absurdities of war instilled in him a gallows humor that shows up in many of his films, particularly the ones in which he had the most creative control. Unfortunately, he was often at odds with the Toho brass, and some of his films clearly show a stifled Okamoto phoning it in (see Battle of Okinawa).
OK: Sadly East Meets West , Okamoto’s 1995 “samurai in the Wild West” comedy, hasn’t been legitimately released on DVD in the US or other overseas markets. It’s a shame as nearly half the movie is in English and I thought Takenaka Naoto was a real treat to watch. He kept me in stitches! Have you managed to see it?
PG: No, that's yet another film on my ever-lengthening wish list.
OK: And what about another samurai western, Red Sun, featuring the fearsome threesome of Mifune Toshiro, Charles Bronson and Alain Deon? What do you think of this movie?
PG: Not bad. But take Mifune out of the equation and it's a pretty routine affair. There are some great set pieces, though, with Mifune and Bronson fighting together against hordes of attackers -- the sword 'n pistol combo is exciting and unique. And as always, Alain Delon is super cool and Ursula Andress is smoking hot!
OK: Ah, yes, I see what you mean. And thanks for bringing up the fact that Ursula Andress starred in that movie as well. It seems that after this film, she went on to star in some not-so-great soft-core Italian exploitation films. And speaking of exploitation movies, this is also a genre that has shown up under the guise of jidai geki to give us some surprisingly entertaining B-style films during the 1970s and early 80s. One such series of films were the Hanzo the Razor movies starring the late and great Katsu Shintaro, of Zatoichi fame. You wrote about this series in Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves and this convinced me to plop down the cash to buy the set, even though I’m not the biggest fan of exploitation jidai geki. I actually really enjoyed these films! What’s your take on the Hanzo the Razor series?
PG: It's all in the book, Obenjo. The fact that I wrote reviews for all three movies, rather than a blanket review of the trilogy, speaks to my enthusiasm for this short-lived, severely twisted, boisterously priapic series. As you may know, the films were based on a manga by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf & Cub fame). I have a particular passion for manga movies, as they tend to occupy most outrageous corner of Japanese cinema.
OK: Yeah, the “enormity” of it all was quite funny! But I do have to say, I thought Brick McBurly, in Samurai Sexecutioner put Katsu’s “Hanzo” to shame in oh so many ways. What did you think of this film? I thought it was another McBurly masterpiece!
PG: Since our last interview, I took it upon myself to screen a film starring this McBurly guy you seem so keen on, the very film you mention in fact. It didn't merit more than a two-word review so I guess I'll go with "pond scum," or better, "shit sandwich."
OK: What’s up with you and Brick? I guess it is fair to say that none of Brick’s films will make your desert isle top ten list! So, if you were on a deserted island all to yourself with a TV, DVD player and a power source, what would be the top 10 samurai movies you’d want with you?
PG: Well Yojimbo and Sanjuro, I couldn't really live without those. Gosha's Hunter In the Dark, that's one you can watch over and over. I'd need a Nemuri Kyoshiro picture, so I'd take my favorite, Sleepy Eyes of Death: Sword of Seduction (no wait, that's only on VHS ... ). A Bloody Spear on Mt. Fuji, now there's a great film! And Kenji Misumi's The Last Samurai is incredible. What are we up to? Six? Hmm. Oh hell, this is ridiculous. There are so many great samurai films, there's no way I can pick ten without it being a random sampling. But to honor your question and round out the list, let's say Harakiri, Lone Wolf & Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya and Ran.
OK: Excellent list! I think you and I could talk about samurai films all night—as our wives can attest to! Therefore, why don’t we give some other people here the chance to ask you some questions? How does that sound to you?
PG: Fine by me, so long as they don't involve someone named "Brick."
OK: Alright, so if you have a question for Pat Galloway, please respond to this post, and I’ll submit them to Pat. Answers will be posted soon after that. Also, don't forget to check out Pat's website at http://www.cyberpat.com
Pat Galloway says: Oh oh, I think I just
saw Brick McBurly...I did!!! They are filming
an episode of "Abarenbo Gaijin" here!
If you have any questions for Pat, please feel free to post them in the comments for this thread!