Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why I Like Japanese Samurai Movies

Last time I briefly went over a little bit of my involvement in martial arts which was intended to lead into this blog entry. Again, ever since I can remember (seems like I always say that), I have watched martial arts movies. I remember watching these guys when I was younger: GORANGER. I owned the Green Ranger metal figure/doll. Then Bruce Lee and badly dubbed kung fu movies. Then the ninja craze of the 1980's. While I have watched a lot of Hong Kong movies I do not enjoy those as much as the Japanese samurai movies.

It turns out that many of the old samurai movies tended to be influenced by the western. The gunfighter would be replaced by a master swordsmen in a poor town. While that is one of the reasons one can see why I might like them it is not the primary reason. Early on in my martial arts training I started losing interest in kung fu movies because they lacked the realism my training was emphasizing. Some fights in a kung fu movie may go ten minutes a real world street fight usually lasts only a few seconds. The choreography is more more "dance like" in these movies.

On the other hand, the Japanese swordfighting movie (chambara) tend to have a more realistic approach where getting the proper distances and angles of attack are usually more important. The thing is to spot some of this you do have to have some training to see some of the fine tuning that is done. There are a few things to keep in mind about this though. One, in these movies, no one is truely trying to kill each other. In a sense everything you see is fantasy. Two, the "swords" used are not real heavy swords. Three, almost all the actors have been told what to do by some professional martial artist who choreographs the fight scenes for them. In fact, sometimes the "bad guy" in the story is a much better martial artist in the real world than the star of the movie, but the "bad guy" must die for the sake of the story.

Sometimes I have seen people say some movie has really great sword fighting scenes. I then watch the movie and can tell the person probably has never trained, and probably never even touched a sword before. Usually what happens is the criteria used by the average fan is much different than I would use for judging a fight scene. There are a lot of variables here, but let me mention one or two. The average fan, without training, might be really impressed with some flashy tricky technique. I was told once that a certain actor was the most exciting swordfighter. The problem there is that what is "exciting" to him is not as impressive to me; if I were to counter with some one who uses more practical efficicent techniques the person would consider them "boring." Again, a lot of this has to do with training and what you are watching for. Another example is one who is impressed with bigger movements as opposed to more tight and compact movements. This may not seem like much, but it is the difference between watching a lop sided basketball game and nailbitting close game. The thing to keep in mind though is not every single fight scene is done at the highest level filled with substance. Still, I have found these movies to be a lot closer, in my mind, to what I had trained.

The Jidegeki (Japanese period film) is filmed with Japnese history and culture. I enjoy this aspect as well. Part of the thing with me is while growing up I lived in a area dominated by Chinese and Japanese kids. I was the "minority" white kid I guess you could say for the first 10 years of my life. I was exposed to a lot of different ideas, but a lot of my friends would always have me involved in what their families were doing. Martial arts and movies were all apart of this. I am not going to spend much time going over the various background issues regarding Japanese history and the samurai at this point, but let me just point to this link for good background reading:

Midnight Eye Samurai Cinema 101

Eventually I did get some exposure to Akira Kurosawa and something known as Shogun Assassin. Little by little I would see some Japanese movies, but during the time I was growing up they were not easy to find. Now with that said, in the Los Angeles area some episodic tv shows were on the air on the local cable channels. It was not until the last 1980's to early 1990's that some vhs movies started to hit the market that I started to see more. Then about the mid-1990's a lot more was released with english subtitles. It is amazing though that so much that was next to impossible to find about 10 years ago is easy to find today. A lot of people new to the genre (the last 8 years or so) do not really appreciate what is out there now as compared to what we had to wait around for during the 80's and 90's.

My favorite companies that put out some of the classics with english subtitles are Animeigo and Criterion. Those are companies that buy the rights and subtitle the movies. As I just mentioned, the situation is a lot better today than it was 10-20 years ago when a lot of these movies were so rare. During those years up to today, Merlin of Samuraidvd.com has doing fan subtitles that are sold on his site. Merlin is very knowledgeable, great to deal with, and is probably the most honest person that I have dealt with in the past in trying to purchase movies that have not had official releases with english subtitles. His prices are usually a lot higher due to the amount of money and time it takes to put up english subtitles from scratch. Almost anything you find on his site is worth watching. I will say this though, I do not care for some of the external sites on his page that he links too. More on this in my next paragraph. If you have a fast connection, can use bittorrent, and can keep a ratio (follow the rules!) then I recommend the Asian Dvd Club. A lot of the old samurai movies are uploaded there that do not have official releases; a lot of these tend to be classics that have played on tv with english subtitles. You can download whole dvd's of movies for the cost of bandwidth. I use it like I would Netflix. Netflix is good to for some of the official english subtitle releases as well. I would say there is probably about a few hundred movies you can get from these sources. The funny thing is if someone says they have a collection of 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 of these movies I would tell them they just got started. There are tons out there, but not all of the are english subtitled.

Now let me end this entry by saying this was blog entry I have wanted to do for a long time, but dreaded writing this for a few reasons that I will go into now. I used to correspond with a bunch online and trade movies via snailmail for a long period of over 10 years. Long story short, the personalities involved got really strange as time went gone on. What used to be a friendly thing turned into a greedy battle over movies. Since some of these movies have been really hard to find, can be quite rare, there is a market for selling them as bootlegs. Over the years I have never seen so much dishonestly, psychological disorders, and criminal behavior just to make a quick buck. It got to the point that I decided to back off on this hobby. Believe me, I could tell you some of the most wild stories regarding this.

So, from time to time, I will write about some of my favorite samurai movies, but I am not as inspired to talk about them online as I once was. I do have some insights and original research I have done over the years that I want to get "out there." However, this blog will not be loaded with Jidegeki blog entries. I will keep them for special moments.

The Midnight Eye article is a good introduction. Let me mention a few others. Galloway's book is a good popular level book on the subject. Silver's book, which did have a recent update, is more of a scholarly approach to it. The emphasis on cinematography and camera angles tends to put most people off. I like that sort of thing, but Galloway should be first. There are a few old articles I like too, but maybe I will list those some other time.

This Wikipedia article is okay for a start:

Samurai Cinema

Galloway, Patrick. Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2005.

Silver, Alain. The Samurai Film. New York: Overlook Press, 1977.