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Xin ti xiao yin yuan (1975)
LOVER'S DESTINY: All-star cast shines in historical drama
LOVER'S DESTINY (1975) is a romantic melodrama set in 1920s China produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio and directed by the studio's greatest stylist, Chor Yuen. Using the studio's lavish sets, he creates an insular world for its large cast of compelling characters, mixing his idealized depictions of beauty and romance with sudden, disruptive violence and tragedy. And he employs many of the studio's top-ranked performers. Its central character is Jia-Shu (Tsung Hua), a young and handsome student from a rich family who sees a sweet, shy singer, Feng-Shian (Ching Li), perform in a nightclub and falls in love with her to the point of paying for her schooling. His family is trying to push him into a marriage with Li-Shia (Li Ching), the beautiful, pampered daughter of the local Treasury official. He meets and comes to the aid of a street performer (Chen Kuan Tai) and his lovely sister, Xiu Ziu (Shih Szu). So he winds up with three gorgeous women from different classes all in love with him. And he proves his worth to each of them. For instance, when a fancy party for Li-Shia is interrupted by the arrival of brutal warlord Generalissimo Zhang (Stanley Fung) who takes a quick interest in Li-Shia, Jia-Shu boldly strides forth and insists it's time for his dance with Li-Shia, breaking the impasse and allowing Zhang to back off without losing face. Things take a turn for the worse when Jia-Shu is called away to his hometown to care for his ailing mother. When he returns, he finds that the Generalissimo has taken a liking to Feng-Shian and forced her to be his Sixth Mistress by threatening the lives of her mother and uncle. At first Jia-Shu feels betrayed, but gradually learns the full scope of Zhang's cruelty and enlists Li-Shia and the kung fu-fighting family of street performers to help him rescue Feng-Shian.
Each of the three main females in the film is a distinct character, different from each other in many ways, but united in their love and devotion to Jia-Shu. I've seen each of them, Ching Li, Shih Szu and Li Ching, in many films and never fail to be newly amazed at their versatility as actresses and their extraordinary screen presence and charisma. There isn't a single false note from any of them. I was also impressed with Stanley Fung as the capricious warlord. I know him mostly as a comic actor in the Lucky Stars films of the 1980s with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, where he more than holds his own with the best of Hong Kong's comic talent, so it's always a revelation when I see him in a dramatic role from earlier in his career. As Generalissimo Zhang, he avoids stereotypical villain mannerisms and plays him as a former peasant who has attained real power for the first time in his life and is not always sure how far he can go and has a key aide to advise him. He knows what he wants, but he's insecure and impetuous. You can see his mind slowly working every time he's faced with a new challenge. He's a vicious killer and we feel no sympathy for him, but he's also a human being. It's a harsh, but honest portrayal. The action finale allows kung fu stars Chen Kuan Tai and Shih Szu to show their considerable skills.
Kaze to kumo to toride (1961)
Unusual samurai tale with strong romantic elements
THREE YOUNG SAMURAI (1961) is one of the oddest samurai films I've ever seen, but also a quite compelling one. Although it's ostensibly about three male friends who left their village to go off to war together, it places greater emphasis on the women who enter their lives. The three young fighters wind up on the wrong side of a battle in 16th century Japan and go off on their separate ways after their side, the Tokugawas, is forced to surrender to the opposing Lord Takeda. Back home, all three loved the same woman, Miyuki (Mieko Kondo), but she loves only Hachiro (Shintaro Katsu), who is captured on the battlefield and winds up as vassal of the mysterious Lady Arari (Yoshie Mizutani) after he refuses to make a formal surrender to Takeda. Sanzo (Gen Mitamura) is abducted by a gang of bandits, but their female leader, Hime (Kyoko Enami), takes a liking to him and makes him her lover and co-leader of the gang. Poor Kitota (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) pines consistently for Miyuki and vows to kill Hachiro for abandoning her. He eventually has quite a knockdown, drag-out brawl with Hachiro that's shot and staged with astonishing brutality. It's rough and messy, like a real fight. The characters' paths continually crisscross and they're never all that far geographically from each other as the tide of war slowly changes in the Tokugawas' favor, jeopardizing everyone still in the Takeda camp.
The narrative doesn't always flow in a linear fashion and we don't always know where characters are in relation to each other at a given time. Also, since we never see the three men, Hachiro, Sanzo, and Kitota, in their pre-war friendship, we have little investment in their relations with each other. Hachiro comes off as the most admirable since he takes control of his destiny and makes the kind of firm commitments to action that the others can't seem to make. Of the women, Miyuki is the most passive and given to frequent tears and we can't really blame Hachiro for falling for Arari or Sanzo for taking up with Hime. Arari and Hime are both assertive, proactive, beautiful, and in charge of their fates. They're easily the strongest characters in the film, although Hachiro eventually proves his true worth. The relationships with the women characters are the most important ones in the film, which is quite rare for a samurai film.
The film was produced by the Daiei Studio, which certainly knew how to make this kind of film well. It's beautifully shot in black-and-white and widescreen, with a mix of spectacular location shots and large expertly-crafted studio sets. There were some nighttime exterior scenes where I wasn't sure if it was shot outdoors or on a soundstage. Star Shintaro Katsu would go on the next year to headline the studio's long-running Zatoichi series of films. The more I see of his earlier, pre-Zatoichi work, such as this, THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958), and KOJIRO'S TURNING SWALLOW CUT (1961), the more I prefer it. (I have reviewed both of those films on IMDB.) His most expressive feature is his eyes, something the blind swordsman hides from us. He was also quite handsome and charismatic when not in Zatoichi mode. I wasn't familiar with the rest of the cast, other than Yoshie Mizutani (Arari), whom I've also seen in KILLING IN YOSHIWARA (1960) and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH: MASK OF THE PRINCESS (1966), neither of which are listed in her IMDB filmography. The director of this film, Kazuo Mori, also directed a number of exemplary yakuza, ninja and samurai films, including SAMURAI VENDETTA, JIROCHO FUJI, SHINOBI NO MONO 3, and three Zatoichi films.
Chi to suna no kettô (1963)
When only one samurai is needed ...
DUEL OF BLOOD AND SAND (1963) is clearly a reworking of Akira Kurosawa's THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), except that it involves only one samurai, a swaggering, charismatic figure named Yajuro Inaba, played by samurai star Ryutaro Otomo, the closest actor I've yet seen to a Japanese John Wayne. (Interestingly, Otomo's film career was about as long as Wayne's film career, both just shy of 50 years.) On the run after breaking with his corrupt clan, Yajuro rides off into the countryside and enters a remote town of farmers and woodcutters (described in the subtitles as "lumberjacks"), only to find a woman being assaulted by a bandit while the men cower behind closed doors. Yajuro kills the bandit but is then spurned by the town which now fears retribution by the dead man's gang, which essentially controls the town. Only a lone prostitute (Satomi Oka) offers aid and comfort to him. Eventually, he forcefully persuades the farmers to stand up for themselves and defend their town and their women. Complicating matters is the looming presence of four expert swordsmen, one of whom is Yajuro's best friend, sent by the clan to kill him. Can Yajuro postpone their showdown with him and recruit them to help out against the coming bandit attack?
Shot in black-and-white, the film is beautifully photographed, fast-paced, expertly directed and well-acted. It's two hours shorter than SEVEN SAMURAI since it has six fewer characters to introduce. THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a masterpiece, of course, but when you want a simpler, less demanding version and can spare only 90 minutes, this may be the easier choice. Director Sadatsugu Matsuda directed tons of movies like this in the 1950s and '60s, including VANQUISHED FOES, PORT OF HONOR, ROAD OF CHIVALRY, TANGE SAZEN AND THE PRINCESS, and CRIMSON BAT, THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN, two of which (PORT and ROAD) I've reviewed here already. Every one I've seen so far is a winner.
Kojiro tsubamegaeshi (1961)
A rare look at the youthful Kojiro Sasaki
KOJIRO'S TURNING SWALLOW CUT (1961) stars Shintaro Katsu (of Zatoichi fame) as the young swordsman, Kojiro Sasaki, who would go on to gain eternal fame for his 1612 duel with Musashi Miyamoto, a legendary swordfight that has been the subject of countless Japanese movies and TV shows. Since Miyamoto won that duel, far fewer productions have been devoted to his opponent. This is, in fact, only the second film I've ever seen that focuses on Sasaki. (The other is Hiroshi Inagaki's SASAKI KOJIRO, from 1967, a remake of an earlier film by that title by the same director.) Miyamoto is never mentioned in this version, which focuses on incidents early in the young Sasaki's training.
The film sets up an array of fascinating characters, all with different and sometimes conflicting agendas, and has them thrown together by fate, forcing them to work their way through and try to come out unscathed. The key plot thread is Sasaki's insistence on becoming a student of wandering sword master Seigen Toda and the hoops he has to jump through both before and after being accepted. Two women add to the intrigue and complicate things for Sasaki, as does the handsome, stately fiancé of one of the women, one Sir Tamaramaru, a Noh actor with martial arts skills who gets to display both talents in a splendid performance scene. Sasaki and Tamaramaru have philosophical discussions about the way of the sword and weigh the benefits of working for a powerful lord, as Tamaramaru does, versus going one's own way, as Sasaki does. Certain characters are constantly pressured into sword duels with others, which tend not to end well for those doing the pressuring. Sasaki's youthful idealism and romantic notions take quite a few hits in the course of the film, including in his exchange with a geisha who offers up a sharp, sardonic sketch of Tamaramaru's character.
The film is beautifully shot in black-and-white, mostly on location, tightly edited, intelligently written and wonderfully acted by a cast of players who were largely unfamiliar to me, aside from Katsu. This is another one of those undiscovered gems from a forgotten corner of Japanese film history that keep popping up for me in unexpected places. While it's not quite the work of art that YOJIMBO, SAMURAI REBELLION, HARAKIRI, GOYOKIN, or Inagaki's SAMURAI trilogy are considered to be, it is a good melodrama, plunging headfirst into the lives of its characters, keeping us gripped and engaged throughout the concise 80-minute running time. It may not make sweeping statements about the human condition or the Japanese character or social conditions of the time, but it does offer a vivid snapshot of an early step in Sasaki's venture into history and begins to compensate for the less savory portrayals of him seen in so many films about his opponent. It makes me wonder how many more such films about Sasaki exist and are waiting to be found. I've not seen any other films by this director, who made only eleven films per IMDB, this one being the tenth.
A Yokohama Yankee (1955)
A Hollywood cartoon set in Japan and made ten years after WWII
In the mid-1950s, Hollywood was discovering Japan as a source of new and intriguing tales of culture clash and interracial romance in films like JAPANESE WAR BRIDE, THREE STRIPES IN THE SUN, HOUSE OF BAMBOO, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON and SAYONARA, as Japan and the U.S. worked together on overcoming wartime enmity and forging a new and powerful alliance. We didn't see a lot of this reflected in the animated cartoons coming out in those years, except for this one from Terrytoons, "A Yokohama Yankee" (1955). Set in Japan, it's a standard cartoon insect tale of a bullying spider trying to force himself on a delicate butterfly until an American fly, dressed as a sailor, intervenes, but it opens with a beautifully animated and designed sequence showing the butterfly preparing herself for her wedding in traditional garb with the help of an army of eager insect helpers, accompanied by a lovely song, sung by a female soloist, on the soundtrack. The song lyrics take dramatic license by placing Yokohama at the foot of "Fujiyama" (Mount Fuji), which is not at all close, geographically, but at least it rhymes. And there's something of a surprise locale at the end. To my eyes, at least, the characterizations took great care to avoid stereotyping. I found this on YouTube along with many additional Terrytoon shorts.
There was a series of later Terrytoons, made from 1959 to 1963, that were set in Japan and featured a mouse named Hashimoto. Many of them were directed by a Japanese-American director named Bob Kuwahara. There was a sincere attempt in these cartoons to offer a respectful portrayal of Japanese culture. These are definitely worth checking out also.
Power Rangers Ninja Steel (2017)
A lighter-hearted, more kid-friendly Power Rangers season
I watched all 22 episodes of "Power Rangers Ninja Steel" and while I enjoyed them as they were broadcast on Nickelodeon and re-watched most of them, I can't say it's a particularly good season, especially in the wake of the last two cycles (Megaforce, 2013-2014, and Dino Charge, 2015-2016), which turned out to encompass four exemplary seasons, arguably the best since "Time Force" (2001). "Ninja Steel" puts the five Rangers (with a sixth one joining later) back in high school, but dumbs down a lot of the stories with an eye to pleasing the kiddie audience. It also adds two comic relief characters, a conceited jock and his obsequious sidekick, whose antics will make the kids laugh, but try the patience of older fans who may have fond memories of the original comic PR foils, Bulk and Skull.
An interesting angle has the Rangers' exploits serve as material for an intergalactic reality show called "Galaxy Warriors," in which miscreants from other planets can watch on TV as the monsters employed by alien warlord Galvanax descend to Earth to try to defeat the Power Rangers. When their efforts invariably fail, the program host presses a "gigantify" button that causes the vanquished monster to come back to life and grow into giant size, at which point the Rangers call in their Zords to finish the job.
A lot of episodes revolve around problems the five Rangers, Brody, Sarah, Preston, Calvin and Hayley, cause themselves. Brody (Red Ranger) uses his "datacom" device to cheat on tests. Sarah (Pink Ranger) creates clones of herself to do some serious, if misguided multitasking. Preston (Blue Ranger) gets hold of some ancient spells, but thinks he can learn them quickly without paying attention to the fine print. Calvin (Yellow Ranger) is in awe of a local driver with a cool car and offers to fix the engine at a time he needs to be available to help the other Rangers. Hayley (White Ranger) and Calvin get into an argument which leads to them running against each other for student government president. Even their robot ally, Redbot, oversteps his bounds when he writes a book taking credit for the Power Rangers' achievements. They all have to learn from the messes that result from their hubris or irresponsibility.
One of the best episodes has the five banding together to take on a local crisis, caused when Preston's father, a real estate tycoon, buys the land that's home to the town's sacred Ribbon Tree, on which the citizens traditionally hang ribbons with their wishes on them. While two of the Rangers rally the townsfolk and another two occupy the tree to keep the bulldozers away, Preston tries to change his father's heart. It's actually quite a moving episode and features excellent performances by the actors playing Preston and his embittered father.
There's an emotional backstory involving Brody and his long-lost brother, Aiden, who were separated as boys when their father, a ninja warrior, disappeared while fighting Galvanax and preventing him from attaining the prized ninja steel. Brody is held as a slave by Galavanax until he's a teenager and manages to engineer an escape with the help of another human slave, Mick, a wild-eyed, wild-haired mechanical genius from another galaxy. They wind up in Summer Cove, where they set up shop at the local high school and find the ninja steel stored in a clever hiding place. Brody never gives up the hope of reuniting with Aiden, which, if you know your Power Rangers, is bound to eventually happen. There's a significant obstacle along the way, but when the reunion finally happens, it packs quite a punch.
In a most unusual development for Power Rangers, two of the Rangers, Calvin and Hayley, are in a committed relationship before the series starts and remain so throughout. They display a lot of affection--holding hands, hugging, putting their arms around each other, etc. It also happens to be a black-white interracial relationship, Calvin being white and Hayley being black, which makes it something of a first in the Power Rangers universe. The Blue Ranger, Preston, is Asian, Sarah is white, and Brody and his brother are of indeterminate ethnic origin. Even though the characters don't have much depth and their relationships lack the intensity of those in Power Rangers Dino Charge, I thought the actors were, for the most part, pleasant and engaging, with special marks going to Chrysti Ane (Sarah), Peter Sudarso (Preston), Nico Greetham (Calvin), and Zoe Robins (Hayley). They were warm and fun to spend a half-hour with.
The series was based on its Japanese sentai counterpart, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger" (2015), although its connection to that series is slight. Some fight scenes from the original are used, although many more fight scenes are restaged in New Zealand for the Ninja Steel scenes. The Zord battles offer the only consistent use of Japanese footage in the whole series and are, as usual, quite imaginative and exciting.
ADDENDUM: The new season of Power Rangers premiered on January 27, 2018, under the title, "Power Rangers Super Ninja Steel," so it's a continuation of the previous season with the same cast and some of the same villains, but with the ninja steel upgraded to "super."
Musume tsuma haha (1960)
Naruse ventures into Ozu territory
DAUGHTER, WIVES, MOTHER (MUSUME TSUMA HAHA, 1960) is one of six color films directed by Mikio Naruse and it tells the story of an extended family facing various domestic crises, not least of which is the possible loss of the family home. It's very much in Yasujiro Ozu territory, going so far as to invoke Ozu's masterpiece, TOKYO STORY (1953), as it focuses on a matriarch and her five children and their various spouses or significant others and the looming question of what to do with the mother and who should take responsibility for her if they have to give up the house. The connection to the earlier film is further underlined by the casting of two of the main actors from that film (Setsuko Hara, Chishu Ryu) in different roles in this film. Unlike the earlier film, however, the mother here has a number of options and makes a striking choice late in the film to serve her own needs. One character even makes an Ozu-like decision based on what she thinks will be best for the family, only to learn that the family has other ideas, making her self-sacrifice in vain. Another difference from Ozu is that Setsuko Hara, a frequent star of Ozu films, playing the oldest daughter here, a widow courted by two suitors, smiles a lot, something she doesn't do much for Ozu. In several scenes, she seems to be having a good time, including a couple of dates with suitor Tatsuya Nakadai, whom I've never seen smile so much either. They even kiss each other when they find themselves alone in her brother's apartment. I don't think I've ever seen a show of passion like that in Ozu.
Naruse's regular star Hideko Takamine (FLOATING CLOUDS) plays Hara's sister-in-law and I believe this is the only film in which she and Hara, two powerhouses of Japanese acting, appear together. (It's also the only film in which Hara and Nakadai appear together.) Also on hand are Akira Takarada (GOJIRA), Hiroshi Koizumi (MOTHRA), Reiko Dan (WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS), Daisuke Kato (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Masayuki Mori as the self-centered unrepentant weakling he seems to play in every other Naruse film I've seen him in. The two old mothers in the film, the family matriarch and her middle daughter's mother-in-law, played by Aiko Mimasu and Haruko Sugimura, respectively, are only 60, but are made up and directed to look and act much older. (Both actresses were about 50 when they made this film.) The two mothers even visit an old people's home and everyone else there is obviously 20-30 years older! Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, the father in TOKYO STORY, even turns up as an old man (he was 55 at the time). Overall, this is an excellent Japanese family drama and quite a change of pace for Naruse from the earlier films of his that I've seen.
Kengo tengu matsuri (1961)
Excellent swordplay drama set in early Tokugawa era
FESTIVAL OF SWORDSMEN (1961), from the Toei Studio, is a historical drama in color and widescreen set in 1634 during the reign of Iemitsu Tokugawa, a time of relative peace in Japan. It opens with the announcement and preparations for a martial arts competition to be held in Edo before the Shogun and then follows the fates of various characters who decide to enter, culminating in the tournament itself. The lead character is Busshi Shirogoro (Ryutaro Otomo) of the Nen-Ryu school, who is first seen seeking lessons in Sendai from the dissipated Kamio Shume (Eiji Okada) of the Yagyu Clan, the official instructors for the Shogunate. When Busshi defeats Shume with one stroke, humiliating him for all time, it sets into motion a chain of events which leads to two women falling in love with Busshi and various characters seeking a match with him or trying to kill him outright. Busshi heads toward Edo and in the course of his journey he meets a trio of ninja characters living in the mountains. His encounter with them leads to Hime or "Princess," the girl of the trio, disguising herself as a man to follow Busshi to Edo, accompanied by Saru or "Monkey," her agile sidekick, and entering the competition herself, as a judo expert. Shume also heads to Edo, to both participate in the competition and to kill Busshi. Meanwhile, Satomi (Keiko Okawa), the sister of Shume, whom he had abandoned in Sendai, is assaulted by another traveling swordsman on his way to Edo, Takeda Shinryuken, who takes her prisoner and makes her accompany him as his "wife." When Busshi intervenes and she escapes, another traveling swordsman, Iishino Shurinosuke (Tomisaburo Wakayama, of "Lone Wolf and Cub" fame), offers her protection while he, too, seeks a match with Busshi. Another group of characters, with smaller roles, is introduced as passengers on a ship to Edo, including a storyteller who goes from making false boasts about his own prowess to singing the praises of Busshi Shirogoro.
The film flits about from character to character, often leaving a scene in the middle before it's quite reached the point we wanted it to. There are lots of ellipses like this, but at some point it looks like a deliberate pattern set up to keep all the balls in play until everyone's converged on Edo for the tournament. Busshi and Hime eventually get much closer, while poor Satomi, clearly the noblest and purest character in the entire film, gets buffeted about from man to man, all while nursing a love for Busshi who'd rescued her from Takeda's first attempt to violate her. There are sufficient swordfights and matches sprinkled throughout the proceedings, usually in short bursts and all well staged, but they're incidental to the ebb and flow of the characters and relationships.
It's all beautifully shot on a mix of breathtaking natural locations, sprawling Toei backlots, and massive indoor studio recreations of outdoor settings. There wasn't a single scene that I didn't find compelling, either narratively or aesthetically. While films like this weren't considered artistic masterpieces on the order of those by Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Mizoguchi or Inagaki, they were still exemplary period films with fewer dramatic extremes and much more immersion in the everyday lives of characters from this era and how they lived and related to each other. While Busshi doesn't shatter behavioral norms and conventions the way Toshiro Mifune does in such films as Kurosawa's YOJIMBO or Kobayashi's SAMURAI REBELLION or the way Tatsuya Nakadai does in Okamoto's SWORD OF DOOM and Kobayashi's HARAKIRI, I got the sense that the flaws and failures of men like the ones in this film were more common among these kinds of characters in real life. Even the stalwart Busshi often seems incapable of living up to others' expectations of him. He disappointed me at times, but that makes him human, not a samurai legend. I believed him. (The only character here who breaks with convention is Hime, who dresses up as a man to enter the competition. The limited cast list on IMDb doesn't give the name of the actress who plays Hime.)
While this film has remained unnecessarily obscure, its director, Shigehiro Ozawa, is most famous in the U.S. and around the world for directing the STREET FIGHTER trilogy (1974), which made a household name of Sonny Chiba, who played the lethal karate fighter, Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi. The difference in tone and style between THE STREET FIGHTER and FESTIVAL OF SWORDSMEN is quite striking. No reason we can't have both.
Fuunji Oda Nobunaga (1959)
The early rise to power of a key figure in Japan's unification
LUCKY ADVENTURER ODA NOBUNAGA (1959) is a lively samurai film dramatizing a pivotal turning point in the life and career of Nobunaga Oda, who figured prominently in efforts to unify the warring states of Japan under a central ruler in the late 16th century. The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, was one of Oda's protégés. Oda (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is first seen as a reckless youth who scorns protocol and is indifferent to public gossip. After the death of his father, head of the Oda clan, he continues to rely much too closely on the wise counsel and decision-making of his adviser/mentor, Hirodate (Ryunosuke Tsukigata). When Hirodate commits seppuku, hoping such a drastic act will force Oda to mature and accept his responsibilities, Oda finally steps up to the plate and assumes leadership of the clan, opting to resist attempts by the Imagawa clan to annex the Oda region, Owari.
Most depictions of Nobunaga Oda that I've seen in Japanese popular culture tend to portray him as a villain—or even a demon, as seen in numerous anime renditions. He was indeed known for the brutal tactics employed in his rise to power. There are hints of madness in this film, as when Oda laughs maniacally after making key pronouncements, and signs of fierce obsession in his behavior, but for the most part he is shown as heroic and loyal, a man of the people who commands the full devotion of his loving wife, whose father is a rival daimyo and significant opponent of Oda, and all of his people, including his 4000-man army and the farmers and workers in the surrounding region.
It all culminates in Oda's bold and risky strategy of marching out and engaging an approaching enemy that's ten times larger than his army, using the terrain and weather to his advantage and catching the overconfident Imagawa armies when they've dropped their guard and stopped to rest and drink with the local farmers who have conveniently brought sake to the tired, overheated soldiers. It's quite a grand finale.
Kinnosuke Nakamura gives a wild-eyed and energetic performance, perfectly capturing the volatile moods of this complex personality, from moments of joy and exhilaration to unrestrained expressions of grief, including one remarkable segment showing him wading into a river, crying and screaming lamentations after the death of Hirodate, with the camera in a boat tracking him in medium close shot. Hiroko Sakuramachi plays Oda's dutiful wife, Princess O-no, who turns against her own father to stand with her husband in his hour of need. She is initially shocked at his transformation following the death of Hirodate and demands that he "bring me back my husband," but she soon realizes the life-changing implications involved and welcomes her role in fulfilling this destiny. Even though it was an arranged marriage with a political purpose in mind, it's clear the two love and have deep affection for each other. He will not be able to achieve his goals without her.
As was typical of Toei historical films in the 1950s and early '60s, the production values are quite impressive, with beautiful color widescreen photography and imaginative use of standing sets, elaborate costumes, and breathtaking locations. There are hundreds of extras on hand, many on horseback, in the scenes of marching armies, so it's obvious there was an ample budget. There are a few short cuts in the battle scene, however, including close shots of Oda filmed against a backdrop pretending to ride his horse into battle when it's obvious he's not on a horse at all, but this is a small quibble. After reading the Nobunaga Oda entry in Wikipedia, it would seem to me that most of the events depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in 1560, the year in which this film is set.
I had never heard of this film before I gained access to a viewing copy and I continue to marvel at the large number of exemplary Japanese historical films from the 1950s and '60s that never made it to the U.S. through official distribution channels and are waiting to be discovered. As a student of Japanese history, I welcome any dramatizations of key historical figures and incidents that help me to visualize these people and events.
Nonstop Kamen Rider action in 2014 spin-off movie
KAMEN RIDER GAIM: GREAT SOCCER BATTLE! GOLDEN FRUITS CUP! (2014) is a movie spin-off of the 2014 Kamen Rider TV season and features a most unusual scenario that places our hero, Kouta, aka Kamen Rider Gaim, in some kind of alternate fantasy universe conjured up by Lapis, a mysterious teenage boy who first approaches Kouta to ask him about soccer. "Kamen Rider" has been an ongoing franchise in Japan, with movies, TV shows, and made-for-video productions, ever since the first TV series premiered in 1971. Kamen Riders are elaborately armored, masked superheroes who mostly ride motorcycles and fight primarily with swords and fists, usually confronting bizarre monsters and high-tech costumed criminal masterminds representing malevolent forces based here on Earth.
This film takes place after some catastrophic events in the TV show, "Kamen Rider Gaim," which I haven't seen, which has left the setting, Zawame City, in devastation and ruin. Once Kouta enters the alternate universe, where everything has been restored, he is surprised to see numerous characters who apparently died by this point in the regular series but are living and breathing here. Numerous Kamen Riders abound and many go mad and turn on others and begin fights that end with the one who went mad disintegrating, leaving only his armor, which gets absorbed by his "lockseed," the gadget that engineers a human's transformation into Kamen Rider. A single villain, Kougane, a high-powered Armored Rider with powers way beyond those of the other Riders in this film, is behind all the mayhem and our hero, Kouta, has to come up with some ingenious enhancements to confront him on an equal basis.
What I love about the Kamen Rider films is, quite simply, their elaborate action scenes and extensive location shooting in and around Tokyo. Kamen Riders burst into combat on a moment's notice all over the place and all through the running time of this 65-minute film. I counted a total of 13 Kamen Riders appearing in this film, although I may have missed a few. There are several particularly exciting action scenes, including one midway through where two opposing armies do battle on the streets of Zawame City using armed soldiers, fleets of motorcycle armored warriors and flying warriors in armored suits. It's quite spectacular. Late in the film, Gaim confronts Kougane, who has transformed into Armored Rider Mars, and they're both adorned in full armor, carrying swords and riding horses in a dirt plain far from Zawame City (and Tokyo), like a joust between knights-in-armor. Gaim is soon joined by ten other Kamen Riders and they all confront the main villain, who transforms into a giant flaming warrior.
There is a soccer motif in play here. Kouta's first scene in Lapis's fantasy world is in a massive soccer stadium with hundreds of fans in the stands turned out to support either Team Gaim (blue t-shirts) or Team Baron (red t-shirts). Gaim participates, as does his rival on the other team, Kaito, and both transform into Kamen Riders in the course of the game and continue to play that way. Later, at a soccer fair outside the stadium, Kouta meets an actual Japanese soccer star, Masashi Nakayama, playing himself. In the final battle with Armored Rider Mars in his flame warrior mode, the team of Kamen Riders fights like they're playing a soccer match with one of the warriors transformed into a blue ball of energy which is kicked around by the other players aiming toward Mars' flaming net.
The opening scene is set in a devastated cityscape that looks like a demolition site on the actual ruins of what was once a shopping mall. I wonder what site this was and where in Japan it is. The soccer stadium in the next sequence is huge and looks to be a real stadium and not CGI. The hundreds of extras in the scene are also real and not CGI creations, indicating a bigger budget than usual for such a film.
My copy of this film is in Japanese with no subtitles. I watched it the first time without consulting a synopsis. I then watched it again with a detailed, but terribly convoluted synopsis in hand, taken from a Kamen Rider website. I understood maybe half of the plot details described. It was much better without the synopsis.
This was directed by Osamu Kaneda, who has directed quite a number of Kamen Rider TV episodes and theatrical movies since 2001, having gotten his start as a stunt man and action director in the 1970s and '80s.
Samurai film set against the backdrop of Tokugawa's rise to power
FORBIDDEN CASTLE (1959), from Toei Pictures, tells a story of the aftermath of the famous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which insured Ieyasu Tokugawa's hold on power and the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for 268 years. The main focus here is on a lone samurai, Mido Shumenosuke (Kinnosuke Nakamura), who fought on the side of Tokugawa in the hopes of opposing his hated father on the field of battle, only to learn that his father, Lord Ino Morimasa (Kenji Susukida), had betrayed his sworn brother, Ishida Mitsunari, and sided with Tokugawa at the last minute, thus leading to the defeat of the Toyotomi Clan. Despite throwing his lot in with the winner, Morimasa is looked upon with contempt by Tokugawa and his allies for his act of betrayal and they strategize to remove him from power and replace him with his heir, if they can find him. When Sudo Yorinosuke, Mido's childhood friend and longtime rival, asserts that Mido had died in battle, despite knowing differently, he gets appointed to replace Morimasa himself. Sudo then summons his team of assassins to track down and kill Mido. There's a lot of back and forth and Mido manages to prevail, despite some setbacks, as he heads resolutely toward Hisaka Castle, where his father is holed up, with revenge on his mind. In the course of his journey, he is aided by a pair of sidekicks and three women, one of whom, Princess Mio (Keiko Okawa), has some power, and another of whom, Asaji (Satomi Oka), is a loyal servant of Lord Morimasa. Mido eventually gets back to Hisaka Castle too late. Tragedy ensues and the two rival samurai, Mido and Sudo, eventually confront each other.
The one who suffers the most in all of this is Chigusa (Hiroko Sakuramachi), Sudo's sister and Mido's childhood sweetheart, whose brief reunion with Mido ends badly. Mido wants to end their relationship because he is quite certain he will die in his mission. Having his farewell tea with her, he is poisoned and winds up a prisoner, all a result of Sudo's machinations, although Sudo blames it on Chigusa.
It's not the most intricate of stories to be found in a samurai classic and the print I saw for this review suffered from the deletion of two major scenes, both of which are clearly visible in clips seen in the film's trailer. The obvious ellipses seriously undermine the impact of the story. Also, it doesn't help that Mido, as played by Nakamura, is too noble to be true and offers a one-note portrayal of the character, a model of saintly resolution as he goes about his self-proclaimed mission, attracting allies from various quarters. Given the intrigue he faces on a steady basis, he should be a bit less naïve and gullible than he proves to be, such as when he starts to believe Sudo's lies about Chigusa. I needed to see a little more conflict within Mido, some self-doubt and vulnerability, anger and indecision, for the character to be truly believable. Nakamura was certainly capable of much more complexity in his characters.
However, the film is beautifully shot- in color and widescreen--with elegant compositions, carefully crafted studio sets and costumes, and ample location work. Even the lesser samurai films of the 1950s and '60s had the kind of formal beauty that informs the best of Japanese cinema of the era. There are several good swordplay scenes, including one early on where Mido, fresh from the battlefield, confronts anti-Tokugawa remnants who are trying to abduct Princess Mio (in full armor), and takes them on with bloody results. Sadly, however, his big confrontation late in the film with Sudo and his men is one of the sequences missing from the cut I watched.
I can't find much information about the cast or even the running time. IMDb has very little info about this film. The r.t. of the disc I watched was 93 minutes, but that's with two major sequences missing. I was able to find the names of the three actresses, Satomi Oka, Hiroko Sakuramachi, and Keiko Okawa, and identified them with their roles above. Venerable character actor Isao Yamagata (GATE OF HELL) also plays a key role in this as the noble who does Tokugawa's bidding. Tokugawa appears in two scenes as well, but I don't know who plays him.
Ressha Sentai Tokkyûjâ (2014)
Excellent sentai series with exciting train footage and emotional storyline
"Ressha Sentai Toqger" (2014-15) is the first sentai series I've watched in its entirety (47 episodes). I have sampled most of the sentai series that have appeared on Japanese television since 1975 and watched significant portions of some, including "Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger" (1992), which was the basis for the first season of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." Subsequent sentai seasons have formed the bases of subsequent seasons of the Power Rangers franchise. Sadly, "Toqger," the series under review, was never adapted for "Power Rangers." The U.S. producers skipped over it and went to the following sentai season, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger," to form the basis of the current Power Rangers season, "Ninja Steel." I suspect the reason for passing over "Toqger" was its train theme and emphasis on train lines of Tokyo and Japan, a visual background difficult to adapt to the southern California setting of Power Rangers.
I happen to delight in train scenes in movies and TV shows and I was hooked on "Toqger" (pronounced "toe-KYU-jer") from the start. The main characters, the Toqgers, ride on a colorful, mystical train on the Rainbow Line, which rides the Japanese rails unseen by all but those with the most hyperactive imaginations, usually children. The chief opponent of the Toqgers is the Shadow Line, which sends dark trains into towns to wreak all sorts of havoc. The Rainbow and Shadow Line trains are created via CGI and provide lots of thrilling scenes as the trains burst onto the scene, often out of nowhere. There are also plenty of location shots of actual Japanese train stations and railroad yards and real trains both in and out of Tokyo. Each end credits sequence includes a montage of actual Japanese train lines, a treasure trove for train buffs.
The Shadow Line is run by a smooth, handsome-looking villain referred to as Emperor Z, who presides over a team of very elegant monstrous creatures with names like General Schwarz, Baron Nero and Madame Noir. The Shadow Line rides into Japanese stations and turns them into Shadow Stations, with an assortment of devious methods for sucking out citizens' energies and ambitions and turning this life force into dark mist which powers the Shadow Line. The Toqgers then ride in on the Rainbow Line, confront the villains and restore the town and its citizens back to normal. In the course of the action, they use their trains to combine and create giant fighting machines (called "Zords" in the Power Rangers franchise) to use in battles with giant Shadow monsters in nearly every episode.
The five college-age youths, three male, two female, who become the Toqgers—Right, Tokatti, Hikari, Mio, and Kagura—are quite an interesting and varied group of personalities and their intricate relationship is another chief draw of the series. When we meet them in the first episode, they're afflicted with amnesia. We soon learn they have a shared childhood and the flashbacks to this childhood occur quite regularly as they gradually piece together who they are and try to remember where they're from. We see their childhood selves often and the valiant young actors who play them look just like their older counterparts and give equally strong performances. It soon becomes clear that the ultimate destination of their journey on the Rainbow Line is their lost hometown. The finale takes up several episodes and is absolutely heart-wrenching. The Toqger colors are Red (Right), Blue (Tokatti), Green (Hikari), Yellow (Mio) and Pink (Kagura). Akira, an older male railway worker with a hard hat, joins the team in the 17th episode as the Orange Ranger, the sixth Toqger, and provides an interesting contrast with the more volatile younger members.
Another big draw for me was the frequent use of Japanese locations in Tokyo and elsewhere. Many fights between the Toqgers and their Shadow Line opponents take place in office plazas, shopping malls or waterfront plazas in the Tokyo area. One of these is in Chiba City, east of Tokyo, and is a frequent site of battles in these series. I made sure to visit the site when I was in Tokyo last year. Some fights take place on university campuses, in building lobbies and high up in sprawling offices overlooking the Tokyo skyline. Since the trains travel to towns outside Tokyo, there are episodes set in spanking new suburban developments and parkland, picturesque resorts, and seacoast towns.
I enjoyed the villains in this series. Emperor Z looks like he could be a J-rock star or leader of an aging boy band, which is not at all a bad thing in a series like this. He also has some connection to the children's childhood past. His confederates all have dark Victorian-style costumes and masks. They fight among themselves and often have their own agendas. One of them, General Schwarz, even makes a secret deal with one of the Toqgers. Madame Noir is very protective of her daughter, Miss Glitta, a monstrous girl with a very sweet voice and manner who wears a Gothic Lolita costume and is secretly in love with General Schwarz. One of the best episodes, #21: The Runaway Bride, has Miss Glitta switch places with Mio, the Yellow Ranger. Glitta is overjoyed at taking on Mio's cute and agile form and runs with joy through city parks, laughing with glee at her newfound freedom. Poor Mio, trapped in Glitta's monstrous form, is comforted by her friend Kagura (Pink Ranger), who noted the switch and walks with her through Tokyo streets looking for Glitta-as-Mio to engineer a reversal of the process while pedestrians and drivers of passing cars stare out at the odd duo. It's very funny, but also very touching.
I rented the series from a Japanese DVD store and watched it in Japanese without subtitles, aided only by a Wikipedia printout of episode synopses that provided roughly half of the key plot points. Forgive me if I misinterpreted a plot element or two in the course of this review.
Ninjas and Train Rangers team up in imaginative sentai mash-up
The casts of the 2014 sentai season, "Ressha Sentai Toqger," and the 2015 season, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger," join together in this 65-minute movie, SHURIKEN SENTAI NINNINGER VS. TOQGER THE MOVIE: NINJAS IN WONDERLAND (2016), featuring a host of villains from each show as well as some new ones. I watched this in Japanese with no subtitles and I couldn't find an adequate synopsis on the web, so I can't really describe significant plot points, but there are plenty of imaginative action scenes and some unusual settings that made the whole thing worthwhile. There's also a lot of train action, derived from the train theme of Ressha Sentai Toqger (which I think of as Train Rangers), which appeals to me greatly. The film opens with a series of dream sequences courtesy of the sleeping Takaharu (Red Ninninger), who's in a 19th century-style wood-paneled railroad car with the other Ninningers (Ninja Rangers). The first dream has Kinji Takigawa, the gold Ninninger, performing with a rock band before a crowd of screaming fans. The second involves the Ninninger team dressed as "spies" in a shootout at night with Men in Black, rescued by a mysterious figure in a Sherlock Holmes outfit. The third involves a wedding between one of the ninja girls and one of the Toqger boys, interrupted by monsters leading to a ranger fight inside the church. Eventually, they learn that they're all riding the Yokai Ressha (Demon Train) and soon the Red Toqger Ranger rides up in his Rainbow Line special to try to rescue them. There's a big fight in the Demon Train as four of the Rangers (two from one team, two from the other) take on the monster minions from each series, who have joined forces.
The two Red Rangers are separated from the others and Red Ninja winds up in a picturesque samurai village, nestled in the hills, where they're confronted by a new enemy, the laughing, top hat-adorned Dark Doctor Mavro, a remnant of the Shadow Line, the antagonistic force in Ressha Sentai Toqger. The place is an elaborate evil theme park referred to in one sign as Yami Ninja Land, "yami" meaning dark. Mavro conjures up three famous ninjas of the past, Hattori Hanzo, Sarutobi Sasuke, and Fuma Kotaro, who combine to fight the Red Ninja, who puts up a valiant fight but is soon defeated. On the verge of certain death, he's rescued by the Red Toqger Ranger and quickly spirited away. Long story short, the other members of the Ninninger and Toqger teams agree to work together to rescue the two Red Rangers from Yami Ninja Land. The Toqger members are even given temporary ninja powers and ninja outfits. They all converge on Ninja Land and use ninja tactics to infiltrate the place and eventually join the Red Rangers in a massive battle at a quarry.
Meanwhile, on Harumi Island in Tokyo Bay, two of the villains from the different series show up with the Hitokarage, the Ninninger monster soldiers, to terrorize citizens until they are stopped by a new sentai team, Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, the stars of the 2016 sentai season, making a cameo appearance. It's a massive fight scene filmed on location at a sprawling waterfront plaza adjoining the Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal. Its modernist architecture provides a dramatic backdrop and its wide, open plaza lends itself well to large sentai battle scenes. It's a frequent location for fight scenes in these shows.
Back at Ninja Land, the Rangers' battle with the Yami Aka Ninja results in an uncertain fate for Takaharu, but after some intervention from the afterlife, all twelve Rangers are reunited for a final battle with Mavro and his army of villains at an abandoned mine in the hills. When Mavro pilots his own train monster, the Ninningers and Toqgers combine their zords for a spectacular zord battle under a darkened sky at the mine. It's one of the most impressive such scenes I've yet seen in a sentai movie.
I liked the abundance of historical, ninja and train motifs in the film, as well as the use of actual locations for much of the action, enhanced by various CGI effects, of course. And I was intrigued by the samurai village backlot set, which doesn't appear to be in any studio complex. It's certainly not part of the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, which has a somewhat smaller village on its grounds. I wonder where it is in Japan.
For the record, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger" forms the basis for the current Power Rangers season in the U.S., "Power Rangers Ninja Steel." Sadly, "Ressha Sentai Toqger" was never used as the basis for a Power Rangers season. For the record, Toqger is pronounced Toe-KYU-jer.
Action-packed all-star Kamen Rider mash-up
HEISEI RIDER VS. SHOWA RIDER: KAMEN RIDER TAISEN FEAT. SUPER SENTAI (2014) was evidently not well-liked in Japan, as reported in the "Reception" section of Wikipedia's page for this film, nor by longtime stateside fans of Kamen Rider, judging by the one previously published IMDb review for this title. I happened to enjoy it a great deal, but I can understand why Kamen Rider devotees would balk at it. Just think how American Batman fans would react if there had been a movie around 2005 where all previous and then-present incarnations of Batman showed up on screen together in costume, a lineup that would include Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale, and out popped the original TV Batman, Adam West, also in costume, but as a bad guy leading a fight against the later Batmans. It wouldn't have bothered me, but I don't think it would have gone over well with die-hard Batman fanboys. However, my exposure to Kamen Rider over the decades has been limited to sample episodes from a handful of different seasons, occasionally in subtitled form, but more often in Japanese with no subs. So I don't have much emotional investment in this franchise. My interest in a film like this is purely in witnessing the visual spectacle of dozens of Kamen Riders and various monster antagonists slugging it out in effects-filled martial arts battles staged almost entirely on actual locations in and around Tokyo. And this film more than delivers on that promise.
The copy I have of this does not have subtitles, so I used a synopsis from Wikipedia to help me keep a score card as to who's who among the many and varied Kamen Riders. It left out a lot of major details, so I'm not sure I could adequately sum up the plot if asked to. For instance, if there are good reasons why the older Showa Riders (Hirohito era) would turn against the younger Heisei Riders (Akihito era), they're not really evident from the synopsis. Or the actual reasons could just be as lame as they sound. Japanese fans insisted that the older Showa Riders acted completely out of character and I can understand that, although I'm wondering if it was simply the choice of the filmmakers to present a generational divide between the era when older and tougher looking actors were cast in the Kamen Rider roles, e.g. Hiroshi Fujioka, the original Kamen Rider from 1971, who has a role here, and the more recent 21st century versions where the Kamen Rider actors all look and sound like refugees from J-pop boy bands. Of course, once they're in costume, it's all stunt men of about the same age and build taking a whack at each other.
If, like me, you're an aficionado of Tokyo locations, there is much to savor here. A lot of the locations seemed fresh to me and I speak as someone who's seen dozens of sentai episodes, which generally use a lot of the same locations as Kamen Rider episodes. On my trip to Japan last year, I even visited some of the commonly-used locations. In this film, there was one sprawling office plaza early in the film that hosted a major battle and I wish I knew where it was. Midway through the film, when the boy, Shu, remembers where he lives and takes one of the young Kamen Riders with him to see it, it's in a sparkling clean, seemingly brand-new suburban development, complete with a beautiful bridge and park in the middle of the place. Sure enough, the bad guys show up and a major fight breaks out in this picture-perfect setting. The climactic battle involving warring factions of Kamen Riders and the monsters from the Badan Empire takes place in a wide modern plaza somewhere in Odaiba with the modernist Chuo-Ohashi bridge in the background. The action even shifts to the bridge at one point. The high point is when the underground base of the Badan Empire emerges to the surface, smashing through various landmarks of the site. It's all quite spectacular and offers much excitement and imagination. To make things even better, the Super Sentai participants include the Ressha Sentai Toqger team and the Red Ranger from Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, along with his red T-Rex Zord. Their Zord combination is really clever and I only wish there had been more shots of it in action. I'm sorry that Kamen Rider purists are put off by this film, but the rest of us can just wallow in the colorfully costumed heroes and villains on display and their furious exchanges of blows and sword thrusts, plus the occasional effects-created combat tactics. Some of the Riders even have hand devices that can turn into motorcycles. (Paging Capsule Corporation!)
Ninpû Kamui gaiden (1969)
"Search of the Ninja" was taken from this series
"Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" is an animated ninja series that ran on Japanese TV in 1969 and was based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It tells the story of Kamui, a young ninja in the Edo period who leaves his clan and is pursued relentlessly by ninjas sent to kill him. The animation in the series is closely modeled on the style and design of Shirato's manga and even uses different frame sizes and split screens to make it look like a manga-in-motion. It's quite beautiful and creative and makes one wonder what other anime experiments from that era are waiting to be discovered by American fans. I first learned of this series when I purchased a used 30-minute VHS tape entitled "Search of the Ninja" that had been distributed by Kidds Klassics, a now-defunct outfit that specialized in video collections of old public domain Hollywood cartoons. The single episode presented on the tape was followed by trailers for two other Kidds Klassics Japanese releases, "Magic of the Ninja," offering a single episode from a live-action ninja series called "Kaiketsu Lion Maru," and "Kiko Boy Ninja," taken from a 1968 anime series called "Sasuke."
The 22-minute episode offered on the tape I purchased was dubbed in English and doesn't feature a single credit. There are sequences evidently meant to have opening and closing credits, but they're presented entirely absent of text. I did some research and learned that what I had was an episode of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden," although I couldn't tell which one. It's certainly not the first one since it plunges right into the action as the evil ninja master Mashira pursues Kamui with murderous ferocity. When we first meet Kamui, he is resting with his pet falcon and, upon spotting a nearby pack of wolves, decides to dab himself with an ointment with an odor designed to attract the wolves who descend upon him and give chase, providing Kamui his needed morning exercise. Mashira and his band of ninja assassins soon show up and distract Kamui from the wolves, causing him to use various ninja tactics to sneak past them through the flowing grass stalks and use the wolves as bait for the ninjas. Later, Kamui and Mashira have a series of one-on-one battles in a thick forest with lots of leaping on and off tree limbs, the use of assorted ninja tricks, and the furious lobbing of metal throwing stars (shuriken). Much of the imagery in this sequence looks forward to similar action in the 1993 anime classic, NINJA SCROLL. There is a significant supporting character in Ryuta, a young boy living in a forest hut with his sister, who wants to join Kamui and learn the ways of the ninja. We see Ryuta catching fish from a nearby river but is then bullied by village boys. Ryuta fights back valiantly, but they all gang up on him and beat him, while also leaving his catch battered and inedible. He goes back to the hut and laments the absence of Kamui, who was watching from afar, curious to see how Ryuta responds to such challenges.
Throughout the episode, the creative graphic design makes dramatic use of light, shadow, and a narrow color palette, along with background art in the style of Japanese charcoal paintings. The character design is simple, but effective. The imagery sometimes freezes and turns black-and-white, a device that may have been imposed by the American distributor to edit out gore and mute the scenes of bloodshed. If I could only compare it with the Japanese original to confirm that.
A lot happens in the 22-minute episode and it certainly piqued my interest in wanting to see the entire series, preferably in Japanese. I would even watch it in Japanese without subtitles, since it tells its story in such a visual manner. How I can do that, I don't know. As far as I know, Kidds Klassics only released the one tape. (The English dubbing on this tape is awful.)
In Japan, "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" was preceded by a similarly themed ninja series, the aforementioned "Sasuke" (1968-69), that was also based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It was about a boy learning the ninja arts from his father while trying to avoid killers led by the notorious Hattori Hanzo, working for the Tokugawa Shogunate and seeking to eliminate the boy's clan. The plot synopsis provided on this page for "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" actually describes "Sasuke" and the picture of the boy with the red scarf with white polka dots in the photo gallery is from "Sasuke." There is no entry for "Sasuke" on IMDb. I've seen three episodes of that series on VHS—in Japanese with no subtitles—and it's an absolute work of art, with some of the most expressive use of color I've ever seen in anime. Its animation and design are even better than that of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden." I would love to see more.
For the record, Sanpei Shirato revived the character of Kamui in a 1990 manga series called "The Legend of Kamui" that was published in English by Viz Communications in 1998. As far as I know, no other Shirato series has been published in English.
Chinese Immigrant comes to the cavalry's rescue
"Sam Kee and Uncle Sam" is one of a handful of "Death Valley Days" episodes to deal with Asian characters out west and the earliest of the ones I've seen. Benson Fong plays Sam Kee, a Chinese immigrant traveling alone out west trying to make his way to San Francisco to either return to China or open a restaurant, depending on whom he's telling his story to. He winds up at Fort Huachuca in Arizona after aiding an army lieutenant by employing firecrackers and a pot of boiling water to fend off a small band of attacking Apaches. The Apaches have been raiding the pay wagons so the men at the fort have not been paid in weeks. Sam offers to help in the kitchen to pay for his room and board and winds up being a "first-class" cook and waiter whose efforts please the soldiers who have been pining for a decent meal. The commanding officer fears that there's a spy in the fort working for the Apaches and Sam is the one who figures out who it is. Eventually the men threaten to desert, just as the Apaches prepare an attack on the fort. Sam finds a unique way to stave off disaster. There is much talk of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the commanding officer's duty under the Act to eventually eject Sam from the fort, something the Colonel is increasingly reluctant to do.
I enjoy seeing stories of Asian life in TV westerns, especially when they get an actor of the right ethnic background to play the part as is the case here, with Chinese-American Benson Fong playing a man who could well have been his own ancestor. However, Fong has been directed to play the role in a somewhat stereotyped fashion. While the character is quick-witted and resourceful, he's also quite subservient and speaks his lines in the way Hollywood often required of its Chinese characters, with a thick accent and replacing the "r" with an "l" in pronouncing words, so we hear Sam frequently say "So solly" instead of "So sorry." One can argue that a Chinese immigrant of Sam's status would not have been speaking standard English by this point in his tenure, but I still find the "So solly" grating. In the later episodes of "Death Valley Days" with Asian characters that I've watched, "The Book," starring George Takei, and "The Dragon of Gold Hill," starring Soon-Tek Oh, the characters were not portrayed in a stereotyped fashion. Granted, neither of them was ethnically right for their roles although both are at least Asian. (Japanese-American Takei played a Chinese immigrant, while Korean-born Soon-Tek Oh played a Japanese immigrant.) I've reviewed both for IMDb.
Magical trains in flight in delightful sentai movie
RESSHA SENTAI TOQGER THE MOVIE: GALAXY LINE S.O.S. (2014) is a 30-minute movie spin-off of the 2014 super sentai season, "Ressha Sentai Toqger," about a group of young fighters in superhero costumes who travel in trains on the mystical Rainbow Line taking on intergalactic villains from the Shadow Line. (For some reason, this season was never adapted for the U.S. Power Rangers franchise, even though the seasons before and after it were.) The movie is a fast-paced, entertaining mélange of action, color, special effects, Tokyo locations and attractive young performers. The plot has to do with Lady (Haruka Fukuhara), the female conductor of the Galaxy Line, making a once-every-25-years stop on Earth and getting stranded, requiring help from the Toqger team, despite efforts by Shadow Line villains Count Nile and Hound Shadow to stop them. The centerpiece of the short film is a lovely sequence that begins with Lady walking with the Toqgers, out of costume, through a Tokyo park and lamenting the lack of imagination in the populace, noting how everyone is looking down at their phones and not looking up to the sky. However, the team's Red Ranger, aka Right (Jun Shison), comes up with a plan to use the nearby Tokyo Skytree as part of a ramp to propel the Galaxy Line and points to all the children in the park willing to help with the power of their imagination, a requirement for the train to be able to leave Earth. He uses the Rainbow Line train to push the Galaxy Line's "Lion Train" up the tracks stretching above the skyline and the Tokyo Skytree, a broadcasting and observation tower located across the Sumida River opposite metropolitan Tokyo and, reportedly, the second tallest structure in the world. As the children rush to the edge of the park to watch, their imaginations are harnessed to complete the mission. It's all very beautiful and touching.
In return for their help, Lady gives the Toqgers a set of Galaxy Line weapons to help in their continuing battles, on Tokyo locations, with Count Nile, Hound Shadow and their army of black-clad minions. The weapons include a few surprises and, in the spectacular zord battle finale, even involves the two trains from the Galaxy and Rainbow lines. The whole thing plays like a more polished, bigger-budgeted episode of the TV series. I enjoyed it a great deal and I don't see how sentai fans can go wrong with this. (If you need further convincing, check out the images I've submitted to IMDb's Photo Gallery for this film.) This film originally played on a double bill in Japanese theaters with that season's Kamen Rider movie spin-off, KAMEN RIDER GAIM. I am submitting this review on the third anniversary of the premiere of that double bill. For the record, Toqger is pronounced "Toe-KYU-jer."
Shen jian zhen jiang hu (1967)
Shaw Bros. swordplay adventure with a heavy dose of romance
THE THUNDERING SWORD (1967) starts out as a fairly standard Shaw Bros. adventure about rival clans in Old China and the quest for a mystical sword, with lots of deadly encounters with one faction or another, but in its second half it plays out more like a romantic melodrama as the two leads try to chart the course of true love despite several obstacles, not least of which is the hero's being accused of a mass murder that the heroine actually committed. Hero Yu (Chang Yi) represents the "proper" clan as he sets out at the film's beginning with his partner, played by Lo Lieh, to find the Thundering Sword, but are separated, leaving Lo Lieh alone when, due to a misunderstanding, he is poisoned by a traveling swordswoman, So Jiau Jiau (Cheng Pei Pei), who then, realizing her mistake, applies the antidote and hires a security firm to transport the wounded man back to his clan. Jiau Jiau, a leader of the "evil" Caterpillar Clan, meets Hero Yu and falls in love with him. Long story short, Lo Lieh is left for dead and Jiau Jiau, dressed as a man, attacks the security firm's headquarters as they prepare a trap for Hero Yu and massacres all the employees. Hero Yu comes on the scene afterwards and is blamed for it, causing all kinds of troubles among the rival clans. As Yu and Jiau Jiau grow closer, will she come clean on her role in the poisoning of Lo Lieh and the massacre of the Yue men? Complicating matters is the presence in Yu's clan of a female member, played by Shu Pei Pei, who also loves Yu.
Hero Yu is stalwart and pure-hearted, but also rather naive and inexperienced. It probably helps that Chang Yi plays him in such a stolid manner, whether deliberate or not. Jiau Jiau is the more aggressive one and actually steers them into marriage plans, despite the fact that both of their clans are sure to be opposed. It's rare for a love story to take such precedence in a film like this. While Jiau Jiau is forceful with opponents, she's quite gentle and affectionate with Hero Yu and deferential towards her father, the clan chief, and other elders. When she encounters Lo Lieh again, as he recuperates, she apologizes for what she did to him and pleads for forgiveness in quite a powerful and dramatic scene. Later, at the big "trial" scene, as the rival clans wait for sentence to be passed, with poor Yu tied up, Jiau Jiau enters the fray and confronts the accusers. There's no big action set-piece at the end, but instead a set of deeply emotional exchanges.
Cheng Pei Pei is excellent here and the role represents a rare opportunity for her to show her versatility as an actress. Because of the formal nature of the many encounters she has and the roles she has to play before her father and the clan elders, she has to adjust her voice and speak in different tones in different scenes. When she opens up and tells the truth to Hero Yu and Lo Lieh, in separate scenes, it's the real Jiau Jiau and we see just how sincere she is and remorseful over the acts she committed. I was very moved by her performance.
In addition to those already mentioned, the cast is filled with Shaw Bros. regulars, including Tien Feng, Ku Feng, Chen Hung Lieh, Wu Ma, Cliff Lok and, in the role of Cheng Pei Pei's maid, Ching Li, who would play Cheng's character in Chor Yuen's remake of this film nine years later, THE WEB OF DEATH (1976), which I've also reviewed on IMDb.
There are several songs on the soundtrack, including one beautiful love song performed for Hero Yu by Jiau Jiau, although the singing voice is provided by an uncredited singer. The rest of the soundtrack includes music cues from other sources, including Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and Miklos Rozsa's theme music from THE V.I.P.S (1963), both lovely tunes to be sure, but not quite in fitting with the tone of this film.
Director Hsu Cheng-Hung also directed the "Red Lotus" trilogy starring Jimmy Wang Yu: TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS, TWIN SWORDS, THE SWORD AND THE LUTE, all of which I've also reviewed on IMDb.
The big fight scene in which Jiau Jiau takes on the Yue security film is quite exciting and well-staged, but there's nothing comparable in the rest of the film. For those who prefer Cheng Pei Pei in full fighting mode throughout, there are plenty of Shaw Bros. films with her that deliver lots of action, including BROTHERS FIVE, LADY HERMIT and THE SHADOW WHIP. For those who want to see the full range of her skills as an actress, THE THUNDERING SWORD is a good place to start.
Awkward propaganda film couches liberal sentiments in patriotic wrapping
I'm not quite sure who IT'S A BIG COUNTRY was aimed at. And given the fact that it was a box office flop, I'm guessing that the general audience didn't think it was aimed at them. It purports to show the diversity of America by offering seven segments promoting different aspects of life in postwar America, but it still traffics in stereotypes and Hollywood conventions. For instance, there are two segments involving immigrant fathers with children assimilating in ways they don't like. One immigrant father from Hungary hates Greeks and is appalled when his cherished oldest daughter falls in love with one. The other immigrant father, from Italy, refuses to let his son wear glasses because they're not manly even though the boy's teacher insists he needs them to be able to read the blackboard. In each case the immigrant, in a film supposedly pro-diversity, behaves in a most backward fashion. At least the Hungarian is played by an actual Hungarian immigrant actor, S.Z. Sakall, so there is some authenticity there. However, the Italian immigrant is played by Fredric March, of English, German and Scottish heritage, and the performance seems highly exaggerated. Surely, they could have gotten an Italian actor or even J. Carrol Naish, who did that kind of role effectively plenty of times in his career. It's the final sequence in the film and left me with a distinctly uneasy feeling. In the Hungarian sequence, Janet Leigh plays the oldest daughter and Gene Kelly plays the Greek she falls in love with. I guess this is what is meant by "ethnically blind" casting.
The first sequence goes so far as to dissect the notion that America is a "great country" when a traveling salesman (James Whitmore) on a train ride buttonholes a college professor (William Powell) to tell him that America is a great country and the professor then responds with "Which America?," and starts pointing out how different America is depending on where you are in its vast domain. So it looks like there will be some critique of blind patriotism, a direction then completely ignored in the rest of the film.
The segment on African-Americans doesn't even mention the race of its participants in the narration (by Louis Calhern) accompanying it, preferring to use the phrase, "other Americans." Instead of a fictional story, it offers a documentary sequence on prominent blacks in the postwar era, including Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, then the ambassador to the United Nations, General Benjamin O. Davis, and the late George Washington Carver. There are segments on sports and the arts that highlight Jackie Robinson and Lena Horne, among others. There are numerous less well-known blacks in government and business who are cited, so it's nice to see a slice of little-known history. Curiously, the military footage is all from World War II and shows a distinctly segregated military even though President Truman had desegregated the military three years before this film. I suspect that producer Dore Schary feared that any fictional story about blacks that they created for the film would get criticized for stereotypes, denounced for avoiding the topic of discrimination, or, if they chose to be bold enough to tell a proper story about blacks in the postwar era, boycotted by southern theater owners. The documentary sequence was clearly a compromise and it could easily be removed by theater owners in the south. There are no non-white characters in any other sequence of the film.
There's a comic monologue by Gary Cooper as a Texan who speaks modestly of the state's size and reputation, wondering, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, why everyone thinks Texas is so "big." It doesn't jibe with the rest of the sequences here and was clearly inserted for comic relief.
The best sequence is arguably the one in which an Irish immigrant widow, played by Ethel Barrymore, insists to a Boston newspaper editor (George Murphy) that the 1950 census did not include her, so, after a false start, the editor starts a campaign to get the Census Bureau to correct its mistake. It's about wanting to be acknowledged and recognized by the larger society, something each wave of immigrants has had to deal with in different ways over the last couple of centuries.
Another sequence focuses on a visiting minister (Van Johnson) who takes the pulpit at a church in Washington D.C. in 1944 at a time when the then-president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, attends that church. The minister tailors his carefully prepared sermon to the president every week, despite the president's absence, putting the regular parishioners to sleep until the church sexton (Lewis Stone) finally calls him on it, urging him to address the entire congregation. I'm not sure what this segment had to do with the aims of the film or what it was trying to tell us, but, interestingly, the sequence cuts from the entrance of the president (off-camera) at the very end to the next sequence where we see a school teacher at work, played by Nancy Davis, who would marry Ronald Reagan the following year and become the First Lady 30 years after this film, adding a surprisingly prophetic touch.
Curiously, the cast includes a mix of liberals and conservatives from Hollywood's ranks. George Murphy, Gary Cooper and Nancy Davis were notable conservatives, while Gene Kelly and Fredric March were outspoken liberals. I wonder what they all thought of the finished film.
Hardie confronts a vicious outlaw family
"Showdown Trail" is one of those "Wells Fargo" episodes that takes its characters out on location and delivers on its promise of plenty of action. Here, Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie is taking a prisoner, Ed Dooley, who is cuffed to his wrist, to San Francisco for trial. When the Dooley outlaw clan stops the train, they abduct Hardie, still chained to Ed because he'd sent the handcuff key on to San Francisco, and kill Hardie's partner. Eventually, Hardie gets free and goes on the run from the Dooleys, trying to find a way to get a horse and gun and go back and confront them. The Dooleys, led by ruthless Joe Dooley and including Ed's brother Pat and sister Fay, present a formidable enemy to Hardie. Fay, realizing Hardie doesn't know her, sets out to lure him into a trap, which she manages to do rather effortlessly. As always in this series, Hardie eventually prevails, but it's a very suspenseful ride along the way.
The cast is a colorful one and includes short-lived Bowery Boy Stanley Clements as Ed and the striking brunette Gloria Talbott (a mainstay of westerns and sci-fi films in the 1950s) as the cunning Fay. Reliable heavy Myron Healey plays Pat, while tough old Joe is played by Will Wright, a dependable character actor who usually played smaller parts and rarely one that required as much action as this role. Another standout heavy in the cast is Emile Meyer, who plays an ill-fated neighbor of the Dooleys who refuses to help Hardie when he's in need. The location photography is quite spectacular.
Tales of Wells Fargo: The Dealer (1958)
A settler addicted to gambling presents a challenge to Jim Hardie
"The Dealer" is one of those "Wells Fargo" episodes where the narrative takes place almost entirely indoors and is more of a drama than an action piece. But when the writing is as good as it is here, thanks to veteran Hollywood screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, there'll be no complaints from this reviewer. Vic Perrin plays a settler with a family who is given some crucial aid by Wells Fargo agent Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson), but when he offers to buy Hardie a drink at the saloon, he gets obsessed with an ongoing poker game and soon puts up his life savings in the hopes of experiencing a winning streak like the one he once enjoyed. When Perrin loses his money, Hardie stakes him to a one-on-one game of high card draw with the cardsharp (Michael de Carlo) who'd won all his money, but not before producing a fresh pack of cards from the bartender. As it looks like Perrin's having another winning streak, it gets quite suspenseful. The resolution was quite a surprise and is based entirely on an issue of character and moral choice, rather than circumstance or contrivance. I was quite moved.
Johnny Crawford, who was already starring with Chuck Connors in "The Rifleman" when this episode aired, appears here as Perrin's son. Perrin was a frequent guest star on episodic TV and made numerous appearances in "Dragnet" in both its 1950s and 1960s incarnations. Scripter Bezzerides is best known for writing such film noir classics as THIEVES' HIGHWAY, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and KISS ME DEADLY.
Death Valley Days: Yankee Pirate (1958)
A Yankee pirate gets a chance at redemption in Spanish California
"Death Valley Days" deserves note for devoting several episodes to early California history when the area was under Spanish control. "Yankee Pirate" opens in 1820 when a raid by pirates on the California coast meets with resistance when the local landowners band together and drive them off. They capture one of the pirates, an American, who would have been immediately killed but for the intervention of Lupe (Pamela Duncan), daughter of Don Jose Ortega (Edward Colmans). Lupe is startled when the American speaks to her. "You speak our language," she tells him, indicating that even though the actors are speaking English we're to assume that only Spanish is being spoken. We thus learn that the American speaks Spanish. His name, we eventually learn, is Joe Chapman (Ken Clark), from Boston, and he was shanghaied and taken aboard a ship traveling to the Pacific. He fell in with the pirates because it was the only way he could get back to America. He is assigned as a bondservant to the household of Don Antonio Lugo (Gabriel Curtiz), a neighboring landowner, and, through hard work, an extraordinary skill set, and exemplary behavior, he earns the respect and friendship of Don Antonio. When he learns that Don Antonio has asked for the hand of Lupe in marriage, Joe asks to be transferred to work at the mission, which is many miles away. It has become obvious that he loves Lupe also, but feels he cannot speak up as long as he's not a free man. While there are detours on the road to true love, the path is never quite blocked.
It's a fascinating slice of history from a period that is not widely covered in westerns. (See also my review of a later episode of "Death Valley Days" entitled "The Firebrand.") It's nice to see an American who becomes part of the fabric of Spanish society in America and is treated as an important member of the community. We see no other Americans in the film except for some of the multiracial members of the briefly seen pirate crew. (A black crewman is also captured and he's immediately assigned by the Spaniards to slave labor and is never seen or heard from again. It would have been interesting to see an episode devoted to his story.) Ken Clark, who plays Joe, had a marginal career in Hollywood in the 1950s, appearing in TV shows and the occasional film, before heading out, like so many of his contemporaries, to Italy, where he appeared in Hercules movies, westerns, war movies and spy movies throughout the 1960s. He's quite good here and it's too bad he didn't get a starring role in a long-running western series that would have insured some form of stardom here and maybe gotten him the kind of career he deserved.
I saw this episode when it ran on the Encore Western cable channel as part of its regular weekday afternoon schedule of classic TV westerns.
Tales of Wells Fargo: Lola Montez (1959)
Distinguished passenger rides a stagecoach pursued by Indians
Despite her name comprising the title of this episode of "Tales of Wells Fargo," Lola Montez, the famed 19th century entertainer, is just a supporting character here, one of several stagecoach passengers caught up in a dispute with Arizona Apaches as Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson) endeavors to take his prisoner to trial in Tucson rather than turn him over to the Apaches who want to mete out their own brand of justice to a man who killed two of their own. After a harrowing chase, the stagecoach makes it to Earle Hodgins' relay station, which has a stockade wall around it, making it look more like a fort than a relay station. The passengers want Hardie to turn his prisoner, Zach Bradley (Bob Anderson), over to the Apaches so they can get on their way safely, but Hardie wants Bradley to be tried and hung in Tucson for the murder of a Wells Fargo man. This puts Hardie in a doubly dangerous situation. The Apaches are attacking from without and the passengers are threatening to turn on him from within.
In the course of all this, Lola Montez (Rita Moreno), in the midst of an Arizona tour, is squabbling with her pianist and traveling companion, Chris Hurley (John Holland), the one man among the passengers who supports Hardie's position. Hardie even engages in a bit of couples therapy, frontier-style, for the two. To answer the previous commenter's questions, we don't see Lola perform at all in this episode, which is too bad, given Moreno's singing and dancing skills. Also, the question of Lola's actual national origin is addressed here, requiring Lola to drop her carefully cultivated accent in some scenes. Frankly, I wish the writers had dropped the standard stagecoach-and-Indians plot and found a more creative way to have Hardie meet Lola, preferably one that would have allowed a musical sequence or two. This episode ran on the Encore Western cable channel on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, as part of the channel's regular weekday afternoon schedule of "Tales of Wells Fargo."
Dispute among silver miners in Nevada in 1900
"Birth of a Boom" is not the most compelling of "Death Valley Days" episodes, but it deserves note for featuring late-career Wyatt Earp in a cameo appearance (played by Harry Fleer) and giving veteran western heavy Roy Barcroft a juicy, sympathetic central role for once in his long career. Here he plays Jim Butler, a Nevadan of large ambitions but little success until he finds a silver lode that enables him and his various partners to get rich, although rival miners cause them immense trouble during the course of the several years in which the story takes place. They fend off all sorts of dubious claims because Butler and his partners remain close and form a relationship based on trust, cooperation and equal shares. Too often in such stories, we see partnerships like this break up over greed.
Laramie: Man of God (1959)
James Gregory as a courageous priest on a mission of peace
In "Man of God," a Season One episode of "Laramie," the Sioux are on the warpath in Dakota Territory and Father Elliott (James Gregory), a Catholic priest in a monk's robe and cap, sets off on a mule to try and reach Sitting Bull to talk him out of war. He spends a night at the Sherman Ranch with series regulars Slim (John Smith) and Jess (Robert Fuller), but neither one will offer to guide him to Sitting Bull's location. They consider it too dangerous. So Elliott enters a saloon in Laramie and recruits someone named Charlie Root (Bill Williams), who, unbeknownst to Elliott, is a gunman working for a band of gunrunners and whiskey sellers whose trade with the Indians will be jeopardized by any moves for peace. Jess gets wind of all this and sets off in pursuit to try and catch up with them before Root can harm the padre. But Father Elliott, not simply a naïve do-gooder but a true "man of God," is not easily fooled and has a trick or two up his sleeve himself.
There's some great location shooting in this episode once they get to Sioux country. It's got a great cast which includes Raymond Bailey as an army colonel who gives the priest nothing but scorn; Douglas Kennedy as the leader of the gunrunners; and, in a remarkable cameo appearance, Frank DeKova as Sitting Bull. But it's Gregory as the unwavering, unflappable but surefooted priest who steals the show. There's more talk than action, but it's great dialogue and Gregory keeps us enthralled. (The script is by Kathleen Hite, who had quite a long list of exemplary TV writing credits, including the second episode of "Laramie," "Glory Road," which also had a charismatic religious figure at the center of it.)