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Kyojin no hoshi (1968)
"Star of the Giants" - Pioneering animated sports series
"Star of the Giants" (Kyojin no Hoshi) is an animated series about Japanese baseball that premiered on Japanese TV on March 3, 1968 and ran for 182 episodes, ending its run on Sept. 18, 1971. The Clements/McCarthy "Anime Encyclopedia" declares it the very first sports-themed anime series. Its popularity spawned an endless succession of sports anime that continues to this day. The series is also significant for being the first animated contemporary drama without any supernatural, sci-fi or historical elements. It offered the Japanese TV industry-and the audience-solid proof that animation could be used to tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of genres and wasn't necessarily aimed at children. It also proved that audiences were willing to sit and watch a continuing animated story, week in and week out.
I watched two Japanese VHS tapes containing ten episodes of the series in Japanese with no subtitles. The first tape, containing eps. 53-56, is from the beginning of the second season, while the second tape, containing eps. 112-115 and 117-118, is from the third season. (I have no clue why ep. 116 was deliberately omitted from the tape.) In the first tape, Hoshi, the series' young protagonist, is a junior player with the Yomiuri Giants and is seen mostly in practice. He'd been trained since childhood by his father, a former baseball champ, and his joining the Giants is the beginning of a great career for the future star pitcher. In these episodes, he's still living with his parents.
In the second tape, Hoshi is already a star pitcher but he and his father are now bitter enemies. Hoshi, a southpaw, has perfected something called the "Diving Ball," a nearly lethal pitching technique that involves hurling the ball in such a manner that it heads right for the batter's face, forcing him to hold up the bat to defend himself, thus rendering his hit ineffectual. The pitch has such power that it often knocks the batter down even though he'd successfully deflected the ball. Hoshi's dad, Ittetsu, coaches a rival team and has trained a rival player to counter the Diving Ball and score hits off it. This player happens to be a black American named Armstrong who sees Hoshi as his enemy and taunts and snarls at him whenever they're on the same field. (Armstrong speaks Japanese.) It doesn't help matters that Hoshi is tortured by flashbacks of past batters getting hit and seriously injured by his Diving Ball pitches.
This is as overwrought as you can get. Hoshi is clearly disturbed by his father's behavior and has waking nightmares that pit him and his father, in the form of lions, against each other on an open field. Every time the scene moves into Hoshi's head, there is a sudden shift to stylized abstract backgrounds marked by jagged lines and dark colors. There are frequent flashbacks to his training and to bad encounters in previous games. Hoshi does not seem to be well liked and batters often taunt him from first base. They take baseball quite seriously in this series and there seems to be no time for banter, jokes or light-hearted moments. I'm also quite sure that the Diving Ball and taunts from first base would be strictly illegal in real baseball.
The character design is strong, with well-etched lines and distinct features for each major character. Which is important, since the series relies on frequent closeups to tell the story. While the eyes on the main characters are a little wider than Asian eyes would look, chiefly to facilitate more explicit displays of emotion, most of the Japanese characters are made to look Japanese from all other design standpoints. Only Hoshi's mother has light-colored (brown) hair. (She is also the only female character seen in the episodes available to me.) The characters are very emotional and the men cry and sweat a lot.
The series, based on a popular manga (comic book), is told realistically for the most part, aside from the extreme tactics used in the game and the reliance on stylized visuals to dramatize Hoshi's state of mind and depict certain baseball actions. For instance, when the ball is in motion after a pitcher's throw, it appears in a flattened or curved shape as it flies through the air. Also, when Armstrong is up at bat and decides to swing at the ball, his image is briefly replaced by a furious whirlwind, a visual cue that he's sure to hit the ball. There are abstract touches like this throughout, usually in moments of great baseball prowess or extreme emotion.
There are newspaper articles that have real photos in them. And in one TV newscast covering a baseball story, a few seconds of live-action horse racing footage is inserted, the meaning of which I couldn't grasp. In ep. 54, the team goes to Hawaii to play an American team and they win, 13-4. In ep. 56, Hoshi's father tells the story, seen in flashback, of a samurai ancestor who challenges a sword master repeatedly until the master relents and fights the challenger, killing him in one quick slash. I didn't quite get the moral of that story.
It's highly doubtful this classic series will ever get a subtitled release in the U.S. It's not the kind of baseball story that would appeal to American sports fans and its style of animation would strike young anime fans as old-fashioned. But I found it compelling for the intensity of its drama and the force of its imagery. It had some of the same appeal for me as another animated sports series I saw recently without subtitles, "Aim for the Ace" (Ace wo Nerae), about a female tennis player, which I've also reviewed here. I recommend this for other students of anime history, given its significance for the reasons outlined in the first paragraph.
Tales of Wells Fargo: Faster Gun (1958)
Tom Neal from DETOUR in one of his last acting jobs
What a pleasant surprise to turn on "Tales of Wells Fargo" this afternoon (on the Encore Western Channel) and see legendary B-movie star Tom Neal (DETOUR) appear as outlaw Johnny Reno in "Faster Gun." In the opening scene he outdraws our hero Jim Hardie (Dale Robertson), putting Hardie in the humiliating position of having to take a desk job while he's recuperating from the gunshot Reno gave him. At some point, Hardie insists on going after Reno himself, but his boss makes him take along the man hired to replace him, former bounty hunter Jack Simmons (longtime western heavy Robert J. Wilke), who snarls at Hardie and constantly derides him for having "lost his nerve." They head down to El Paso where Reno has been robbing gold shipments thanks to inside info he's managed to glean from someone in the local El Paso office. (If only Al Roberts, Neal's character in DETOUR, had been this crafty.) Can Hardie get his groove back in time for the inevitable rematch? Stay tuned. I'm a big fan of "Tales of Wells Fargo" and I consider this one of the best episodes I've seen.
This was Neal's second-to-last acting job. He made one more TV appearance the following year (1959), in "Mike Hammer," which starred Darren McGavin.
Death Valley Days: The Deserters (1960)
Solid cast distinguishes unusual Civil War story
In "The Deserters," a Season 9 episode of "Death Valley Days," Kenneth Tobey plays a Union Army Colonel who undertakes to capture five army deserters during the Civil War and bring them back to base in Arizona. After he gets the drop on them and ties them up, they are faced with a threat from a superior Confederate force as they occupy a small cul-de-sac and he has to trust them to help him fight them off. It's a low-budget production filmed almost entirely on a small interior set, but it's extremely well-acted with Tobey showing the kind of leadership skills he displayed nine years earlier in the classic sci-fi monster film, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and the others playing varied character types. Dennis Patrick, later the beleaguered father of Susan Sarandon in JOE (1970), plays the embittered leader of the deserters. Dick Wilson, the future Mr. Whipple of Charmin toilet paper fame, is the most timid and hesitant of the deserters. Veteran character actor Frank Richards plays an ex-stevedore from San Francisco who makes the mistake of challenging Tobey to a fight before he'll even think about cooperating. Barney Biro, one of the other deserters, later played a judge in several episodes of "Perry Mason." I watched this episode on the Encore Western Channel as part of the station's afternoon lineup of classic TV westerns.
Cheyenne: The Rebellion (1959)
Cheyenne gets caught up in the Mexican Revolution
I've seen other episodes of "Cheyenne" that feature the title character on an adventure in Mexico, but "The Rebellion" (Season 4 / #3) may be the best. Cheyenne has to contend with a former friendly adversary, bandit Luis Cardenas (Rodolfo Acosta), who now leads the revolutionary forces in northern Mexico working with Benito Juarez in opposing the French-backed regime of Emperor Maximilian in the year 1867. Cheyenne has been assigned to escort an American agent who is captured early on by the French and, as he tries to determine the fate of the agent, seeks to stay as uninvolved as possible. However, he is eventually forced to confront the increasingly power-mad Cardenas. It all culminates in a plot against Juarez that only Cheyenne can thwart.
There's a strong cast of guest stars topped by Mexican actor Acosta, who has one of the juiciest roles in his long career of acting in Hollywood westerns, both big and small screen. Others in the cast include Faith Domergue, John Marley, Joe De Santis, Carlos Romero, Paul Dubov and, in the role of Juarez, Frank DeKova, who is quite good. There is occasional stock footage from the 1939 Warner Bros. feature, JUAREZ, which starred Paul Muni as Juarez. I watched this as part of the Encore Western Channel's afternoon lineup of TV westerns.
Focus on the new robot Ranger
"Silver Sacrifice," which aired on Nickelodeon on Sept. 15, 2019, is the first new Power Rangers Beast Morphers episode in four-and-a-half months. At the end of the previous episode (#8: The Cybergate Opens"), two new Rangers were introduced. Nate (Abraham Rodriguez) transformed into one of them, unnamed but looking like a Gold Ranger, while a second, with Nate's DNA mixed with insect DNA in a robot body Nate had created under orders from the villains while in captivity, became a second new Ranger, dubbed "Steel." This episode focuses on Nate and Steel and their growing bond and the efforts of the villains to recapture Steel and use his body to contain the viral cybermenace, Evox, who is looking for a host to allow him to enter the human world.
I like the villains here, especially Blaze and Roxy, the avatars of two humans, now in comas, who had been slated to be among the original Beast Morpher team. One of them, Roxy, was even the girlfriend of Ravi, the Blue Ranger, which makes his battles with her particularly heart-wrenching. As avatars, they have the memories of Blaze and Roxy, with none of the emotions. It helps that they're played by two attractive actors (Colby Strong and Liana Ramirez) who add a bit of seductive flair to their roles. In one bit, as the two hold comic relief characters Ben (Cosme Flores) and Betty (Kristina Ho) hostage and demand that Steel be turned over to them, Roxy strokes Betty's hair and chants, "Tick, tock, tick, tock." She has quite a delicious smirk. The two represent a potentially more formidable team than the Rangers, who still haven't quite developed the cohesion that the three previous Ranger teams had. It's only the ninth episode, so there's time.
The making of newspaper history at the Bismarck Tribune
The editor of a small-town newspaper in Dakota territory, Colonel Clement Lounsberry (Ron Hayes), has to turn down an offer to accompany General George Armstrong Custer (Duane Grey) on his expedition to suppress the Sioux in the spring of 1876 because of his wife's illness and assigns his assistant, Mark Kellogg (John Clarke), to cover the story. When word gets to Lounsberry of the massacre of Custer and all of his men at Little Big Horn, he has the Western Union telegrapher (Walter Sande) in Bismarck keep the line open to the office of the New York Herald and its publisher, James Gordon Bennett (Michael Emmet), despite the high cost of wire charges, until he can piece the whole story from Kellogg's last dispatch, Kellogg's recovered blood-stained diary, and interviews with wounded men from Major Reno's unit who witnessed Custer's movement into Little Big Horn and have arrived in Bismarck by riverboat. In New York, Bennett's editor, Miller (Gregg Barton), argues for waiting until confirmation arrives from the War Department, which initially denies the story. General Philip Sheridan (Maurice Manson) even makes an appearance. It's an incredibly suspenseful story and a vivid and electrifying tribute to the journalists involved. "Death Valley Days" excelled at sharply focused accounts like this. I saw this when it played on Starz Encore's Western Channel.
New Power Rangers season starts off with a bang
"Beasts Unleashed" is the premiere episode of "Power Rangers Beast Morphers," the 2019 PR season. It dispenses with the high school antics of the previous "Ninja Steel" seasons and plunges right into an epic sci-fi action plot involving a revolutionary new energy source that is being tested to power the grid for the city of Coral Harbor. The episode is fast-paced, full of action and laced with humor. I found the young adult Ranger characters quite engaging and the adult authority figures confident and compelling. The foundation is being laid for an excellent season.
At Grid Battleforce, the entity set up to provide high-tech security for the power grid, three young people are selected to become the Power Ranger team that will protect the energy source, called Morph X, but when a virus infects the system during the morphing process, disaster ensues and two young do-gooders on the scene rush in to help. In a clever turn of events, they wind up becoming Power Rangers themselves, along with one of the original designated Rangers, making a three-person team of Red, Blue and Yellow Rangers. They also engage in some spectacular martial arts fight scenes with the "avatars" created by the virus during the morphing process. It's all very exciting.
There is an excellent dramatic music score by Matt McGuire, who gets credited in the opening, the first time I've seen a prominent music credit in the franchise since the days when Shuki Levy was in charge of composing back in the 1990s.
The series is based on the 2012 Super Sentai season, "Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters," a show I like a lot. This is the first time a series that was passed over in the previous Power Rangers progression has been adapted. (This gives me hope that "Ressha Sentai Toqger," from 2014, my favorite sentai season, will eventually get adapted for Power Rangers.) As far as I could tell, there was no Japanese footage in the first episode of "Beast Morphers," although that is not uncommon for season premiere episodes in the PR franchise. I eagerly await the next new episode.
Dong kai ji (1975)
ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS - Spectacular sequel to THE WATER MARGIN
ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS (1973), co-directed by Chang Cheh and Wu Ma, is a follow-up to Chang's all-star spectacle from the year before, THE WATER MARGIN (aka SEVEN BLOWS OF THE DRAGON), based on the classic Chinese text of that title (also available in an English translation under the title, "Outlaws of the Marsh"). These are just two of many Shaw Bros. productions that have been adapted from different chapters of this sprawling epic tale. This one begins after the 108 Bandits of Liangshan Mountain have freed nobleman Lu Jun Yi (Tetsuro Tanba) from captivity, as seen in the previous film, and installed him as their second-in-command. They are now called upon to suppress a rebel prince named Fang La (Zhu Mu), who is seeking to overthrow the Emperor, and have been promised an imperial pardon should they succeed. Seven of the bandits, six men and one woman, are chosen to enter Fang La's stronghold at Hangchow and work undercover to learn his defenses and open the water gates at the appointed time so that the Liangshan boats can enter and attack the fortress. The enemy is alerted quite early to the presence of the spies and fights break out on a regular basis as Fang La's generals try to capture the bandits and thwart their efforts.
It's pretty much nonstop action from start to finish, with some of the most intricate fight scenes I've yet seen in a Shaw production. At one point, Shi Jin (Chen Kuan Tai) takes on dozens of enemy soldiers in a courtyard singlehanded. The reckless and short-tempered Black Whirlwind (Fan Mei-Sheng) was quite a lethal combatant in THE WATER MARGIN, but he's even more ferocious here, wielding his battle axes to bloody effect in one encounter after another as he cuts a swath through the onslaught of attacking soldiers, who are dwarfed by his massive presence. Also on hand are David Chiang, Wang Chung, Danny Lee, Wong Kwong Yue and the one female in the group, Yue Fung, as Sun the Witch. The rebel prince and his cadre of generals are quite a crafty and formidable group of foes, so the suspense level is high. The film makes ample use of the Shaw studio's massive backlot built for period epics. The music score is much better than the patchwork collection of random, sometimes dissonant, cues used in THE WATER MARGIN.
I had written a review of this film for IMDB back in 2001 after seeing a VHS copy of its shortened, English-dubbed version, SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU. After re-watching the film on Celestial's R3 DVD this week for the first time in nearly ten years, I came here to check my original review, but it seemed to have disappeared from this site, so I wrote this one, especially since my original review was mixed and, I believe, somewhat unfair to the film considering the copy I had to view back then. Well, the original review is back on site now, complete with a positive addendum I added in 2010. So now I have two reviews of it here. In any case, I highly recommend the film.
Nü er guo (1968)
4th in a series of "Monkey King" films from Shaw Bros.
THE LAND OF MANY PERFUMES (1968) followed three earlier films produced by Hong Kong's Shaw Bros. studio and based on parts of the Chinese epic, "Journey to the West": THE MONKEY GOES WEST, PRINCESS IRON FAN, and CAVE OF THE SILKEN WEB (1966-67). This film follows its four protagonists, Xuan Zang, the Tang monk (Ho Fan), Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King (Chow Lung-Cheung), and Pigsy (Pang Pang) and Sandy (Tien Shun), a pig demon and river demon who have both been reformed, as they continue their journey west from China to India to obtain a set of Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. The film is a delightful fantasy adventure from start to finish, with lots of comic scenes, inventive special effects, and dozens of beautiful actresses as the antagonists faced by the party of travelers.
The chief obstacles here are three sets of gorgeous women, two of which have supernatural powers, just like the Monk's three companions. The four Devil Sisters and their competitors, Snake Spirit and Scorpion Spirit, all have their own ulterior motives for capturing the monk and take on different forms in order to trick each other and the Monk and his party. The Devil Sisters take on the forms of the Monk and his three companions when they arrive at the Land of Many Perfumes, an all-female kingdom that is overjoyed to see a man at last. The monk impostor agrees to marry the Empress (Li Hsiang-Chun) when he returns and he and his party soon leave. When the real monk and his companions arrive, the Empress demands he marry her and soon her daughter, the Princess (Fang Ying), wants to marry him as well. Eventually, the Monkey King figures out who's responsible for all the mischief and undertakes a battle royale against the female demons, using every trick of sorcery in his repertoire, aided by Pigsy and Sandy.
There are many exciting scenes in this, such as the Monkey King's battle to overcome Ru Yi, the Fairy God, who has taken over the Monkey King's domain, at the Spirit Sisters' urging, and imprisoned all of his monkey subjects. Wu Kong eventually earns Ru Yi's undying gratitude, which comes in handy late in the film. When the Monkey King takes on the Devil Sisters, he uses his powers over nature to uproot trees and mountains and rivers and consign them to an amusing fate. At one point, Pigsy, basically a pig who walks on two legs and speaks, takes on the form of the monk so he can gain entrance to the Empress' boudoir and attract the attention of all her handmaidens. His distinctly un-monk-like behavior constantly gets him into trouble and provides plenty of comic relief. (The rotund actor, Pang Pang, is a remarkable physical comedian.)
The special effects may seem crude by today's standards, but they're done with so much cleverness and imagination that I enjoyed every scene with them. Granted, you can do the same things so easily with CGI these days, but there's something about lab-created optical effects and hand-crafted real-time on-set mechanical effects that make these films look so unique and give them a vivid sense of Chinese mythical fantasy that you wouldn't find in any other country's special effects films from 50 years ago. Also, there is a charming animated credits sequence.
For the record, I have reviewed two of the previous Monkey King films, PRINCESS IRON FAN and CAVE OF SILKEN WEB, on this site also. Actress Fang Ying, who plays the Princess in this film, also starred in the Taiwan-set melodrama, MIST OVER DREAM LAKE, which I've also reviewed, the same year. She's quite an unsung Shaw Bros. talent and left the studio much too soon.
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.