A Director's Cuts: The Samurai Savvy Of Hideo Gosha

"Kill!," from Kihachi Okamoto, is part of the AFI lineup. For decades, the warrior movie was a staple of Japanese film culture and industry. (Janus Films, Toho Company Ltd.)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005

Those who think samurai think Kurosawa, which is fine. You won't get into trouble that way.

But it's just not enough. And it's not very adventurous.

For it turns out that no matter how great a filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was -- "The Seven Samurai" (1954) is certainly the best known of his many superb warrior-themed pictures -- he was but one of many directors drawn to the classic images of feudal Japan, the dazzling swordsmanship, the severe code of male behavior and obligation, the courage and the really cool haircuts. To focus on him is to miss so much. It's like focusing on John Ford as the only director of westerns.

To pursue the western analogy, consider this: Wouldn't you learn, really, more and faster about westerns if you studied a routine action director who worked hard and fast and professionally within the system, never got much attention, never thought of himself as a genius, was never a favorite of critics and cineastes , died quietly and whose films were then recognized as possessing a certain something, a fury, a vision, a toughness that was unforgettable?

You would, and you'd choose to study not the great, great Ford but the great, great but far more obscure Budd Boetticher ("The Tall T," "Seven Men From Now") or the great, great but far more obscure Anthony Mann ("Bend of the River," "Winchester '73").

That is why, in samurai terms, you'd be better off to chose Hideo Gosha, a couple of whose largely unseen films swing into general view this month as part of two film series, one at Landmark's E Street Cinema, the other at the AFI Silver Theatre.

Gosha was a true auteur with a vision, a style, a set of concerns, a preference for certain actors and certain kinds of stories, but at the same time he worked in the real world of Japanese samurai filmmaking and played by its conventions; he had no dreams of global transcendence. To him, it was a job, not a mission.

In other words, he fit in. From the '50s through the '80s, the warrior movie was a staple of Japanese film culture and industry (it seems to have abated now, or at least morphed into a sort of "ironic" phase). Like westerns, it took many forms, from erotic to clownish, from gimmicky to luxurious, from grand to domestic, from comic to hyper-violent, from patriotic to subversive. Gosha could play all those games; he could work large or small and he was a genius at staging action. And in America, nobody ever heard of him. He made what was considered the average Japanese programmer, the typical film, while the movies imported to America were big-ticket items such as Kurosawa's that had made a splash first on the international film festival circuit or they were avant-garde or artsy-cutesy, like 1964's highly erotic "Women of the Dunes."

The quotidian samurai films largely missed these shores, until, of course, VCR and DVD technology made them available from obscure Web sites or on eBay in cheesy pirated versions. (Ever see a movie freeze up, then disintegrate into little weird squares on your screen at the most dramatic moment? I have. Argggggghhhhhh!) But now, at last, if you like guys in bathrobes and flip-flops and ponytails cutting the curds and whey out of each other on the big screen without fear of meltdown from bad mojo in the Taiwan backstreet factory, you will be a happy warrior in the upcoming month. AFI Silver Theatre begins an eight-film series on the genre, with some movies that have never been big-screened recently if at all in the United States, including "Kill!" by Kihachi Okamoto, the almost-never-seen Gosha film "Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron" (I've been looking for it for years), as well as the requisite Kurosawa (but the less-often-seen "Hidden Fortress," said to be the inspiration for "Star Wars"). To finish off the series, a brand-new print of the exquisite, the fabulous, the haunting "Harakiri" will be shown Nov. 5, which, in my humble etc. etc., is probably the best samurai film ever made.

And next Saturday, Landmark's E Street Cinema will screen Gosha's first chop-'em-up, "Three Outlaw Samurai," as part of "Graveyard Shift," a series of films chosen by expert curator types that play Saturdays at midnight through Oct. 8. ("Outlaw Samurai" will be introduced by a definite non-expert, namely me.)

I loved Gosha before I even knew who he was. I was working for another newspaper way back in the Jurassic of the '80s and trundled off to the local rep house to see a movie I'd never heard of, some kind of samurai thing about which the press notes said of the hero: "He's surrounded by 10 men! In other words, he's got them exactly where he wants them!" Hmm, interesting.

And boy, was it. The movie was swift, dangerous, extremely violent and stylized but so very, very cool. I immediately began plotting an American western version of it for the director's career I would never have. But what a great western it would have made! In a circus, a drunken exhibition shooter learns his brother back home is plotting extreme violence. He must return from his self-imposed inebriated squalor to face him, to stop him, though to do so is to confront the fact that he helped his brother commit a terrible crime, a massacre, to steal gold from the government but disguise it as an accident and thus re-invoke the family's honorable name as well as recover its lost wealth.

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