By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006
It's Sunday afternoon. It's snowing outside and there's nothing on the tube except some skating stuff with people wearing sparkles. Ugh. It's too early to start drinking and I can't take a nap because I just took a nap and it won't be time for my second nap for at least two hours. What to do, what to do?
Ah: Watch 17th-century Japanese warriors slaughter each other over subtitles that read something like, "But if we do not avenge the insult, the Azumi clan chamberlain will speak against us at the court in Edo and our ryo stipend will be lessened!"
If you too share the samurai film sickness, here's some good news for you -- it's the arrival of a new Web site that offers a range of products that previously were available only via European bootlegs from eBay. I'm not talking the ritzy A-list products from Japan's greatest studio, Toho Pictures: You can get fabulous DVDs of the great Akira Kurosawa samurai films ("The Seven Samurai," "Yojimbo" and so on) from dozens of sources online (just beware you don't click your way into that Tom Cruise abomination "The Last Samurai." Agggghhh ).
Anyway, the Kurosawa films are, of course, great stuff -- the best. But if that's all you know, you don't know enough. You will miss the extreme pleasures of "Samurai Vendetta," otherwise known as "Chronicle of Pale Cherry Blossom," in which our hero is a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged warrior who must fight 50 guys while lying on his back in a slush pile. You can tell it's a serious film: He only gets 40 of them.
There was, in fact, a whole tier of studios under the lofty Toho that turned out samurai pics from the 1950s to the '80s at the same speed and professional nonchalance as, say, Republic Pictures turned out westerns in the '30s. Production was more important than quality, but in that mandate was a kind of un-self-conscious freedom: The Japanese salaryman directors, uncontaminated by film critics and driven only by pure box office greed, often surpassed their tonier brothers in intensity, creativity, variety and sheer energy. Thus, a Hideo Gosha, not nearly well enough known in this country, unleashed some of the greatest samurai films ever made, except they were made for the studio Shochiku, which never had a U.S. distribution deal, like Toho. Other well-known studios were Daiei and Toei. Until now, these films have been almost impossible to obtain.
SamuraiDVD.com is here to help solve your problem. The Web site bills itself as "Simply the best source for imported Japanese films. We bring you videos and DVD's that are not available in the U.S."
The site is a bit crude. The credit card mechanism hasn't been working for a couple of weeks, so the whole instant "buy" mechanism, so dear and near to the hearts of Internet customers, is not available. You have to print out your selections, then send a check to a post office box in Suffern, N.Y. (You can also order by phone or fax.) But it works: I shipped off a certified check for $200 and within a week got back 10 DVDs, including "Saga of Pale Cherry Blossom," which I'd bought bootleg from Europe and watched as it exploded into pixel-shred on my TV screen. This version went through cleanly.
SamuraiDVD.com has products otherwise unavailable. I've been looking for two years for Gosha's "Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron" -- who could resist a movie with a title like that? Finally, I have it. I also have "The Last Samurai." No, not the Cruise horror but the first one, made by Kenji Misumi back in 1974 and believed by many to be a great film (I haven't seen it yet; but if there's more ice skating this weekend, I will!). I saw the great Tatsuya Nakadai's "Tengu-To," which for some reason is called in English "Blood End," although I believe it translates into "Goblin Group." It's about the rise of a vigilante outfit, ultimately a Quantrill's Raiders, that haunted Japan in the 1840s as the emperor struggled to regain control from the shogunate.The copy on the outside of the box helpfully points out: "The film has the most bloody and believable fight and execution scenes ever filmed, all in good taste, of course." Now who could resist that ?