These are scoundrel times. The center may not hold. The worst are full of passionate intensity. Some rough beast is slouching toward Washington to be born. His name is Michael Moore.
Grrrrr. Arrrrgh. What to do?
Sometimes I feel like howling at the moon. Unfortunately, that gets you a week in a padded cell.
Another answer: Go to Africa and kill something big and dangerous. Downside: expensive, requires long-term planning, unkind to big, dangerous things, and, if you miss, unkind to you.
Third option: Alcohol. Stay drunk and dazed till the election. Hmm, would be fun. On the other hand, hard on the liver, the girlfriend and the career.
So there's really only one sensible option remaining: Watch an old samurai film.
Or better: Watch a lot of old samurai films.
I'm happy, the employer is happy, the girlfriend is even sort of happy. I can report spending most recent nights lost in the glades of sacred honor, where face is life, death is fast, the code is unforgiving, heroism is mandatory and nearly everyone would rather die a meaningful death than live a meaningless life.
Just like it isn't in reality.
The movies turn on the hardest questions of loyalty and duty. They loathe and abjure relativism. They are about people who make no exceptions, who have no patience for context, negotiation or cooperation, who simply do what they say they're going to do, damn the consequences. Plus, they swordfight wearing flip-flops.
But having once ridden through the arty classics of Kurosawa ("Yojimbo," "Sanjuro," "The Seven Samurai"), I needed some new thing. Thus, I wandered into a different neighborhood and feasted on the samurai films of the '60s and early '70s, when the films became less historical, more vengeful, more violent, much crazier, less distinguished, much more entertaining. There's even what we in the news business call an angle -- a trick by which I can not only justify my need to watch men in silk bathrobes with ponytails chop off each other's arms and heads in the 19th century but also expense it.
That angle: The samurai influence is everywhere in today's movie marketplace, literally and metaphorically. Of the former, the best example was the unexpected hit this spring of the indie film "Twilight Samurai," by Yoji Yamada, a low-key import long on domestic issues with only two swordfights, one of them even nonfatal. By samurai standards, that's practically comatose. Then there's the "Kill Bill" thing, with its bloody samurai subtext. In fact, I got started on this little odyssey when I learned that much of the twisted, hallucinatory yet charismatic Quentin Tarantino work was based on an obscure Japanese movie called "Lady Snowblood," which I ordered idly one afternoon from Amazon.com when I should have been working on a review of the great Argentine symbolist Andreas Cuya-Diego's new film, the epochal "Let's Kill George W. Bush." Good heavens. Tarantino may have Americanized the samurai ethos to his renown and financial security, but when you see the ur-texts, you realize how real their greatness was and how synthetic his is.
Then, if you see a movie like "Troy" or even the upcoming "King Arthur," you see how the imagery of the samurai movie, particularly the bladework -- that lethalized ballet of masculine grace and speed -- has suffused Western film culture. Achilles and Hector fought like samurai, and so do Arthur and Lancelot.
And finally, we return to the literal: A new Zatoichi film will come out this summer, although the great Shintaro Katsu, who played Zatoichi in 26 films from 1962 until 1989, died in 1997 of throat cancer. This new one stars Takeshi Kitano, who has made a reputation for yakuza (gangster) films but takes up the blade for the first time. I know Shintaro Katsu, and believe me, Takeshi Kitano, you are no Shintaro Katsu.
My obsession, not deep and not widely informed, has been limited to the following three series of films, the aforementioned "Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman," "Lady Snowblood" and finally and best, "Lone Wolf and Cub." Those choices define the limits. This means: no martial arts, no Hong Kong gangster things, no kickboxing, no wirework, no Sonny Chiba (too much choppy-choppy) or Bruce Lee or even John Woo. Just the way of Bushido, the katana with a colorful tsuba, a gleamy hamon, a thick mune, a razor-sharp yakiba and a devilish kisaki. You know: sword stuff.
Anyhow -- and here's another angle -- it helps that a video company called AnimEigo, dedicated to Japanese animation, has branched out into restored versions on DVD of these three live-action samurai series. (The list includes both Lady Snowblood films, six Lone Wolf and Cub films and seven Zatoichi films, each 90 to 120 minutes long.) I feel comfortable plugging the AnimEigo people because they have not asked to be plugged, the first requisite of a plug; they probably haven't even heard of The Washington Post.
Anyhow, as film restoration projects go, these discs are truly beautiful. They take the old Toho productions and repaint them digitally; so if you're used to seeing this stuff on 10th-generation videotape made from dirty film, and you've conned yourself into believing you actually enjoy the scratches, jumps, splices, fuzz and spider legs, and the soundtrack recorded through a tin can and string, and the smeary, inexact subtitles ("Low Dog, you I'll sunder with thunder and gloom!"), you will be blown away by the serene richness of these images. That chopsocky grindhouse grit is gone; you could be sipping a mocha cafe au lait lite in an Upper West Side cinema bistro next to Gloria Steinem, so classy is the presentation. They have liner notes, footnotes and color-coded dialogue subtitles to indicate different speakers.
Let us begin with the delirious Lady Snowblood. Of the series, hers is the shortest, comprising but two films, the first simply called "Lady Snowblood" (1972), the second, a nominal sequel, poetically subtitled "Love Song of Vengeance." Wow. The first, as its title suggests, discovers the artistic symbiosis between the purity of snow (a constant visual motif) and the stark vividness of blood -- Tarantino's riff at the end of "Kill Bill, Vol. 1." We first meet our heroine when she deftly wipes out a yakuza overlord and his three minions in a scene of such pastel delicacy you expect poetry instead of mayhem.
Yuki (played by Meiko Kaji) looks like a haiku in flesh. She's 17 syllables of beauty -- thin, pale, walking begowned in those mincing geisha steps, her little toes braving the frosty snow (that's when I fell in love), her eyes downcast, her hair gathered in a bun. She always carries an umbrel -- oops, what's that coming out of the umbrella but 16 inches of multi-folded blade? Watch it go snip, snip in the air amid arterial sprays. For some reason the Japanese, as a blade culture, not a gun culture, embraced the imagery of edges slicing flesh and points penetrating internal pressurized systems, and all these films are phantasmagorical in their usage of sprayed, spurted, dappled, flung blood.
Lady Snowblood is a pure creature of vengeance, as is Tarantino's Bride, the Uma Thurman character. It is her personality, her destiny, her meaning, her passion. Also her hobby, diet and beauty secret. She was born to a prostitute in prison, but the prostitute was formerly the wife of a schoolteacher killed, along with their son, by a gang of four. She herself was raped by them -- then, disgraced, sold into prostitution. Finally giving birth to a daughter, she charges that child to avenge her. Like the Bride, Lady Snowblood is hidden in a monastery where she learns extraordinary blade skills. Then she wanders the land, hunting the four, dealing with each in a creative way. But at the same time she remains connected to her feminine self, and is capable of caring, particularly for children or the infirm elderly. How "Kill Bill" is this? Best stroke: when she cuts the female of the four in, er, two. Two, you know, pieces. I know it's horrible but it was kind of neat. (The second film, less compelling, really just re-creates the character, putting her in a lesser plot, but still offers plenty of swordplay.)
As for Zatoichi, he's a remarkable figure. AnimEigo has licensed seven of the 26 films, many of them previously unavailable here. Zatoichi is a blind masseur who, at some time in his recent past, tired of being the butt of jokes and indignities, and so took up swordsmanship, at which he excelled. The idea is very Zen: a blind man whose senses are so exquisitely tuned he can somehow see in space and anticipate in time. It would be harder to believe if Shintaro Katsu weren't so damned lovable in the role. As Katsu plays him, Zatoichi is something of a bumbler, a fumbler, a schlump. His eyes are half closed and he carries his head haplessly back, sort of like samurai Stevie Wonder. He never boasts the warrior swagger of, say, a Toshiro Mifune (whom he ultimately meets in "Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo"). Someone has compared Ichi to Lt. Colombo; he has that hapless, friendly innocuousness shielding his exquisite abilities, and he gets in so close he doesn't have to move much once the blades come out.
The first film, "The Tale of Zatoichi," is not one of the AnimEigo restorations and looks like a serious movie, not the beginning of a franchise. Who knew what it would spawn? Until its ending, it's not nearly as violent as the others, and was filmed (in 1962) in black-and-white. But by the '70s, the series was at full speed, and the delirious "Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman" is fabulous. You have to give the Japanese film industry credit. It represents a lot of really smart, creative people putting the full force of minds and imaginations to answer one question: By what new, cool way can we kill somebody?
In "One-Armed," the director, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, comes up with a great gag: Ichi has just whacked three bad boys, but he's so knowledgeable in his work, he realizes that one is about to spurt all over him, so, fast as a cat, he grabs the cape from another dead guy, and covers his head so he doesn't get a faceful of red! But the movie is -- no other phrase will do -- really good. I love the cleverness of the plot, which turns on the issue of miscommunication. Wang Kong (Yu Wang), the one-armed swordsman, is from China. In a sense, he is Ichi: He's disabled, but with great talent and will he has become an extraordinary fighter. The two get involved in a yakuza war, but from different angles, and Wang never quite understands that Ichi is his ally, not his enemy. Each destroys an army of evildoers, but then, because of the misunderstanding, they face each other in a death duel that Ichi doesn't want but has to fight. The movie ends not on a crazy blood note of triumph but in genuine sadness. If these two could only talk, they wouldn't have had to fight to the death.
But if it's insanity you want, there's nothing more bent than the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series. These films, derived from comic novels, are said to be the influence for "The Road to Perdition" a few years back, or at least for the graphic novel on which it was based. Maybe so. But nothing in the relatively restrained "Perdition" can prepare you for the wondrous weirdness of "Lone Wolf and Cub."
In "Perdition," set in 1920s Chicago, everything was sentimentalized. Tom Hanks was a great father who regretted involving his son in mob business, and the thrust of the story was not merely his need for revenge with his son along on the trip but his need to shield his son from the temptations of violence and, in his death, liberate him from the need for vengeance. Oh, please. Lord, how the Japanese would laugh at that bit of treacle.
In "Lone Wolf and Cub," the father and the son have declared themselves demons; the father, named Ogami Itto, was once the shogun's executioner, but he was betrayed by an enemy clan and exiled with that son, Daigoro (the adorable 4-year-old Akihiro Tomikawa). They travel Japan as professional assassins, the father pushing the boy in a clunky baby cart that conceals weapons, and have formally given up any hope of any other life; they're more comfortable with death than life. They need nothing; they're in a pure existential state, and the considerable violence that engulfs them neither traumatizes them nor, really, impresses them very much. Though they love each other, they do not fear for each other's lives because they have embraced death and know that it will come when it will come -- today, tomorrow or possibly as late as Tuesday.
This plays out in strange and powerful ways on-screen. While Ogami Itto (a great grumpus of an actor named Tomisaburo Wakayama) fights, his son might ponder the leaves in the trees. Meanwhile, his father is hacking up armies, cutting limbs off by the gross, painting the countryside a lovely shade of atomized-plasma-droplet crimson. Then Pa gathers up Sonny and, their heartbeats flat as if they were on a picnic, they go eat some rice.
"Baby Cart at the River Styx," from 1972, is one of the best of the series; it begins with Lone Wolf dispatching a few rival clan members who attack in strange ways; one gives himself to the sword so that the next one can use his body to vault over and behind Lone Wolf. It doesn't do any good -- Lone Wolf goes for the deflection thrust and takes the guy with a spear handed up to him by his son in the perambulator! -- but it sets up a conversation between Lone Wolf and the fellow whose head he's just cleaved.
Somehow -- the plot is a mite byzantine -- Ogami ends up slashing it out with the Three Gods of Death, shogun assassins of spectacular specialization. His son observes amiably, as if he were watching moo-cows and horseys in the field.
Ah. Life is good. Pop another top on the six-pack, put a steak on the grill and watch samurai hack each other to pieces, for the honor of the clan, the revenge of lost loved ones, where no shot is cheap and what goes around comes around. I sit there secretly dreaming of my own private samurai movie. When will they ever make it? It's to be called "Zatoichi vs. Michael Moore." Hmm, why do I think it would be very short?