This was my summer of sam -- sam as in samurai. Who knows why? What I do know is that when I saw Yoji Yamada's "The Twilight Samurai" back in May, it lit something in me. The speed, grace and beauty of the fighting, the intractability of the men compelled to do it, the tenderness of the women who accepted it, the themes of vengeance and loyalty (those primeval melodramatic staples) as expressed in the spurting blood and lopped limbs; it all seemed suddenly powerful and right and satisfying in a way movies hadn't been for some while.
To begin with, the samurai were all fresh, at least to my eyes. The imagery of the West, of knights on horseback, of soldiers charging up a beach under heavy fire: all old, all stale, hardly impressive anymore. But . . . here were these guys in bathrobes. They grunted and stomped and stared and laughed. They seemed to be having so much fun! And to repeat what I believe is the funniest image I have ever invented: They swordfought in flip-flops! How cool is that? That hair, shaven (the Japanese equated baldness with masculinity, nothing wrong with that!), a ponytail nursed, then folded over to form a topknot. The swagger, the run, the utter comfort in the physical world! God, to carry a sword, eat sushi and sleep with women in kimonos! What else is there? And, speaking of mysteries, how do they get the swords to stay in the sashes? Aren't swords heavy? Wouldn't they droop? Yet these guys run, ride, sit, drink, laugh, all with six pounds of double-folded, multi-pounded and quenched blades (always with two: a 27-inch katana and a 14-inch wakizashi) imperturbably lodged in their sashes. Baby, that's style!
But unlike most movie fans who get a second wind when some obscure stimulus sends them flying into the ether for a few months, I had a newspaper at my disposal. So I wrote a batch of pieces on my fixation. In one I celebrated three great samurai films -- Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai," Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai" trilogy and Kenji Misumi's "The Last Samurai" (never to be confused with Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai"!) Then I discovered the series films of the '60s and '70s, the six "Lone Wolf and Cub" and the 26 "Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman," and had great fun writing about them, too. But the most fun of all was when Beat Takeshi's "Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman" re-created the delights of the earlier series.
But ever since then, I have learned more. I have learned so much -- say, that Tatsuya Nakadai was a better actor than Toshiro Mifune and that Kihachi Okamoto at least rivaled Kurosawa at moments and that killing a high lord in the snow at Sakurada Gate in Edo in 1860 isn't a good career move but it does get you a certain immortality -- that I can now say proudly, I know nothing. The breadth and depth, the differing tonalities, the textures of color, it's all dazzling and possibly endless.
But what the samurai pictures, high and low, seem to have in common is a sense of the code -- absolute loyalty to the clan, no matter the cost (though its meaning could be played straight or ironically) -- a faith in bravery, and the soundest story construction, movie by movie, in history. The writers of these movies were workmen, not artists, carpenters and drywall guys, not poets and dancers. Thus the stories are all rooted in narrative simplicity and the value of motive. Even at their most insipid, they grip in a way that American movies seem to have forgotten how to do.
Besides the trio of films I recommend, let me mention several others that are equally excellent: "Sword of Doom," a look at a psychotic swordsman (played by Nakadai); "Harakiri" (which watches a father -- Nakadai again -- gain vengeance on the clan that bluffed his son into a horrible death), "Goyokin" (a giant Italian western sort of movie); "Samurai Rebellion," (Mifune on the warpath); "The Yagyu Conspiracy" (with Sonny Chiba); and the fabulous "Shogun's Shadow" (wall-to-wall-to-ceiling-to-back-porch action, with Chiba as the bad guy!).
As you can see, I went a little samurai nuts for weeks and weeks. Happily, I have not recovered. Hopefully, I never will.