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.
Reluctantly, our hero heads back; gunmen are sent to stop him, and whenever they intercept him, the Colts come out, the hot lead flies, and he alone rides on.
When he gets home, he finds another gold shipment is upcoming; now he and he alone can stop his brother and his brother's henchman and, in the process, reacquire the woman he loved but who remains loyal, or so it seems, to the clan: She has now married his brother!
God, it would have been such a great movie with me behind the camera, Clint Eastwood as the good brother, Gene Hackman as the bad one and, there being no Lucy Liu available in 1982, Faye Dunaway as the woman between them. The final shootout would have taken place in the snow, as the two . . .
All right, enough of that. The actual movie was called "Goyokin," meaning "Official Gold" (for the stolen treasure), and the stars were Tatsuya Nakadai as the returning Magobei, haunted and weary yet determined to recover his honor, and the tough-as-nails Testuro Tamba as the brother. Between them was the woman, Isao Natsuyagi, beyond beauty and almost poetry itself, and I have to say, it played better with swords than it would have with guns. Though it would have been pretty great with guns, you have to admit.
Anyway, it passed from memory and quickly became a dream; I didn't even realize that it had been made in 1969. It never occurred to me that it was part of an industry, part of a culture, part of a belief system, part of an auteur's version of the world. It was just this really cool movie.
But the perfection of the story haunted me, the exquisite nature of the performances, the superior speed and vividness of the blade work: They all hung in my brain.
Last year I tracked it down and watched it on a pirated video, terrified that at any moment it would dissolve into a tapestry of squares, but more terrified that my memory had amplified its resonances and a second viewing would reveal banalities and idiocies. I got all the way through it, a relief, and discovered -- well, it seems it wasn't a brother-brother thing, it was a brother-brother-in-law thing, and the woman was Magobei's wife but . . . hey, it was still cool. It was even better than I thought. This time I knew the great Nakadai from his brilliant career with Kurosawa (he was the Lear figure in 1985's "Ran") as well as the many other fabulous movies such as "Sword of Doom" (which AFI Silver is showing) and from -- one of the best! but not Gosha -- the previously mentioned "Harakiri."
I have since tracked down and seen six of the 10 samurai movies Gosha made in his classic period, from 1964 through 1970, and can report that although the quality varies, all are sturdy, tough, fascinating and good in that old-fashioned sense of taking you and in seconds putting you totally in a new world, riveted until the end. "Tenchu" and "Goyokin" I would grade as great; "Three Outlaw Samurai," "Samurai Wolf" and "Sword of the Beast" as really good; "Hunter in Darkness" overwrought but pretty good; and "The Wolves" -- hmmm, can't seem to remember much about that one.
Anyway, as the genre lost commercial steam in the '80s and '90s, Gosha seems to have veered away to other projects (like Anthony Mann, who made "The Fall of the Roman Empire" a few years after the great "Winchester '73"; talk about stretch!), including yakuza and historical films and even some films of a kind of soft-core, erotic temper before he died of complications from cancer of the esophagus Aug. 30, 1992, at the young age of 61.
Like many American directors of his age, he came up through television. He was the rough contemporary of Sam Peckinpah, but unlike Peckinpah he seems not to have built a personal cult of crazed ruthlessness and constant feuds; he apparently never popped off to the press, he beat no wives and never was arrested for drunken driving. His one famous tiff involves a dispute with the great Toshiro Mifune who, it is said, had been hired to star in "Goyokin" as one of Mifune's famous "Yojimbo" -- nameless bodyguard, later the inspiration for a certain American named Clint -- films. But Mifune hated the coldness of the shoot (it was filmed in Northern Japan) and got to feuding with Gosha; he quit, Nakadai was hired and thus began a long and profitable association with Gosha that produced 10 films, including "Tenchu," which many consider the greatest samurai film.
In any event, as Peckinpah made his reputation on television on "The Westerner," Gosha made his on a TV series called "Three Outlaw Samurai." The success of that show enabled him, like Peckinpah, to move into features with his first film as an extension of the show. Nine of his first 10 films were samurai films.
What is a classic Gosha film, from that hot decade and a half before age, ennui, exhaustion brought him back to the standard? Well, though he had a reputation as a colorist, the early works are black-and-white, but no matter the hues, the first thing you notice is his brilliant compositional skills. For him the frame is an opportunity for subtle balance; then that aesthetic refinement is ruptured by the vigor of the action. In fact, the action may be the most consistently enthralling of all the samurai films (even the "Lone Wolf and Cub" films, drawn from the graphic novels, that set the highest standards for '80s films). Like any artist, he grew: The simpler, less self-conscious films came first; "Goyokin" is his most elaborate and, to some degree, "Tenchu," which came after it, his most radical, and as if to intensify its argument -- "Tenchu" is an extremely cynical film -- it reverted to black-and-white.
At the core of his films, as at the code of most samurai films (and most westerns), is the warrior's code. The code? Morse? Nah. Secret? Nah. It's well known: a set of rules that obligate a man of arms to obey mandates of family and clan above all.
It is rigid, it is unforgiving, governing everything from which side of the bed you get up on in the morning to how you draw the sword. It's micro-controlling. It's different from the western code in that the Japanese code is about honor within society; the western code is about honor among men.
In both cases, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, but in the Japanese version, the gotta-do means sacrificing oneself for the honor of the family, no matter what; the gunslinger has no larger commitment to society, much less family (a gunfighter would scoff at the weight of values such as face and shame in Japanese films) but only to interior rules of behavior. He doesn't protect anything except his own sense of freedom. The samurai was never free to begin with.
The samurai code is therefore prone to manipulation by sharpies -- this is an element that is almost completely absent from westerns -- and any of the great sam movies, Gosha's included, chronicle the process by which a professional warrior of highest skill sees that the code has been corrupted by a greedy or ambitious clan and used evilly. Thus he becomes subversive to its mandates. He fights against it; he destroys. "Goyokin" is the supreme example, where Our Hero, Magobei, in the end defines himself not in support of, but in defiance to, the honor of his clan. That honor, sustained by murder and theft, was bogus; as a man, his need was to bring it down (boy, does he ever).
"Three Outlaw Samurai" is much less a meditation than a seemingly innocent action piece. It's about three guys wandering the landscape who find peasants who've just kidnapped a lord's daughter to protest the lord's predations of their lives and property. Eventually -- it takes some doing -- they side with the peasants in what can only be likened to a range war with a lot of flashing swords. But they're functioning very much as subversives to the order of the day: Though they'd never admit it, they simply don't accept that it is the right of the highborn to exploit the low at every turn, simply by force of arms. That "order," imposed from above, is spurious and it must be destroyed. That's what a man's gotta do.
The samurai movies: They're about gotta-do as opposed to wanna-do. That's what's so cool about them.