The Way of the Sword Requires a Ton of Sacrifice/ZAN movie review

by Kaori Shoji
You don’t know cool until you’ve seen ZAN (international title: “Killing”). A period action film set in the late Edo Period, ZAN is everything that The Last Samurai is not: minimalist, unpretentious and totally unsentimental. Back in Old Japan, sentiment was often a luxury few people could afford. It was hard enough to secure things like food and basic comforts, and the situation was harder for the samurai because they had to keep up appearances as the authoritative class.
(C)SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

“I want you to think about all the mistakes you’ve made in your life up to this point,” he tells his bleeding victim. “You have plenty of time for reflection until you finally manage to die.”
ZAN notes that a samurai was defined by two things: 1) his sword and 2) his ability to kill others with that sword. The film also makes no bones about the incredible pain and grossness that accompanies a sword fight. It’s not like a TV period drama where one swish of a katana brings on instantaneous death–the process takes hours or even days of intense suffering. In one scene, after a close battle a samurai slices off the arm of an opponent, right from the shoulder. “I want you to think about all the mistakes you’ve made in your life up to this point,” he tells his bleeding victim. “You have plenty of time for reflection until you finally manage to die.”

Chilling. Isn’t it? ZAN is a lesson in Edo Period brutality and despite the obvious disregard for period detail (like speech patterns and vocabulary) it all feels eerily true. No one cracks a smile, wears make-up or even changes out of soiled kimonos. The sky is heavy with perpetual rain, the houses are pitch dark, cramped and dingy. The threat of pain and death is ever-present and the only respite is sex, or more often, masturbation. Something has got to give, but you sense right away that the giving isn’t going to be happy.

ZAN is directed by Shinya Tsukamoto – arguably the most innovative auteur working in the Japanese flm industry today, and distinctive for working solo. An indie wunderkind, he directs, writes his own screenplays, works on his own production designs and acts in crucial roles, in his own and other peoples’ films. Tsukamoto even auditioned for Martin Scorsese’s Silence and got the part of Mokichi. Rumor has it Scorsese thought Tsukamoto “looked familiar,” as the American director is a fan of his work, but didn’t believe that a man of Tsukamoto’s repute would actually show up for an audition. Scorsese was later flabbergasted to learn the truth and professed to be “in awe” of Tsukamoto – at least that’s the story floating around in the Japanese movie industry.

But it’s easy to believe that Scorsese was impressed because as an actor, Tsukamoto radiates a macho allure that’s hard to resist. In the movie, he plays an older samurai named Sawamura, a mysterious vagabond traveling from village to village in search of talent. Sawamura has an agenda – to form a platoon of free agent samurai and offer their services to some powerful lord. The era is late Edo, when the whole of Japan was in the fever grip of confusion and intrigue, all the while being pressured by Europe and the US to open up the nation, after nearly 260 years of isolation. Against this backdrop, hordes of samurai were fired from their clans and left to fend for themselves. Many of them were recruited as foot soldiers by the Tokugawa shogunate and its supporters that were anti-foreigner and desperate to preserve the status quo. Sawamura’s own political views are unclear but most likely he has none. Like many unemployed samurai at the time, gaining a steady position was the biggest priority and as a samurai, that meant killing people with his sword. “I want to do my part in these chaotic times,” he explains.
(C)SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER



Sawamura’s statement reveals the Edo samurai mind-set: Fighting for a cause or a political slogan was tacky. Killing to assert one’s identity as a samurai, was more like it. He wanders over to a village on the outskirts of Edo and observes a young samurai, Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) having a mock sword battle with farmer boy Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda). Tsuzuki had been hired on a farm in lieu of food and board, and had been giving katana lessons to Ichisuke whenever they had a moment free from working the rice paddies. Tsuzuki is an excellent swordsman and under his tutelage, Ichisuke has acquired a lot of skill. Sawamura wastes no time in recruiting them both, and proposes leaving for Edo in two days. Ichisuke is keen to go but Tsuzuki is inexplicably reluctant. The presence of Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) is part of the reason – Tsuzuki always masturbates to the sight of her bathing and the story suggests he is a virgin. Could it be that he’s also a virgin as a murderer, and for all his grace and expertise with the sword, Tsuzuki has never brought his blade down on another man’s flesh?

ZAN twists and writhes its way to a bloody climax and by then you become well aware of the wondrous weirdness of the samurai. They are darkly backward in their thinking, swayed by a single desire to assert their samurai identity, which is on par with the will to kill. It overrides all other desires – for happiness, for justice, even for survival. It depicts not the noble samurai of Japanese fiction and The Last Samurai, but the samurai as they really were: bloody, brutal, barbaric and with no notions of the word Bushido(武士道). Bushido, both the word and the concept of a noble samurai were retroactively imposed upon the Edo-era culture by the writer Inazo Nitobe in 1900. His book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, written in English, was aimed at Western audiences, and tried to elevate the popular image of Japan. (The “Cool Japan” strategy of 1900).

In ZAN, the opening of Japan to the West and the subsequent demolishment of the samurai was just around the corner, but Tsuzuki and Sawamura are locked into an existence that no one, not even themselves, could fully comprehend or accept. They take us to a place that defies logic and explanation, to a time when such things were beside the point. It’s only when the lights come on that we take stock of what Japan has lost in the wake of modernization and wonder briefly whether the trade-off was completely worth it.

Now playing in Japan. Click here for showtimes and venues are here

Editor’s Opinion: Yet, are the samurai really missed? ” For the peasants and underclass who were often brutalized by the samurai, probably not. Samurai could legally murder the lower class of merchants, farmers, prostitutes, etc–kirisutegomen–for being impolite or simply being annoying. The movie reminds us that maybe for the rest of us, the cutting down of the Samurai was a boon to Japan, not a curse. What do you think?

タイトル:『斬、』

読み方:ざん

公開表記: 11月24日(土)よりユーロスペースほか全国公開!

クレジット:

監督、脚本、撮影、編集、製作:塚本晋也 

出演:池松壮亮、蒼井優、中村達也、前田隆成、塚本晋也

2018年/日本/80分/アメリカンビスタ/5.1ch/カラー 

製作:海獣シアター/配給:新日本映画社 

Samurai Fashion in New York City Until March 25th 2017

Samurais are usually known for their honor code, ever wonder what their fashion code was ?
It turns out, they had just as elaborate a fashion code when it comes to clothing too.

tonosama01fullresolutio1B1s

 

hpgrp GALLERY NEW YORK is currently holding an exhibition “Japanese Samurai Fashion”. It displays mixed media images by Japan based artist and cultural interpreter Everett Kennedy Brown. In conjunction with the March anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake the exhibition will be held from February 28th to March 25th, 2017. Using wet plate collodion photography and advanced digital techniques Brown presents a multilayered visual experience that offers uniquely fresh and powerful insight into the rich cultural tapestry of samurai fashion, as it continues to exist in the lives of the people living in Soma, Fukushima (the site of the recent nuclear disaster).

Highly recommended if you are in NYC!

About the artist: Mr. Brown is formerly the Tokyo Bureau Chief of European Pressphoto Agency, during his 25 years in Japan, Brown has been fortunate to travel extensively throughout the country and photograph many uniquely remarkable Japanese people. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GEO, The New York Times, The London Times, TIME magazine and other major media worldwide. His wet plate photographic images have been exhibited at museums and galleries worldwide and have been featured at the DAVOS summer and winter conferences.

hpgrp GALLERY NEW YORK

434 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10013 (Entrance is on Vestry street)
Email: art@hpgrp.com
Url: www.hpgrpgallery.com
Hours: Tue–Sat 11 am–6 pm or by appointment

The 10 Worst Films About Japan*: You Might Only Live Twice But Are These Movies Worth Seeing Once?

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic and some considered to be the worst films in Japan by our caustic guest movie review,毒舌姫, 庄司かおり様

 

by Kaori Shoji

1) Memoirs of a Geisha  (2005)

 

Directed by Rob Marshall and starring Zhang Ziyi as a ravishing prewar geisha by the name of Sayuri (‘white lily’), this particular vehicle sinks to basement level lows of pigeon-holing and cultural misunderstanding. As a Japanese female I just don’t feel like forgiving this one – the emotional damage is irrevocable. To make things worse, national acting treasure Ken Watanabe makes an appearance and seals his fate as an enabler for Hollywood filmmakers to cater to the white male fantasy regarding all things Japanese – namely, geishas. The one bright spot is Kaori Momoi as a hard-as-nails proprietress of a geisha house. The lone authentic presence in a film hyped up on false pretensions.

 

2) The Last Samurai (2003)

The Last Samurai parody, The Last Jedi!

Just as Japanese women could never escape the geisha issue, Japanese men will always be associated with the samurai. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hollywood just HAD to up and star Tom Cruise as a disillusioned ex-Union soldier who finds redemption and rebirth in the samurai racket in Meiji era Japan. The story (penned by Jon Logan) is just wrong on so many counts one forgets to feel offended. Most discouragingly, the film was wildly popular on both sides of the Pacific, which goes to show you: the samurai racket (like the geisha racket) is good business. How it affects the yen rate is anyone’s guess.

3) Lost in Translation (2003)

Don’t get me wrong – I love Sofia Coppola as much as the next girl movie afficionado. But the thoroughbred filmmaker of the Coppola clan whose sensibility radar is always spot-on when it comes to charting the emotions and mindscapes of the under-29 woman, ran into some major static at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. As a poignant and appropriately jaded love story between Bill Murray as the slightly weary Hollywood actor come over to shoot a commercial, and Scarlett Johansson (who was all of 18 at the time) “Lost..” is a 4-star affair. But Coppola’s cut-out portrayals of Tokyo are sterile and silly and the Tokyoites who make brief and regrettable appearances…spare us the embarrassment please. No wonder the Murray-Johansson couple hardly ever venture out of the hotel.

 

4) You Only Live Twice 

The Japanese have had always had a soft spot for James Bond but after Sean Connery spent time here for this movie, he became Main Man 007 man as far as the archipelago was concerned. At the time of the film’s release (1967), Connery was sited in fashion magazines as the dude in the suit, who never, ever wore undershirts and whose hairy chest held a ferocious appeal, especially to Japan’s first Bond girls Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama. He left behind a massive inferiority complex from which the nation’s male populace never fully recovered. Shame on you, Bond-san.

5) Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Okay, so this isn’t a movie about Japan, but as a depiction of a Japanese male it’s practically the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime. The Hollywood classic that stars  Audrey Hepburn as It Girl of Lower Manhattan, Holly Golightly and the buffy George Peppard as her neighbor slash would-be lover, the film is absolutely delightful. But once Mickey Rooney comes on as a mysterious Japanese man called “Yuniyoshi,” we start feeling a leetle uncomfortable. Rooney is outrageously made-up: protruding teeth, slanting eyes behind thick glasses and spiky black hair heavily pomade-ed. So as a poster boy endorsing Japanese internment during WWII, Yuniyoshi-san is perfect. Otherwise we can do without him, thanks very much.

 

6) Hachiko: A Dog’s Tale (2009)

You can’t grow up in Japan and not know the loyal dog Hachiko (he went to Shibuya station everyday to greet his master coming home from work) or choose the dog’s statue in front of Shibuya Station as a meeting spot. Hachi is to the Japanese what Cheerio’s may be to the American – so much a part of our daily fabric that it seems weird, really weird when Hachiko shows up in a Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom (whose feature debut is called “My Life as a Dog”), the whole thing feels forced, contrived and highly artificial. Hachiko doesn’t belong in a manicured suburban town among all those white picket fences, and Gere as the college professor who opts to be his American master, well…the word “jarring” comes to mind.

 

 

7) Wasabi (2001)

 

 

Around the time this film was released, France had a kind of amorous fling with Japanese culture and one of the byproducts was this film by Gerard Krawczyk. The equivalent of an haute couture dress souped up on Akiba culture, the film has great ideas and (probably) benevolent intentions. Unfortunately they don’t quite work together. Too bad, as it pairs Jean Reno as a Parisian cop once married to a Japanese woman, and our very own Ryoko Hirosue in a role pitched halfway between a pouting, flighty anime girl come to life and Reno’s comprehensive guide to Tokyo. The result is a chaotic hodgepodge of vignettes that show up the city as a kind of noisy, plasticine pleasure palace.

Ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life

 

8) The Pillow Book  (1996)

This is an ambitious undertaking by British auteur Peter Greenaway, but his sensibility that created such visually resplendent (and often grotesque) pictures like “Drowning by Numbers” and “The Belly of an Architect,” failed when it came to a rendition of  “The Pillow Book” (a collection of essays by 10th century court scribe Seishonagon). For lovers of the truly weird, the film provides much fodder: Vivian Wu stars as the extremely sensuous Nagiko, who inspires her calligraphy master dad (Ken Ogata) to paint characters all over her face and body. Later, she meets her match in Jerome (Ewan McGregor) who proves himself masterfully creative with the brush as he is with other uh, physical skills. For the record people, this has nothing to do with Seishonagon’s book and still less with calligraphy.

Try reading the actual book instead. Sei Shonagon was the Kaori Shoji of her day: acerbic, funny, and a great essayist.

 

9) Ai no Corida (In the Realm of the Senses) 

When this opened in Paris back in 1976, people lined up for hours for the pleasure of seeing one of the most controversial films of the 20th century. In Tokyo it was banned from opening at all and when that was cleared many theaters refused to show it. Based on the real-life story of servant girl Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her master Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), “Ai no…” takes Japanese eros to a whole new dimension.  Director Nagisa Oshima is masterful in his no-holds-barred depiction of an all-consuming sexual obsession between a man and a woman. But ultimately, the film caters to a frayed stereotype: that given the choice, a Japanese will choose brutality over love, and death over life.

 

10) Rhapsody in August (1991)

1991-Rapsodia-en-agosto-Akira-Kurosawa-USA-1
Somehow Richard Gere makes it into at least two of the worst ten movies about Japan. Hopefully, he can be in more before the decade ends.

A well-crafted story commemorating the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki by Japanese cinema giant Akira Kurosawa, this marked his first-time collaboration with Asiaphile Richard Gere. Gere plays the relative of an old woman whose husband had died on that August day and now with dementia setting in, she often relives the day that deprived her of her parents, husband and many friends. There are plenty of opportunities to make Gere’s character feel remorse about what the US did, but Kurosawa was apparently in a forgiving mood, and the movie spares Gere any major discomfort. As it is, we never get closure.

 

Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for the International Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.

 *Editor’s note: The 10 Worst Films About Japan are not necessarily in order of suckiness. Thank you.