This entry is part of the Criterion Blogathon sponsored by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943) and SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART TWO (1945) are the first and fourth films directed by Akira Kurosawa, a man I consider to be one of the five greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. In watching these two films for this blogathon, with PART TWO a first-time viewing, I found myself watching them not as Kurosawa films, but as early examples of the Asian martial arts genre, probably the earliest films I’ve seen with significant attention to an Asian martial art—in the case of the first film, judo and jujitsu, and in the second film, judo and karate. (There are occasional bursts of judo in Hollywood films of the war years, most notably the James Cagney movie, BLOOD ON THE SUN, 1945.) As such, I didn’t connect them to later Kurosawa films (although there’s an echo of them in RED BEARD’s judo sequence, 1965), but to later martial arts films, particularly a whole host of Hong Kong kung fu films in which young Chinese heroes spend years training and competing and developing their skills and often preparing for fights with Japanese practitioners of karate and other arts. (Think THE CHINESE BOXER, FIST OF FURY, HEROES OF THE EAST, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, FIST OF LEGEND, etc.) While the fights in the two SUGATA films are probably a lot more realistic than most such fights in films of this genre, I have to confess that I simply don’t find judo quite as cinematic a fighting art as karate and kung fu, not to mention swordfighting, or kendo. The combatants in judo and jujitsu spend an inordinate amount of time grabbing each other and grappling around the mat until they can find an opportunity to flip or throw their opponent. The grappling is often like a dance. Once the action starts, however, fights tend to end rather quickly, unlike Hong Kong kung fu films, where the fights can last ten-to-twenty minutes. Still, the two SUGATA films are rare examples of the art of judo depicted in detail on film and with great artistry.
The above picture recreates a scene of Vincent Price at the end of the tale, “The Case of M. Valdemar,” from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe anthology, TALES OF TERROR (1962). It was done by artist Jim Shaw and is on display right now at the New Museum at 235 Bowery in Manhattan. I remember seeing work by Shaw at the 1991 Whitney Biennial and being really impressed and wanting to see more. I don’t remember the exact works that were featured but they were big, sprawling paintings incorporating lots of pop culture references and conspiracy lore. Right up my alley, I thought. Shaw then dropped off my radar for 24 years until a recent New York Times article and a subsequent review by Ken Johnson alerted me to a show of Shaw’s works, titled “The End Is Here,” at the New Museum, his first American retrospective, so off I went.
Once upon a time, B-movies regularly ran in movie theaters on double bills with studio releases that were bigger-budgeted and better-publicized. I saw quite a few of them in theaters when I was a kid. Some of them were more fun than the main feature (Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, anyone?), but often they were cheap, indifferent potboilers turned out on low budgets. They were often black-and-white and, in those days, often from other countries. PAYROLL, seen on a double bill with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and THE MURDER GAME, seen on a double bill with OUR MAN FLINT, were both English-produced crime dramas that I remember very little about other than that they were short on stars or thrills. The Rat Pack vehicle, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, played on a double bill with RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a weak thriller about a team of bank robbers who wear scuba diving outfits to rob a bank on Catalina Island (hence the title) and make their getaway underwater(!).
I participated this month in the DVD Talk Forum’s annual October Horror Challenge and I’ve managed to see a number of movies with ghostly themes and am struck by the wide range of treatments ghosts get in the movies. In the actual literature on reported ghost encounters in real life, ghosts usually manifest themselves by making noises and moving objects at haunted sites, but also making brief appearances to those individuals with the sensitivity to see such apparitions. Reported encounters in isolated places have included brief conversations between humans and ghosts, and even occasional sensations of physical contact by ghosts. In the movies, however, human characters routinely have long, intricate conversations with ghosts, take long, leisurely walks with them in both daytime and nighttime settings, have swordfights with them, and even make love to them. Ghosts in movies sometimes conform to the old spooky stereotype and bring their hands up in threatening gestures (“ooga booga”) and terrorize living humans, sometimes to the point of death. While ghost movies are generally as far-fetched as vampire, werewolf and zombie movies, they do offer a greater latitude of genre choices. Ghosts pop up in romances, comedies, musicals, horror, adventure, revenge thrillers, monster movies, and the occasional historical epic. Films as diverse as THE INNOCENTS, BLITHE SPIRIT, TOPPER, BEETLEJUICE, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE EYE, THE SHINING, SPIRITED AWAY, POLTERGEIST, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, UGETSU, GHOST, FIELD OF DREAMS and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies have all featured ghosts.
On Friday, June 12, 2015, I paid a trip to the Museum of Modern Art to see a 35mm showing of the 1929 two-color Technicolor silent film, REDSKIN. I was pleasantly surprised to see some spectacular film posters adorning the walls of the lobby area outside the theater and in other spaces in the museum. These posters were all from Martin Scorsese’s collection and were on display as part of an exhibit entitled, “Scorsese Collects.” The exhibit remains on display until October 25, 2015 and I urge interested parties in the New York area to visit the Museum (preferably on a Friday night when film screenings are free) and see them up close.
“Dragon at the Door,” the first episode of Season 3 of “Laramie,” was the TV episode I watched back in January 2012 that first stimulated my interest in exploring the topic of Asian characters in TV westerns. It was included on a DVD called “Top TV Westerns” and it prompted my search on IMDB for other TV episodes with similar themes. This episode also aired, in a much better copy, on the Encore Western Channel on September 29, 2015. I watched it in high-def and took screen shots from it.
When I first began exploring the subject of Asian actors guest-starring in American TV westerns back in January 2012, the first such episode I watched that featured Lisa Lu was “Pocketful of Stars,” an episode of “Cheyenne” that first aired on November 12, 1962. I’ve since seen her in a number of other TV episodes and have written about her here in three previous entries: Asian-American Stars on TV: Lisa Lu in “Bat Masterson,” “Hong Kong” and “Coronado 9” Asian Stars in TV Westerns, Part 1: Lisa Lu in “Bonanza” and THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and CHINA DOLL: Rare Hollywood Films about the War in China. When “Pocketful of Stars” re-aired on the Encore Western Channel last week, I re-watched it and took some screen shots so I could do a piece on it here.
“Pocketful of Stars” is set against the background of Chinese workers employed to build the railroad. As with the Bonanza episode, “Day of the Dragon,” a certain amount of contrivance is required to get the Chinese woman played by Ms. Lu into an alliance with the series protagonist, Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker). But once they’re together they have a number of excellent scenes together and Ms. Lu has quite a substantial part, although not as dominant in the narrative as her character was in “Day of the Dragon.”