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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 2: SHINSENGUMI – ASSASSINS OF HONOR

26 Mar

As part of my ongoing celebration of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, leading up to his centennial on April 1, 2020, I decided to re-watch one of his most important films, SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR (1970), arguably his best film that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki or Kihachi Okamoto. Mifune produced the film himself for Toho Pictures and had Tadashi Sawashima direct him for the first time. (It was also Sawashima’s very last feature and the only one of his films I’ve seen.) In the film, Mifune plays Isami Kondo, leader of the Shinsengumi, a sort-of paramilitary group formed in 1863 by sword-wielding farmers and ronin (masterless samurai) eager to defend the Shogun, Iemochi Tokugawa, and his entourage during meetings with the Emperor in Kyoto at a crucial time in Japan’s history. In the course of their self-imposed mission, they get into pitched battles with pro-Imperialist factions and kill dozens of their political opponents, often as a result of murderous raids on Imperialist meeting places. With the exception of small details here and there, the events depicted in the film are generally historically accurate, as far as I can determine.

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Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 1: The Samurai Trilogy

11 Mar

April 1, 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, arguably the greatest film actor in history. (He died in 1997.) I have tons of Mifune films I want to write about and I realize I can’t do it all in one piece, so I’m putting together a series on Mifune leading up to his centennial date. I’ve written about the Samurai Trilogy before, including a planned blog post that got delayed once I learned Criterion had released a new, updated, remastered edition that I needed to acquire and watch first. (The previous Criterion edition suffered from inferior print quality and inadequate subtitles.) I watched the new edition this month.

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The Remarkable Film Career of Hibari Misora

24 Jun

Hibari Misora was Japan’s most popular recording star in the postwar era and starred in dozens of movies as well. She died at the age of 52 on June 24, 1989, 30 years ago today. I’ve written about Misora in depth here in three past entries. Elsewhere, I have compared her to the American musical stars, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin and Doris Day. Each of those three had a substantial film career in Hollywood, yet Misora made more films than all three combined over the course of two decades. Wikipedia says she made 166 films, but doesn’t have a complete listing of them. IMDB only lists 103 of her films. I have at least one film of hers that’s not on IMDB. (Garland, Durbin and Day made 95 films total between them.) Given the sheer number of samurai and yakuza movies Misora starred in, I would argue that the film careers of Garland, Durbin, and Day would be more similar to Misora’s if they’d made more westerns and played some action roles. (Each of the three made at least one musical with a western setting.)

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Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

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The Passing of Two Manga Greats: Kazuo Koike and Monkey Punch

25 Apr

Earlier this month, two great manga creators died six days apart. Kazuhiko Kato died on April 11 at the age of 81 and Kazuo Koike died on April 17 at the age of 82. Both died of pneumonia. Kato was best known by his pseudonym, Monkey Punch, and was the creator, writer and artist of “Lupin III,” a long-running manga about a not-so-gentleman thief and his band of uniquely skilled sidekicks, that formed the basis for numerous animated TV series, movies and specials made from 1971 to 2018. Kazuo Koike was a writer responsible for some of my favorite manga series, including “Lone Wolf and Cub,” “Crying Freeman” and “Lady Snowblood.” These titles and others he wrote were made into live-action films, TV series and animated films. The two men were sometime rivals whose careers ran parallel to each other and they even collaborated once, as indicated in this paragraph from Anime News Network featuring Koike’s reaction after Kato’s death had been announced:

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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In Glorious Black-and-White

14 Jul

Recently, a thread on the Home Theater Forum asked participants for their “all-time favorite movie process.” While others picked things like IMAX, 3-D, Cinerama, Todd-AO, Vistavision, Ultra Panavision 70 and the like, I was the only one to declare Academy ratio black-and-white as my favorite “process,” although “format” would be a more appropriate term. Here are the images I posted:

The Academy ratio of 1.37:1, sometimes referred to as 4:3, was the standard ratio for the motion picture frame from 1932 right up until the conversion to widescreen began in earnest in 1953, after which wider aspect ratios were used to give audiences a sense that they were getting something they couldn’t see on television. Television had adopted the ratio of 1.33:1, which had been the standard for movies before 1932 and was close enough to the Academy ratio to allow movies shot in that ratio to air on television without necessitating cropping (not that the full image was ever exactly shown, but that’s another story).

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