Ronin Roundup

A Sample of "Ask Dr. D."

As with many Substack writers, I am striving to finesse the balance between free content and stuff that’s only available to paying subscribers. I want to generously share the fruits of my labor, but I also want to get paid. I like my solution so far, “conversion rates” be damned! Comments are only open to paid subscribers, the idea being that you gotta give some coin for my attention and response time, as well as access to the “community.” Not sure that now heavily branded term really works for the weirdos and misfits I mostly attract, but the threads have been lively of late, and starting to interweave.

The other thing paid subscribers get access to is my monthly letters column, “Ask Dr. D.” This has proven to be tremendously fun. I love the opportunity to be more spontaneous and personal in my responses, though a number of questions have been heavy-duty, requiring serious thought (ak!) and actual research (horrors!) on my part. As noted, my recent “Freaks of Color” series started out as a Dr. D. question, and in the future I will probably direct the research-heavy questions towards public posts.

That said, I believe every installment of “Ask Dr. D” so far has included some chunky content by way of a listicle, or best-of, or real life top X. Decades of enthusiastic work as a culture vulture have left me with a huge pile of bones, and it’s good to arrange them in pleasing patterns. And of course, I continue to cruise the noosphere with eyes peeled.

Here then, is a sampling from a recent “Ask. Dr. D”

What are the must-watch chambara films for weirdos and freaks, and why? 
— James 

I love Japanese cinema, particularly its period dramas, or jidaigeki. But in general my film tastes are shaped more by the art cinema canon than by B-movie psychotronica — more Criterion Collection than video nasty. As such, most of the following chambara (samurai) films are not gonna surprise any buffs. Besides, most of the really weird jidaigeki lies more in kaidan, the ghost/horror genre. But here goes:

• Harakiri/Seppuko (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) An almost perfectly constructed film, this stars the extraordinary Tatsuya Nakadai (the only rival to Toshiro Mifune in terms of samurai portrayals) as a down-and-out ronin who asks to commit ritual suicide before a corrupt clan, but is actually weaving a revenge plot whose reasons he then narrates. The film is profoundly anti-authoritarian in a manner that is simultaneously noble and nihilistic. (Freaks take note.) The experimental soundtrack, by the great Tōru Takemitsu, updates the abrupt and percussive sounds of Noh drama, and the unfolding relationship between the camera frame and the wooden frames of Japanese architecture is a formal delight. Here is the unforgettable final fight scene:

• Samurai Assassin (Kihachi Okamoto, 1965) Set at the hazardous end of the Tokugawa period in the mid-1800s, this film ironically shows how an act of vengeance in the name of traditional caste values helps doom those very values as the Meiji Restoration dawns. It features a scholar samurai as well, a rare character type who is close to my heart. In a much less funny way than he did in the classic Kurosawa crowd-pleaser Yojimbo, Toshiro Mifune’s character shows how the ronin, as free agent, navigates political strife by transforming the ethical code of the samurai to meet circumstances, replacing loyalty to master with loyalty to more conditional values.

Ninja Scroll (Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1993) The only anime on the list, this loose and fantasy-fueled retelling of Hideo Gosha’s gritty and highly-recommended chambura film Goyokin (1969) has a solid enough plot but blows the mind with its dynamic action sequences and bursting, supernatural animations. Even more than Akira, this was the anime that made me recognize the mature potential of the form. There are a lot of great bamboo scenes in Asian action films, from King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971) to the Shindo film below, but the bamboo forest battle in Ninja Scroll may out-magic them all.

Kuroneko/A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove (Kaneto Shindo, 1968) Set during a civil war of the Heien era, the film features the ghosts of a slain mother and daughter-in-law, who revenge themselves against samurai by first seducing them and then transforming into violent cat spirits. Eerie rather than scary, and not as intense as the director’s Onibaba (which does not feature samurai and so remains off this list), Kuroneko leaves a lingering creepy sting even after it’s retracted its supernatural claws.

Double Suicide (Masahiro Shinoda, 1969) This is a tragic and visually dynamite Shakespearean tale of star-crossed lovers, shot in the edgy, New Wave-style that Japan redefined in its own stark terms throughout the 1960s. The story is traditional, and is usually told in the bunraku style (with puppets). Shinoda plays with this legacy throughout, balancing striking artifice with powerful emotions. Featuring another soundtrack by the amazing Takemitsu.

Gate of Hell/Jigokumon (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953) An almost deliriously lush color film, this Heien-era drama of a samurai’s insane hunger for a chaste married woman combines formal elegance with mad passion. The film demonstrates a decidedly non-natural approach to color that characterizes many Japanese films, and which reminds me of Mic Taussig’s argument, in his great book What Color is the Sacred?, that color is a “polymorphous magical substance.” Won Grand Prize at Cannes 1954.

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurasawa, 1957) This dark and foreboding take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, starring Toshiro Mifune, is probably Kurosawa’s most formally realized and “perfect” film. The movie nods to the Noh drama in both its score and fable-like staginess, while the spare and bleak settings — unlike the court interiors common to jidaigeki — are a reminder about the martial earthiness of early samurai aesthetics. The “three witches” are particularly creepy and effective, with Kurasawa riffing off the imagery of the Norns that inspired them. Reportedly T.S. Eliot’s favorite film.

Rashoman (Akira Kurasawa, 1950) If you are a cinema buff or have taken a class from one, you have probably seen this film, the first big Japanese hit in the western world and a brilliant existential exploration of the subjective slipperiness of reality. The story of a woman’s rape and the subsequent murder of her samurai husband by the Rashoman gate is told from multiple perspectives, including the dead man’s. Here you have it, weirdos and freaks: the multiplicity of reality as a tapestry of mutant narratives. Where’s the exit?

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