Tag: japanese film

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Three stills from chanbara: Seven Samurai, Twilight Samurai, Harakiri

Dissecting Chanbara: The Evolution of the Samurai Film Genre

There are samurai films, and then there are films that, while falling into this genre by happenstance, become the high points of cinema itself. I intend to examine three films in the chanbara tradition, and, in doing so, I will show how they’ve helped evolve the genre, advancing it into high art by building on previous achievements.

Perhaps the most important (even if not the best) film in the chanbara genre is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which tells the story of a group of warriors recruited by a village aiming to free itself from harassment by local bandits. It is a great action/adventure film that manages to transcend that label because of its pristine characterization and Kurosawa’s skill as a storyteller. The village farmers have only rice to offer in exchange for the service of the samurais, so that the viewer knows the only warriors who will agree to help are those righteous enough to sympathize with their struggle, or those desperate enough to take the job.

From its opening, one of the film’s few limitations becomes clear: Kurosawa’s proclivity for melodrama. As one of the farmers (Bokuzen Hidari) overhears bandits planning their next raid, the villagers whine and scream, worried about their future. However, even this aspect of the film is ameliorated by two things: 1) although the presentation is a bit cheesy, it makes sense for the farmers to be upset, since their lives are at risk; 2) the film is extremely concise and well-paced, with this scene an immediate point of departure. In fact, although Seven Samurai is three and a half hours long, it feels more like two. This is partly due to Kurosawa’s editing, which often cuts amid a character’s movement to maintain seamlessness in the flow of each sequence, then alternates loud and quiet scenes, so that they rarely feel monotonous. […]

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A still from Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman

On Shohei Imamura’s “The Insect Woman” (1963): Cycles, Transitions, Ellipses

The first time I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1963 classic The Insect Woman, it took me a few seconds to understand why its strange ending works. As there were only two or three minutes of the film left, I kept looking at its runtime, thinking “How the hell will this movie end?”, and then it did.

It ends in an ellipsis, but not the sort of cliffhanger one would normally think. It is not like the one closing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which immediately makes sense, as there is a hovering hint of disaster that would be missed were that film “resolved”. Instead, The Insect Woman ends where one would least expect it; in the middle of a long walk the main character is taking. Not only does there not seem to be a logical conclusion to the events in the narrative, but there is no closure at an emotional level, neither.

The reason such an ending works is that Shohei Imamura’s film is about cycles, found between generations, without origin or completion. Were the film to conclude more traditionally, its themes would not be as hard-hitting as they are. Life does not have beginnings or endings as much as it has “transitions”, and although Imamura’s film is, like all art, artifice, it commits to framing this reality. It may be because of this commitment that, although the film sometimes seems like a stream of tragedies in the life of its main character, it never overwhelms nor devolves into melodrama. […]