Thursday, September 18, 2008

Questions from the Audience: Patrick Galloway

Here are some of the questions that have come in for our first interviewee, Patrick Galloway:

How have samurai films changed in the last 50 years, and how do you think they will evolve going forward?

PG: While I try to avoid the somewhat tired comparison of Japanese samurai films and Hollywood westerns, in this case it's helpful, as both genres have seen similar mutations over the decades (popular and fairly conventional in the 50s and 60s, more experimental in the 70s, declining popularity during the 80s, 90s and 00s yet more post-modern and/or sentimental). Culturally, the two genres have become increasingly "old fashioned" in the minds of modern pop culture consumers, and have thus become less popular with these audiences. Politically, the samurai and the cowboy can be seen as right-wing icons, an issue that has affected their relative popularity over the years. And of course television has had its impact, particularly in Japan, where jidai-geki found a new home during the 70s and has remained in the form of series and annual taiga dramas.

Looking at a recent example of what I call the neo-samurai film, something like When the Last Sword is Drawn, Love and Honor or Hana, one notices a softening, a feminization if you will. There's less emphasis on the sword and more on human drama and human relationships. This is not to denigrate these films, (they're both quite good), but it points to yet another development in the genre. And, once again, this shift is mirrored in a western like 3:10 to Yuma, a recent remake of Delmer Daves' 1957 classic: While the original film was stripped down, basic, primal, the remake added loads of additional character development and personal drama.

Looking forward, I think it's safe to say the samurai, like the cowboy, is such a cultural fixture that he will never fully fade from view. However, barring another big fascist turn in Japan, I doubt the samurai film will ever regain its former glory as a film genre.

I'm a big fan of older Japanese cinema and bemoan the fact that (apart from Fujita Makoto and a handful of survivors from the glory days) there don't seem to be any modern leading men with the presence and charisma of Mifune Toshiro, Katsu Shintaro, Wakayama Tomisaburo, and Shimura Takashi. (Maybe Takenaka Naoto, but he also accepts so many parts unworthy of his talents that it's kind of a stretch, IMO.) In your opinion, who are the best modern jidai geki/chambara actors and actresses? Who do you think will stand the test of time and be talked about decades from now? Are SMAP members really the best the Japanese film and TV industry can come up with?

PG: Oh c'mon, Kimutaku wasn't so bad! But your point is well-taken. Frankly, my area of expertise lies further back in the 20th century, for the simple reason that I find samurai cinema of the 50s, 60s and early 70s to be the most compelling, exciting, and well-made. The old saw "they just don't make 'em like that anymore" is particularly apt in this regard. So I can't really address your question about who the best modern jidai-geki actors are -- I'm afraid I'm just not that interested. I've enjoyed the contemporary samurai films I've seen, like Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai/Hidden Blade/Love & Honor trilogy, but these films featured stunt casting and thus don't really address your question.

It is gratifying to hear you're with me in your appreciation of actors like Takashi Shimura, Japan's answer to Spencer Tracy in gravitas and quiet dignity. You know, before I became interested in samurai films, I was heavy into Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, so perhaps that explains something about my tastes -- rather than keeping up with what's current, hip and happening, I'm perfectly happy to spend my time with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 30s or Toshiro Mifune in the Sengoku period -- you can't get much further away from today, and I must admit the escapist value is important to me as well.

It seems that jidai-geki tend to overwhelmingly revolve around the one lone wolf-- the rebel or the reject, whereas Japanese society is very "group-oriented”. And since in Japanese society the nail that sticks up usually gets hammered down, many jidai geki seem to run contrary to the very nature of Japanese society, where the norm would be to expect a samurai to go down fighting for his lord. Yet in the case of the American Western, the lone gunman fits almost perfectly with the American ideal of the rugged individual. Why is it that Japanese seem so fascinated with the lone wolf figure in their samurai films when it is so far away from their cultural ideal? Is it purely the influence of Westerns on Japanese filmmaking, or what?

PG: The story of an individual who stands up against an oppressive group, institution or society is a universally compelling narrative. It's not surprising that this narrative would resonate with the Japanese, whose rigidly group-oriented society has, at times in its history, plumbed the depths of personal subjugation. What you are observing is the dichotomy between creative culture and maintainer culture. Creative culture (poets, painters, musicians) is traditionally at odds with the more powerful maintainer culture (government, industry, the military), each group embracing a very different set of values. When the latter co-opts the former, you get propaganda. Sure, the US has traditionally championed the so-called "rugged individual," but this is more a matter of propaganda than genuine policy. The fact is, the state, any state, has a vested interest in keeping its citizens in line, regardless of whether that state has endorsed some romantic notion to the contrary. Japan just happens to be more up front about it. In response, over the centuries, the Japanese have adopted a healthy cynicism in regards to their leaders and institutions, as seen in a sentiment known as hoganbiiki, essentially "sympathy for the loser." Etymologically, the term refers to the tragic fate of Yoshitsune Minamoto, and with it comes the understanding that such heroic figures are ultimately crushed by a system more concerned with maintaining the status quo.

It's worth mentioning that not all samurai films involve a straight-up lone wolf. The Japanese have found ingenious ways of merging rebellious narratives with a line-toeing obedience to the state. Take for example, the Chushingura, the Loyal 47 Ronin defy the state in exacting their revenge, but so fully embody the ideals of bushido that they serve a larger propaganda purpose (plus they were all sentenced to an "honorable and face-saving, samurai's" death by committing seppuku, rather than having to endure the humiliation of being executed like common criminals via crucifixion or beheading ... ). Tales of unflagging loyalty to an unscrupulous lord provide another way around the issue; the samurai's tragic demise comes wholly out of his devotion to his lord, however misguided, and thus all is forgiven. Examples of this can be seen in Raizo Ichikawa's character in The Betrayal and Mikijiro Hira's ronin in Sword of the Beast.

At the end of the day, fiction is about conflict. Nobody wants to hear a story about a man who knuckled under and did what he was told. Tension and conflict are the engine of any narrative, no matter the genre, no matter the nation. It's in us. It's primal. So it's no surprise that the giri/ninjo conflict occupies such a pivotal position in the jidai-geki canon.

You previously mentioned an enthusiasm for manga based chambara, stuff like Lone Wolf & Cub, Hanzo the Razor, Bohachi Bushido and Lady Snowblood (all written Kozue Koike and reviewed in Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves). What other manga adaptations have you discovered? Do you (or have you) read much manga, either older stuff like the Koike material or anything which is currently being released? If yes, what would be your recommendations for worth-while manga reading? What manga titles would you personally like to see released in an English language edition? Which could have been made into a great film but never was?

PG: In my book Asia Shock, you'll find plenty more manga movie reviews, as well as a sidebar discussing the genre. Stuff like The Story of Ricky, Female Prisoner Scorpion, Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl, Oldboy, MPD Psycho Detective--all manga adaptations.

As for me and manga: I used to have all the Akira trade paperbacks; I was a subscriber to sadly-now-defunct Pulp magazine, where I got exposed to great stuff like Strain (written by Buronson, art by Ryoichi Ikegami), Toyokazu Matsunaga's Bakune Young and Junji Ito's Uzumaki (the movie version of which didn't hold a candle to the manga -- how could it?); I still have a big stack of Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond; and looking at my bookshelf, I see the compilations Comics Underground Japan and Secret Comics Japan, Fred Schodt's classic overview Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, Osamu Tezuka's The Phoenix, and, on the dark side of the shelf, Yoshihiro Tatsumi's The Push Man, Suehiro Maruo's oh-so-wicked Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show and Ultra-Gash Inferno and, last but not least, Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino (who was also responsible for the second and fourth Guinea Pig movies). Oh, and I subscribed to Shonen Jump the first couple of years but found it a bit too middle school-y for my taste (although I did like Hikaru no Go and Shaman King).

As for live-action adaptations of any of this stuff, I'm all for it! Can you imagine a live-action Akira? I know Kon Ichikawa shot The Phoenix back in the 70s (in fact I know where to get it, just haven't gotten around to it yet). I suppose I could be really transgressive and suggest a film adaptation of some of Suehiro Maruo's stuff, but that's not going to happen -- he's way too beyond the pale. Ero-guro guru Edogawa Rampo is a big influence on his work, so I guess you could substitute something like Horrors of Malformed Men or Blind Beast. Hideshi Hino's manga is gruesome good fun and ripe for film, but for godsake, don't let him direct!

How has your writing style changed from the time of writing Lone Wolves and Stray Dogs to the writing of Warring Clans and Flashing Blades? Is there any drastic differences between Lone Wolves and Warring Clans? What exactly can we expect from the new book and when is it supposed to be released?

PG: I've noticed a slight change in my writing style, namely it's become a little more serious, not as kooky and flip as it was in the first book. If you've read Asia Shock, you'll see what I mean. The first book was an explosion of pent-up enthusiasm, and getting that out of my system was a step in the direction of a more refined style. Not that I'm disowning SD&LW -- it's still very near and dear to my heart. And I'm not about to become some dour critic, dispensing pompous pronouncements. I've got a sense of humor and an irreverent world view, and that's going to come across in whatever I write.

Format-wise, Warring Clans, Flashing Blades is a synthesis of the first two books. I've included new biographical sketches, cultural background and Takuan the Know-It-All Priest sidebars, but the reviews are longer and I've included capsule reviews as well.

For the record, WCFB is set for a Fall '09 release. It was originally slated for Fall '08 (the manuscript has been finished since February), but unfortunately the vicissitudes of the publishing industry, combined with the global credit crunch and the machinations of my publisher's Japanese parent company, have all combined to create certain cash flow issues that have delayed release of my book (along with a dozen other titles). It's frustrating, but what can I do? I already spent the advance!

Jidai-geki and chambara seem to deal with similar themes as the Japanese yakuza film genre (honor, redemption, revenge, and failure/self destruction). Do you see any influence on jidai-geki and chambara from the Japanese Yakuza film genre, or vice versa? And, have you considered writing a book on the Yakuza genre?

It's important to distinguish between sub-genres when discussing yakuza films. It sounds to me like you are referring to ninkyo-eiga, the traditional "chivalrous" yakuza picture (think Ken Takakura wielding a short sword), as opposed to matatabi-eiga, "wandering gambler" films (Zatoichi springs immediately to mind) or the grittier jitsuroku-eiga, the "true story" yakuza film popularized by Kinji Fukasaku during the 70s in the ground-breaking Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai) series and numerous one-offs like the Bunta Sugawara classic Modern Yakuza, Outlaw Killer.

As for the whole samurai/yakuza genre overlap, it was inevitable, as the history of the two groups overlap, leading to a certain measure of cross-pollination (both culturally and, later, in film). The codes and rituals of the yakuza originated during the Tokugawa period. Although influenced by the samurai class, the yakuza developed in very different directions, concerning themselves with gambling, prostitution, and other activities of the demimonde.

Since the majority of samurai films are set during the Tokugawa period, you've got yakuza popping up in them and, conversely, plenty of samurai populating the landscape of yakuza pictures set during this period. (And, of course, directors working in one genre often made pictures in the other.) The big difference is that while the samurai class (and the feudal system in general) went kaput early in the Meiji era, the yakuza have continued to thrive to the present day, bringing the yakuza film genre along with them. Modern yakuza culture has provided fodder for experimental filmmakers like Beat Takeshi, Takashi Miike, Sabu and others, providing a plethora of innovative, off-kilter films.

Oh, and as for me writing a book on yakuza films, don't look for that one any time soon. I enjoy the genre, but the passion level isn't sufficient to warrant the amount of time and energy required. Other authors like Patrick Macias and Mark Schilling have done good work in this area, so I can move on to something else.


Well, that brings this interview to a close. On behalf of the Samurai archives, I'd like to thank Pat for taking the time to chat with us. It's been a lot of fun and very interesting. My "must watch" film list just got longer! Very Happy

If you do have any additional questions for Pat, please feel free to visit his website at and drop him a line.

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