Recently, after discussing various things we could do to keep everything fresh and interesting, fellow Samurai Archives blogger Obenjo Kusanosuke came up with the idea of interviewing people preeminent in their respective fields. Obenjo kicks off the first of many interviews with Patrick Galloway, author of two books on Asian cinema.
Recently, I sat down for a fun-filled email interview with Patrick Galloway, author of Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook and Asia Shock: Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong & Thailand . We are honored to inaugurate the Samurai Archives’ Author Interview Series with such a distinguished guest and valued forum member. This is the first part of our on-going discussion and once the interview is finished, the thread will be unlocked so people can post comments and a few additional questions for Patrick. So without further ado, let’s get on with the interview!
OK: Tell us, what got you interested in samurai films? What was the first one you saw?
PG: Way back when I first discovered the Criterion Collection -- that's where I found Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. So like many others, I entered the world of the samurai through the doorway of Akira Kurosawa. I had also been a student of Eastern philosophy for many years, and the Zen aesthetic was attractive to me. Later I found Zatoichi and began to develop an awareness of chambara in terms of the different studios (Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, etc.)
OK: What motivated you to write Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves? I thought this was one heck of a book and it was ‘love at first read’. You really take the reader by the hand on a grand tour of samurai cinema in a way that entertains and educates at the same time.
PG: At the time I wrote the book, there was only one other text wholly devoted to the samurai film genre, Alain Silver's then-out-of-print The Samurai Film. While I've gotten much from Silver's book, there's no denying it's written in a dry, academic style. I wanted to create a book that was informative and fun to read, expressing my personal enthusiasm for the genre. In this way I could offer an alternative to Silver and establish my own style.
OK: How did you come up with the idea of Takuan, "the know-it-all priest"? This was quite a clever idea.
PG: This was a Q&A device to help people new to Japanese film/culture get a handle on some of the more bewildering cultural traditions they're bound to encounter watching the films. I appropriated the irascible yet wise Takuan from the Musashi Miyamoto saga, one of the first stops on many a journey through samurai film.
OK: Is there a specific period of Japanese history you have become interested in because of samurai films?
PG: Since the majority of samurai films take place during the Tokugawa period, that was, of course, my initial fascination. But many films are set during the Sengoku, and a few in the Heian, and these periods have definitely caught my interest as well. The Meiji era is technically no longer jidai geki, but there have been great films set then as well, such as Kenji Misumi's The Last Samurai and the Lady Snowblood films. I think the Meiji is of particular interest to Westerners, as it was a period of rapid westernization, a time when, almost overnight, topknots and kimonos gave way to top hats and frock coats.
OK: How did you find the Samurai Archives? What was it that led you here?
PG: Initially it was my own curiosity, inspired by the films. Once the samurai film obsession had taken hold, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the history and real personages portrayed in the pictures I was discovering. Later I came to rely on the SA as a valuable resource for my research, both with SD&LW and my upcoming Warring Clans, Flashing Swords: A Samurai Film Companion (out Fall '09).
OK: Has the study of Japanese history helped give you any additional insights into the samurai films you view?
PG: I'm always interested in distinguishing samurai fact from samurai fiction. A deeper understanding of the history serves to enhance one's enjoyment of the films. You get a kick out of seeing an historical figure or event faithfully represented, but it's also fun to know when things are getting changed around for dramatic effect (which is more often the case).
OK: Who are your favorite jidai geki stars and what is that you specifically like about these actors/actresses?
PG: Good lord, where to begin? Big name stars I particularly like include Tatsuya Nakadai, Raizo Ichikawa, Shintaro Katsu, Kinnosuke Nakamura and Toshiro Mifune. However, I'm also quite fond of a whole range of character actors and second-tier stars like Tomisaburo Wakayama, Tetsuro Tamba, Eijiro Tono, Makoto Sato, Yoshio Harada, Shigeru Amachi, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kunie Tanaka, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Rentaro Mikuni, Etsushi Takahashi, Mikio Narita, Yoshio Inaba -- and that's just the guys. As for the ladies, there's Isuzu Yamada, Yoko Kagawa, Yoshiko Kuga, Machiko Kyo, Nobuko Otowa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Meiko Kaji and of course the girls of Daiei: Masayo Banri, Shiho Fujimura and Miwa Takada.
OK: I noticed Brick McBurly didn’t make your list. Why? I’m struggling to understand this. I thought he was brilliant in his jidai geki debut The Dog Style Shogun. Even though we couldn’t see his face throughout the movie, his portrayal of Hattori Hanzo left me speechless.
PG: Brick who? Is that the white guy who plays a samurai in Kiss makeup? Otherwise I don't know who you're talking about. Why would you bring up some silly-named nobody in an interview like this? You were doing pretty good until this last question...
OK: Umm... that’s me who wears the KABUKI, not KISS makeup! Well, fine. Brick didn’t make your list, but I think he deserves some credit for his portrayal of Hanzo. Speaking of ninjas, there are a lot of folks out there who are fans of ninja films. There are some highly entertaining films out there, but it is really easy to fall into the trap of believing that ninja existed as they are portrayed in so many of the schlockier films. Did you fall into this ninja trap? I know I did!
PG: Actually, I took this issue to heart in my research and discussions of ninja films in my upcoming book. Although there were real, historical ninja, they were essentially just spies, and operated in much the same way spies do in all eras i.e. gathering intelligence, creating political instability, carrying out assassinations, etc. The black pajamas and super powers are the stuff of kabuki theater.
OK: Can you tell us which ninja movies you’d recommend? Are there any we should avoid?
PG: The ninja films I review in the new book run the gamut from classics like Shinobi no Mono and Samurai Spy to fun stuff like Watari, Ninja Boy. I think the worst thing I ever saw was something called Master Ninja with Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten.
OK: Yeah, that Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten thing was actually also a TV show. As a kid, I was surprised to see that ‘Salami’ (Van Patten’s character in the TV show ‘White Shadow’) became a ninja after graduating from Carver High School! I hate to get philosophical on you, but I’ve got to ask this. Do you consider chambara and jidai geki to be distinctly different film categories, or do you consider chambara to be a sub-genre of jidai geki?
PG: I'd say the latter. The term jidai geki, "period drama," covers historical periods up to 1868 (gendai geki picks it up from there to the present). So any film set before 1868 is technically jidai geki. It could be a chambara, an art film or a melodrama -- it's all jidai geki, at least as I understand it.
OK: The reason why I asked the above question is because some people turn their noses up at chambara, thinking that they are too low-brow. But I think it could be said that some chambara films rank as some of the best jidai geki films ever made. Would you agree with this statement? If so, what films come to mind?
PG: My feelings on this can be summed up by two words on page 12 of SD&LW, "chambara rocks!" As you know, chambara is an onomatopoetic term, referring to the sound of clashing swords. So any jidai geki film that has a fair amount of swordplay qualifies, I suppose, although some critics reserve the term for what they consider cheap, forgettable program pictures. Frankly, I've never seen such a picture. Even the most routine chambara film, at least among the ones I've seen, has a certain character, a certain intensity borne of bushido and the giri/ninjo conflict. And, as you mention, there are scores of chambara films that are true masterworks of cinema. Take any of the chambara films of Hideo Gosha, Kihachi Okamoto or Kenji Misumi, filmmakers who are to their genre what John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher are to the American western. Even such luminaries as Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi have worked in the genre, creating landmark films like Harakiri, Sanjuro, Samurai Rebellion and Seven Samurai. So I think it's safe to say that, far from some derogatory term, chambara encompasses a wide range of fabulous films that continue to enrich and entertain year after year.
END OF PART ONE