Saturday, November 23, 2013

'Tis The Season For The Ronin-Shambhala’s “The 47 Ronin” Graphic Novel

December has always been the month where the 47 Ronin enter the stream of modern Japanese consciousness. The assault by the Ronin on Lord Kira’s estate took place on the “fourteenth day of the twelfth month” in the year of Genroku 15. While this actually corresponds to January 30th of the Western calendar, the Japanese have traditionally recognized it on December 14th. The Ronin appear in commercials, special events and observances are held at Sengakuji Temple (where the Ronin’s graves are located), and the airwaves tend to screen a goodly number of the dozens of TV shows and movies that have depicted the event over the decades. And this year, the Ronin will be making their presence felt in December in the West. Most obvious is the big-budget fantasy film “47 Ronin” starring Keanu Reeves that will be making its US debut Christmas day. Filled with CGI monsters and having little to do with the real 47 Ronin, it remains to be seen how the movie going public will react to it. But Shambhala Publications has also recently released a graphic novel version of the traditional 47 Ronin tale, just in time to join the festivities. The team of writer Sean Michael Wilson and artist Shimojima Akiko (along with letterer Ben Dickson) have combined to put together an adaptation of Chushingura (roughly ‘treasury of loyal retainers’, the fictional account of the historical incident that has been the subject of hundreds of kabuki plays, puppet plays, films, manga, novels, and artwork over the centuries) that exceeds anything yet done in the West (including the recent failed Dark Horse adaptation). It’s a solid adaptation that faithfully brings out the story’s many facets, perfectly complimented by accurate, simple, and clean artwork.

One issue that needs to be addressed up front is the press releases/publicity for the book. While the full versions make it clear that the graphic novel is a depiction of Chushingura (the heavily fictionalized account of the 47 Ronin incident that became popular in Edo period Japan), the shorter versions only state that it’s “…the first historically accurate graphic-novel version of a legendary event in Japanese history”. Just to be clear, the graphic novel is indeed based on the Chushingura legend, not the facts of the historical incident. Since we’ve examined these differences at length in other articles, we’ll just touch on them here. Some of the more important differences between Chushingura and actual history include:

-Chushingura contains many fictional characters, such as Kamei and ‘Urata from Satsuma’ AKA the Satsuma man.

-it also contains many fictional incidents-for example, after the assault, the Ronin pass through the streets of Edo stopping to be praised and feted by the populace. They actually moved expeditiously to their final goal of Sengakuji Temple as they feared an assault by the Uesugi and certainly weren't being embraced by the townspeople.

-Asano is shown in Chushingura as the embodiment of samurai values and virtue, whereas in real life he was a drunken womanizer with no skills to speak of (as we like to say, the 'Brick McBurly of his day').

-Oishi (the leader of the Ronin) is depicted as a loyal and brilliant retainer, but was also a man of few skills aside from drinking and procuring women for Asano.

-Kira Yoshihisa (often referred to as ‘Yoshinaka’) is shown as a grasping, greedy villain but there is no historical evidence to support it. He was more of a typical bakufu bureaucrat.

-Asano Naganori’s assault is provoked by Kira’s greed and rudeness, but the truth is that no one has a clue why he did it.

-the Ronin are shown in Chushingura to be taking great care to take no innocent lives, but during the assault they slaughtered many of Kira’s household staff.

There are lots more differences-if you’re interested, you can read about them here, here, or here. We’re also assuming our readership is acquainted with the general details of the 47 Ronin-but if not, here’s the ‘Cliffs Notes’ version. Asano Naganori, daimyo of Ako han, was assigned to study court etiquette under the tutelage of Kira Yoshihisa in order to attend Imperial envoys visiting the Shogun’s court. For some unknown reason (rudeness on Kira’s part due to not being bribed? Resentment over being properly chastised on Asano’s part?), Asano attacked Kira with his sword inside the Shogun’s Edo Castle-an act punishable by death. Asano was forced to commit ritual suicide, his lands were confiscated, and his family and retainers turned out. 47 of these retainers banded together and a year or so later assaulted Kira’s mansion, in effect ‘finishing Asano’s work’, killing Kira in what amounted to a feudal drive-by. But let’s get to the graphic novel…

Author Sean Michael Wilson sticks closely to the traditional accounts, not embellishing the Ronin with further exploits or fawning hero worship. This being the case, Kira is the villain, Asano a victim, and the Ronin are the true heroes of the story. Unlike many Western authors, however, Wilson doesn’t omit some of the darker threads of the old legends that are often dropped. One of these is Oishi’s implied criticism of Asano-“I hope I can be allowed to express some doubt as to the wisdom of our Lord’s actions. But it is done now and we must act well. If the Shogun will allow Asano Daigaku to become the new Lord, then we can continue the house with honor”. This short discourse brings an entirely new dimension to the Ronin’s vendetta, and is further embellished by Wilson presenting it as a conversation between the two factions of the Ako Ronin. In a little over two pages, much is explained. The feuding factions of the Ronin (the radicals led by Horibe Yasubei who wanted to kill Kira at once and Oishi’s moderates who only wanted the Asano family to remain in control of Ako) that almost resulted in the assault being called off, the waiting period of a year between Asano’s suicide and the raid (not because the Ronin were trying to lull Kira’s suspicions, but because they were waiting on the Shogun’s decision), the question of whether the Ronin were truly loyal to Asano Naganori or just to their positions within the house of Asano-they’re set up effortlessly and subtly. The Ronin’s callous manipulation of women and employers, and the cruelty of Oishi’s rejection of his wife and family (albeit for a good reason) are shown for all to see. By not editing these incidents from the proceedings, Wilson manages to turn the Ronin from cardboard heroes into human beings with realistic motivations and feelings. It’s also closer to real history, as most historians believe the Ronin acted to preserve their individual honor rather than out of any loyalty to Asano (who the majority had never even met). Even some of Kira’s retainers are allowed their moment to shine, with a small group of three holding back the Ronin.

Also given time to develop is the friendship between ‘Kamei-sama’ and Asano. Traditionally, Kamei is shown as the real hothead of the pair and is only saved from Asano’s fate by the quick thinking of two of his retainers (behind Kamei’s back, they bribe Kira, ending his verbal abuse of Kamei). Wilson depicts Asano’s efforts to connect with Kamei in an effort to keep him from assaulting their teacher. The friendship between the two daimyo again helps to make them believable, and as Kira turns the full of his scorn on Asano, it makes Asano’s transition from the voice of reason to unbridled rage all the more shocking and unexpected. Combined with the graphic portrayal of his seppuku (ritual suicide), it makes him a far more sympathetic character. This Asano is not perfect, but one can understand his frustration, confusion, and anger.

Many works dealing with the 47 Ronin tend to be bloodless affairs, concentrating on the ‘glory’ of the assault and glossing over the violence that was a part of it. Kira’s murder and Asano’s seppuku usually take place ‘off-screen’ or are not described in anything but the most general terms. Not so here. They’re depicted in all their ugliness, giving this version of the story a more visceral impact that tends to rip away more of the fairy tale aspect of the story and make it much more realistic. When stripped to its essentials, the tale of the Ronin is nothing more than the tragic retaliatory murder of a largely blameless old man (described by historian James McMullen as an '...atavistic, violent, and futile incident' involving '...reductive morality and brittle sense of honor that sanctioned such pointless sacrifice'), and nothing brings this home more than Oishi’s beheading of Kira.

For the most part the tale flows smoothly from one incident to another, although there is a bit of a rough transition from a scene between Kira and Asano to Asano’s later assault on Kira in Edo castle. It comes across as one incident, although the costuming and situation soon make it obvious such is not the case. Chushingura is a LONG story-kabuki plays can take days, movies several hours. Compressing everything into 150 pages or so is not an easy job, but Wilson manages to include all of the high points along with many of the sub-plots (most famously the ‘side jobs’ of the Ronin in Edo as they spy on Kira in the guise of workmen and merchants) without making things seem rushed. Dialogue takes the proper tone-a rather old-fashioned and formal way of speaking that reflects as best as it can in English the tone that a samurai would be employing in everyday speech.

Artist Shimojima Akiko’s black and white artwork is a breath of fresh air, showing an excellent level of accurate cultural and historical detail that was lacking in the Dark Horse version of the Ronin. In our opinion, it’s also far more suited to this serious story than the more whimsical and cartoonish artwork featured in the Dark Horse effort. Her double splash page spread of Edo Castle (home of the Shogun and the setting for Asano’s assault) is a perfect example, showing a grasp of Edo period Japanese architecture and castle layout that evades most artists in the West (many of whom seemingly take their cues from Chinese Wuxia films). It gives the story an authentic air that helps the reader to immerse themselves in the story rather than distract them.

As well as technical ability, she also displays a subtle touch, such as several illustrations of a spider in its web slowly being revealed as being over Asano’s shoulder-a nice bit of symbolism. The simple look of heartfelt hurt on the face of Oishi’s young daughter as he disowns her is heartbreaking. While Shimojima’s depiction of the Ronin’s assault on Kira’s mansion is done in the best frenetic manga style, there are quiet moments interspaced-such as when Kira’s chief retainer is struck down and his essence slowly drifts into the sky. For him, this battle is over and no longer matters. It imparts the sense of the transitory and impermanent nature of things inherent in Buddhism. Interestingly, this concept is stood on its head in the final scene, where the dying body of the Satsuma Man fades away to show a modern family paying homage to the Ronin’s graves at Sengakuji. While the body might pass on, the legend continues to live in perpetuity.

Shimojima also does her best to make the individual characters identifiable. The Shogun’s court stressed conformity and standardization (one reason Asano needed instruction in the highly intricate and detailed sphere of court etiquette). Hairstyles were also tightly regulated. This means that everyone had a rather generic look. Shimojima manages within this context to give cues to the reader-the differing crests on the formal kataginu, small differences in hairstyles, the shading and patterns of clothes, even things as subtle as eyebrow thickness all help in picking out the key players. It also rewards sharp-eyed readers who can spot characters from earlier in the story showing up later.

One mild criticism of the book is that it would have benefited from a short text piece such as was included in Wilson’s two other graphic novels for Shambhala. Many cultural and historical issues that Western audiences might find confusing could have been explained here, such as why Asano became homicidal when asked to tie the ribbon on Kira’s sock or why Oishi would have been so brutal in dealing with his wife (casting her out meant his family would not be held responsible for his actions and punished). Why do all in the samurai in the castle have ‘pants’ on that are twice as long as their legs (this was used to keep them from moving quickly and designed to forestall possible assassination attempts on the Shogun)? It also could have been used to give more background on the historical incident.

So if you’re looking for an adaptation of the Chushingura legend that sticks to the story and doesn’t include fantasy monsters, witches, giants, or gaijin actors shoehorned into the tale, you won’t find a better executed one than Wilson’s and Shimojima’s “The 47 Ronin”. It’s an adaptation that manages to infuse both the Ronin and their foes with humanity. Author Wilson makes you feel Asano’s outrage, Kira’s panic, the conflicting views of Asano’s retainers, and the excitement of the raid. Artist Shimojima gives us a period-accurate Japan laced with dynamic action and quiet moments in turn. They’ve taken what is often depicted as a morality tale filled with two dimensional characters and given it depth and texture. During this season of the Ronin, ‘tis the book ye be looking for. The 47 Ronin is available directly from Shambhala or from Amazon.

All artwork courtesy and copyright 2103 Shambhala Publications. It may not be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Birth of the Ninja: How The West Came To Embrace Ninjer

Recently on the Samurai Archives Forum, there was a discussion about making the myth of the ninja the subject of a future podcast. Part of the discussion centered on just how the myths of ninja clans such as Koga and Iga came into being and the image of the black-clad super assassin found its way into Western pop culture. Writer Stephen Turnbull and 'ninjer master' Stephen K. Hayes were two popular suspects.

Actually, the whole ninja craze in the West got started with the 1962 Japanese TV series "Onmitsu Kenshi" (Spy Swordsman), which featured the titular character fighting hordes of ninja clans through 10 seasons. It was dubbed in English and released on TV as "Shintaro The Samurai" in Australia in 1964, where it became a super smash hit on the level of the Batman TV series in America. The actor who played Shintaro (Ose Koichi) did a live action 'concert tour' of Oz and got bigger crowds than the Beatles. Kids in Oz emulated the ninja (leading to a Superman-like disclaimer that they shouldn't be trying this at home). 

Then things really caught fire with the 1967 James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice" (where Bond masterfully passed himself off as a native Japanese by getting his hair cut and having a couple of prosthetic eyelids glued on). Tiger Tanaka's sekrit ninjer organization was based in Himeji Castle. Himeji let them film on site but regretted it when the film crew started tearing up the woodwork with throwing stars-the castle had recently been completely disassembled and restored and had just reopened, and those damn ninja were tearing it up! 

Mainly because of the movie, phony ninja masters (like Hayes) began to pop up in the late 60's and 70's, spreading their crap among gullible would-be martial artists. And then the 1980 'Shogun' miniseries came along with the 'Amida Tong' (hoo boy-I've seen this cited online as an historical ninja organization) and hordes of ninjer and there was no turning back-the dam broke. It gave birth to all those Sho Kosugi movies, American Ninja, dumbass Ric Meyers and his series of ninjer novels and film disinformation, Eric Van Lustbader's execrable 'Ninja' series of novels, and oh so much more. Turnbull really just 'rode the wave' of all this. 

Historian Pierre Souyri wrote "The World Turned Upside Down" in the late 90's. It's a very well written history of Japan from the Genpei War through the end of the Sengoku. Syouri looks at all levels of society, not just what the daimyo were doing, and has a lot of info on culture,art, and politics. He includes a short chapter on how communities in the Iga area formed self-governing collectives during this time. Combined with the rough terrain and remoteness of the area, they were highly successful in doing so. As fellow mod LtDomer mentioned, it does show how the whole 'ninja clan' myth got started. In reality, they weren't much different than Ikko-shu groups minus the religious element. 

So there you have it-a short examination of where all the disinformation surrounding ninja in the West got its start. Japan is obviously a major culprit in this as they too have a long tradition of fictional ninjer nonsense which both fueled the Western version and in turn was fueled by it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Graphic Approach to Musashi and Demons: Shambhala’s “The Book of Five Rings” and “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts”

While manga treatments of famous works of Japanese literature are common in Japan, they’re virtually unknown in the West. Part of this is due to the long-standing prejudice in Western societies that ‘comics’ are nothing more than entertainment for children. Over the past 25 years or so, the graphic novel has changed that way of thinking. While they often provide the adventures of our favorite super-heroes, they’ve also provided a venue for talented writers and artists to craft serious stories aimed squarely at adults. As the square bound graphic novel has become accepted reading matter for adults, works that one would never have imagined appearing in comics form have appeared-among those two recent black-and-white releases from Shambhala Publications. Today we’ll be examining how the ‘graphic approach’ has worked out for Musashi Miyamoto’s “The Book of Five Rings” and Chozanshi Issai’s “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts”.

Most readers will already be familiar with swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and his famed Edo period sword treatise “The Book of Five Rings” (“Go Rin No Sho”). Using the format of the traditional five Japanese elements of earth, wind, water, fire, and emptiness (often expressed as the void or the sky), Musashi presents the thoughts behind his style of martial arts and also how they can be applied in life to virtually any situation. The ‘Earth’ chapter gives an overview of the martial arts and weaponry in general. Musashi explains the techniques and philosophy of his style, ‘Niten Ichi-ryu’ (‘two heavens as one’, the famous two swords style), in ‘Water’. Warfare (as opposed to dueling) is the subject of ‘Fire’. The shortcomings of other sword styles as Musashi sees them are presented in ‘Wind’. The proper frame of mind for learning comprises the final chapter, ‘Emptiness’. We’ll give some thoughts on Musashi’s work itself before we look at how it is affected by being put into comics form.

While Musashi claims that he “…neither borrowed the ancient words of Buddhism or Confucianism”, he did indeed borrow heavily from their concepts-Buddhism in particular, using the idea of ‘attachment’ as its core. Over and over he stresses that one should strive to make their mind free of attachments-in effect, to be able to adapt quickly and easily to any situation. Whether it’s your opponent, his weapon, his style, the environment, one should never dwell on one aspect but rather open your mind and take everything in. The esoteric Buddhist ideal of ‘enlightenment’ coming from one’s own efforts (rather than being contingent on a holy being) is reflected by Musashi’s exhortations to “See everything for yourself” and “you should investigate this thoroughly”. 

The text also tells us much about the realities and practical nature of the samurai. Musashi doesn’t fill his work with glowing words about honor and bushido-it stresses that the entire point of combat is not to fight honorably but to win, using whatever means possible. Far from considering guns a ‘coward’s weapon’, Musashi proclaims them the ultimate weapon for a castle defense and on an open battlefield before closing with the enemy. He stresses that every weapon has its benefits and drawbacks and one should learn to master them all. The role of the sword in peacetime Edo is stressed when Musashi proclaims “it is by virtue of the sword that both society and oneself are put in order”. As warfare and its weapons disappeared from the life of the samurai, they increasingly began to infuse their sword training with concepts borrowed from Buddhism and Confucianism to enrich their spiritual life and change their focus to civilian administration (the idea of turning away from the ‘death-giving sword’ to the ‘life-giving sword’, the subject of an upcoming review we’ll be doing). This spiritual aspect was a very real part of Edo period sword training as explained by historian Karl Friday in an interview he did with the SA. Surprisingly, Musashi has contempt for most formal martial arts, denigrating them as promoting ‘style over substance’, being overly concerned with making themselves saleable and raking in money, and limiting their students to a single technique (sounds a lot like he was speaking of many modern martial arts schools, doesn’t it?). 

“The Book of Five Rings” is far from the only sword treatise penned by an itinerant swordsman during the Edo period, but it’s certainly the most famous, aided immensely by Musashi becoming famous through his exposure in Yoshikawa’s Eiji’s 1930’s novel ’Musashi’. One often hears of it being used by Japanese sararimen to find success in business as well as life. Is there any justification for this? Insofar as Musashi points out that the concepts behind his philosophy can be applied to any job or career, sure. Hard work, constant practice, a hands on style, an aggressive (but not careless) attitude, and above all, adaptability to changing circumstances will help to make one successful in virtually any endeavor. These values are certainly not limited to the martial arts, nor are the Buddhist and Confucian concepts behind them. However, we suppose it’s as good a place to learn them as any-and as shown here, you can even use the sword techniques to impress the chicks

Sean Michael Wilson is the writer responsible for adapting Musashi’s work into graphic novel form (based on William Scott Wilson’s translation). Displaying a great deal of respect for and knowledge of the original work, he has managed to boil it down to its essentials. Some concepts just don’t lend themselves to visual form, but here the text is greatly enriched by the illustrations. It would be interesting to find out how closely Wilson worked with the artist and how much of the symbolism and visualizations came from him. We’re guessing it was the majority. The finished work is multilayered and will yield greater insights with each reading. In fact, it DEMANDS to be reread. Make no mistake, this is no simple comic that can easily be blown through in a few minutes and then forgotten. 

The only complaint from a historical standpoint one might have is that Musashi is usually rendered as a clean, well groomed samurai, not the filthy, unkempt ‘vagabond’ he was for most of his years. However, as he is shown during his time as a vassal of the Hosokawa, one would imagine that he would have been far better tricked out than he was in his years on the road. Otherwise, illustrator Kutsuwada Chie’s artwork is a perfect example of the style being well suited for the work. Her stark, high contrast visuals veer towards the angular and are filled with strong vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. This lends itself well to conveying Musashi’s highly aggressive and direct approach to life and the philosophy behind it. It also matches the simple, Spartan lifestyle he enjoyed. The synergy between adapter Wilson and the artist is also in evidence as well. One of our favorite sections is in the ‘Emptiness’ chapter. While Musashi carves an unseen image, he summarizes his approach to the martial arts (and by extension, life) and the true meaning of the ‘heart of emptiness’. Panels of emptiness begin to pop into his explanations, increasing in frequency along with the reader’s understanding. Finally, there is nothing left but ‘emptiness’ after Musashi exhorts his reader to “make emptiness the way and see the way as emptiness”. 

We now move on from the practical world of Musashi to a whimsical world of demons and talking animals in “The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts” (“Tengu Geijutson”). The author of this Edo period work was  (the pen name of Niwa Tadaaki), a samurai from Sekiyado han in Shimosa province. Chozanshi, while interested in swordsmanship, was primarily known as a bunjin (what we’d call a ‘man of letters’ in the West). “Demon’s Sermon” is actually somewhat of a compilation of two of his efforts-the title work along with a selection of short stories from his “Inaka Soshi” (The Hayseed Taoist). These stories, despite the book’s title, are far more concerned with Buddhist and Confucian concepts than the techniques and execution of swordsmanship (most of the martial arts discussion takes place between the tengu). 

The story revolves around a young would-be swordsman who ventures into the deep woods to seek the instruction of the tengu, the mythical bird-men of Japan who were said to have instructed the legendary hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the ways of warfare. Coming across a group of them holding a discussion in a tree, he settles in to eavesdrop and benefit from their wisdom. The title is somewhat of a misnomer-tengu aren’t demons in the Western sense of the word (that being malevolent beings or spirits from Hell) but more like ‘forest spirits’. Wilson here chooses to break “The Demon’s Sermon” into several parts and use it as a framework to structure the shorter stories. This allows the short stories to reinforce and expand upon the concepts brought up by the tengu, as well as letting the tengu introduce the concepts to be spotlighted in the short stories. An interesting choice by Wilson, it helps to tie the work together as a unified whole rather than a series of stories. Many of the ideas are the same as those looked at by Musashi in “Five Rings”, again showing how Buddhist and Confucian ideals found their way into sword training. The tengu discuss the concept of no-mind or emptiness, using your chi (the energy that flows through everything) correctly, the importance of practice and discipline, and how adaptability and lack of attachment are vital. Humorously, the tengu also find most martial arts schools to be lacking in their instruction with too great an emphasis on rigid technique. 

The short stories are primarily Buddhist parables told through the eyes of a variety of talking animals. Using animals to illustrate life lessons is a well-known aspect of Western storytelling, and it was the same in Japan. Yose (storytelling) theater was quite popular in the Edo period and many of its stories were exactly like the selections included in “Demon’s Sermon”. Included are Transformation of the Sparrow and the Butterfly, Meeting the Gods of Poverty in a Dream, The Greatest Joys of the Cicada and Its Cast-Off Shell, The Owl’s Understanding, The Centipede Questions the Snake, The Toad’s Way of the Gods, and The Mysterious Technique of the Cat. The animals (for the most part not goofy looking anamorphic creatures but what they look like in nature) delve into matters such as being content with one’s station in life, the impermanent nature of all things, the shortcomings of learned technique, and again, the importance of being able to adapt to changing circumstances. The most well-known story of the bunch is The Mysterious Technique of the Cat. When an exceptionally gifted rat invades the ramshackle home of a ronin, the rodent proves itself to be a superior foe, evading all attempts to capture or kill it. When even the most talented mousers in the area fall to the rat’s vicious attacks, it falls to an enfeebled older cat to confront the rat. It defeats it effortlessly to the amazement of all, leading to pleas from the other cats for an explanation of his amazing technique. And as will be of no surprise to readers of the other stories, he accomplished it by using ‘no technique’. Parables such as this were intended to make somewhat complex Buddhist concepts relatable and understandable to commoners and were a large part of the repertoire of traveling monks and priests. From a sociological standpoint they also were a way for the monks and samurai to make the peasants happy with their social status and not try to better their positions by rebelling against those above them. 

Wilson’s presentation of the stories (again, based on a translation by William Scott Wilson) is excellent. As previously mentioned, the narrative flows smoothly from one tale to the next, and the center point of each is brought out in a subtle and effective manner. There’s a fine line between simplifying things to the point of making them kid’s stories and making them so complex as to defy comprehension, and Wilson navigates it well. The book is warmer, charming, and more endearing than “Five Rings”. How could it not be with all those talking animals? Wilson allows their personalities and foibles to shine through rather than just make them into another ‘Musashi’. As with “Five Rings”, readers will be rewarded with greater insight on each reading. 

“Demon’s Sermon” employs a different illustrator than “Five Rings”, but one that is every bit as suited to the subject matter. Morikawa Michiru’s artwork is softer, more detailed, and employs more elaborate shading. It’s perfect for the Buddhist and Confucian concepts being expounded. It also helps to make the talking animals, insects, and demons in the story to be as natural and acceptable to the reader as the humans. Morikawa excels at infusing her work with subtle symbolism, as when a battle between a rat and a cat forms a classic Taoist taijitu (the ‘yin-yang’ symbol). We also enjoyed how Morikawa gave each of the tengu a distinctly different look, reflecting how the concepts and depictions of tengu in Japanese art varied throughout the centuries. 

Both graphic novels also contain afterwords by William Scott Wilson (the well-known scholar and writer who did the translations of the original Japanese language texts). His comments give well thought-out examinations of the characters of original authors Musashi and Chozanshi, as well as helping clarify and structure some of the points brought out in the texts. While afterwords in books often have little of substance to add, readers should definitely take the time to peruse these. 

Shambhala Publications is to be complimented for their support of this non-traditional format for very traditional and serious texts. There are more graphic novels in the works, and one in particular has caught our interest-a treatment of the 47 Ronin, due out in November. Again featuring Sean Wilson at the helm, it features artwork by Shimojima Akiko and states without reservation that it will be “a historically factual portrait”, “accurate and …compelling”, and featuring characters that are “nuanced and relatable”. This would be a welcome development, particularly in the wake of Dark Horse’s recent botched attempt at presenting the story in comics form. We have to admit to being skeptical that the end result will indeed stick to the historical facts and not mirror the fictional Chushingura version of the Ako ronin. However, based on the excellent job Wilson has done to date, if anyone can pull it off, he can. 

While both books are condensed versions of the originals, the artwork in effect makes them an expanded version, helping to underscore the original text and also to bring out new facets of these classic works. They’ll be of interest to many fields in pre-modern Japanese studies-religious studies, martial arts, philosophy, and culture. Serious and well thought out adaptations, they illustrate how the right creators paired with timeless source material can utilize the comics/manga format to enhance an existing work (rather than simply dumb it down for the purposes of creating disposable entertainment). This ‘graphic approach’ to Musashi and demons will hopefully introduce these classic works to a new audience as well as breathe life into them for the old one. After reading these two works we’ll co-opt one of Musashi’s sentiments and say “You should investigate (these) thoroughly”. 

You can pick “Five Rings” and “Demon’s Sermon” directly from Shambhala or from Amazon via the SA Store

All artwork courtesy and copyright 2012/2103 Shambhala Publications. It may not be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Full Circle: The Full Moon Cut Completes Its Arc In Animeigo’s “Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3”

 Nemuri Kyoshiro’s “Full Moon Cut” is the stuff of chanbara legend. It’s Zatoichi’s cane sword and dice tricks. It’s Hanzo the Razor and his big friend’s training regimen. It’s Tange Sazen’s one-eyed leer and Musashi’s two-sword style. It’s the baby cart and ‘horse slaying’ sword technique. It’s Mifune’s scratching. The mesmerizing Full Moon Cut has Kyoshiro start with the blade pointed down towards the ground to his right and then slowly rotating the blade in a complete circle. By the time the sword completes the circle, he claims, the enemy duelist will be dead. The mystery of the technique became emphasized over the course of the ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ series of films by strobing the sword in motion. Indeed, no one who was the target of the Full Moon Cut walked away unscathed. In Animeigo’s new release, the “Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3”, the series itself comes full circle, finishing the arc of twelve ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ films, mirroring the ‘Full Moon Cut’ in its ‘excellence of execution’. 

This is the third and final boxed set of “Nemuri Kyoshiro” films that starred Ichikawa Raizo as the title character, and is the first of the trilogy where all four films were previously unreleased in the United States. You can check out the Shogun-ki’s reviews of Set One and Set Two to see what came before. With four films in the set, instead of our usual lengthy recap we’ll just run short summaries for each followed by our observations.

Film nine in the “Sleepy Eyes” series and first in the box is “A Trail Of Traps” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Burai-Hikae Masho No Hada, 1967). And it’s just what the title suggests. Kyoshiro is caught up in an incredibly intricate plot that includes corrupt officials, devil worshippers, a golden statue of Mary, and some situations that take the concept of “Deus ex machina” to a whole new level. Not only is the ‘secret origin’ of Kyoshiro presented, but we find out he has a sister who’s dying. She’s a hidden Christian and has sent an acolyte to request Kyoshiro come visit her before she dies. Meanwhile, Shogunate officials in the Asahina clan have seized a golden statue of Mary, a statue that the cultists of the Kuroyubi-to (a group of fallen Christians, the cult of the Black Finger) are determined to recover. They ‘hire’ Kyoshiro to guard the statue on its way to Kyoto. And of course, everyone’s looking to kill him for one reason or another. Can Kyoshiro survive poison tea, acidic onsen, nuns packing heat, and even the old ‘assassin hidden under the floor’ trick? Well, since there are three more films in the set, probably, but it’s the journey, not the destination. And it’s a journey written in blood! 

Next is “Hell Is A Woman” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Onna Jigoku, 1968). Personally, we’ve always found women to be heavenly-then again, we’ve never met anything like the diabolic babes that cross paths with Kyoshiro. This entry is somewhat of a throwback to the earlier Kyoshiro films, dealing with the conflict between two factions of the Saeki clan battling it out for the top spot in the hierarchy. Each faction is headed up by a hired swordsman-one ultra-serious and hiding a secret, the other a hard-drinking goofball who wears the collected sword guards of his victims around his chest. And as usual, Kyoshiro finds himself drawn into a situation that he has no interest in. When attacking Kyoshiro head on proves troublesome, the Saeki retainers try catching Kyoshiro with honey…of the female variety. Is there ANYONE in a “Sleepy Eyes” film that isn’t a duplicitous, black hearted, self-serving bastard?

And the bastards get even sicker and more depraved in the next film. “In The Spider’s Lair” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Hito Hada Gumo, 1968) Kyoshiro runs across a town that has been stripped of its young people. Why? They’ve been kidnapped and are being held by the living dead. In this case, not zombies or vampires, but something even worse-two psychotic children of the Shogun who have been exiled and declared dead (they legally don’t exist, so nothing can be done to them by local officials) for their crimes against humanity. Among other hobbies, the brother practices archery by shooting arrows at released captives and is adept at all forms of poison. The sister is a classic black widow, using men to pleasure her and having them killed afterward. When they kidnap the young charge of one of Kyoshiro’s few friends in the world, it’s sometimes hard to tell who the bigger psycho is-the siblings or Kyoshiro.

Wrapping up the set is “Castle Menagerie” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Akujo-gari, 1969). This is perhaps the strangest Nemuri Kyoshiro film in the series-and that’s saying something. While Kyoshiro is no stranger to rape and murder, when it’s someone else doing it and leaving messages at the scene that name Kyoshiro as the culprit-well, that’s another story. Once again, it’s hidden Christians at the root of it all, having made a deal with the head of the Ooku (the Shogun’s harem in Edo castle), Nishiki-no-koji. It seems there’s a race on to see which of the Ooku’s rival factions will produce the Shogun’s heir first. When a concubine from the other faction gets pregnant first, Nishiki-no-koji contrives to have the baby ‘aborted’-directly or indirectly. Kyoshiro’s ‘shadow’ stalks the countryside putting her plans into effect, and like the original he’s also a master of the signature Full Moon Cut. As if this isn’t enough, Kyoshiro also has to contend with a flock of dancing white cranes and black crows who want him to interject his spirit into a Noh mask. Yes, rilly. The final showdown of ‘Full Moon Cuts’ between Kyoshiro and his ‘shadow’ provides a fitting end to the set. 

“A Trail Of Traps” is perhaps the best of all the Kyoshiro films. Director Ikehiro Kazuo not only seemed to have a better handle on the nature of the character and what differentiated him from the stereotyped ‘noble ronin’ characters that infest Japanese chanbara films of this era, but also did it with a sense of style that action films often lack. His short version of the ‘origin of Nemuri Kyoshiro’ in the beginning of the film has no dialogue and is played out largely against a black background, with only the actors and their props seen on screen. It’s much like a Japanese Noh play (something Ikehiro was to repeat in spades for ‘Castle Menagerie’-more on that in a bit) but tells the viewer everything they need to know. People fade in and out of the blackness, and in tone it brings to mind any number of Hammer Horror classics from the 1960’s. The soundtrack is also quite eclectic, shifting from the spaghetti-western style music of the opening that underlines Kyoshiro’s ‘anti-hero’ status to more traditional Japanese music for the ‘normal’ areas of the film to standard ‘fight’ music for the action scenes. There are shots of Kyoshiro from directly overhead, passing down a paved lane at night that bisects the screen-and then is set upon by a perfect circle of attackers that come in from the edges of the screen. In these and other shots, Ikehiro gives up a bit of art with our action, making “A Trail Of Traps” an excellent visual experience. The set piece traps also border on the unbelievable, and unlike some of the previous Kyoshiro films, this one’s loaded with swarms of ninja flipping, leaping, and dying. Some of the situations require you to believe that the plotters knew months in advance that Kyoshiro was going to stumble into their plot and placed their agents in positions to befriend him. All of this gives the film a somewhat surreal quality that works to its advantage. The traps are worthy of the ones used by Batman villains on the 60’s TV show-I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a poisoned onsen (a Japanese hot spring) used as a murder weapon. And of course that warped Kyoshiro sense of justice shows up as well-in the course of avenging the death of a man who was killed to procure his ‘loaded dice’, he lops the arm off a thug because the thug’s girlfriend truly loves the now-disarmed mook. “You can’t throw dice or hold a knife with one arm, but you can still make love to a woman,” says Kyoshiro as he casually strolls off. 

“Hell Is A Woman” takes the series back to more familiar chanbara territory, more like the first three or so Kyoshiro films. Director Tanaka Tokuzo helmed a wide variety of jidaigeki films including Zatoichi and Shinobi No Mono films (not to mention the very first Kyoshiro film, “The Chinese Jade”) and turns in an entertaining film that delivers what its audience came to see. It lacks the Christian/Black Mass elements of the other three films in this set but certainly doesn’t skimp on the action. While the character of Kyoshiro was misogynistic in the previous nine films, this one takes the cake in that aspect. In his defense, pretty much every single one of the women involved deserve it. The two ronin hired to lead the swordsmen of the Saeki clan’s warring factions are the most interesting part of the film. One is your stereotypical strong, silent type. Interestingly, he physically resembles Kyoshiro quite a bit-same type of robe, same type of waist wrap, facially similar, same rooster tuft of hair. And like Kyoshiro, he also has daddy issues. It seems Kyoshiro sees their similarities and despite the fact that he’s an enemy tries uncharacteristically to intervene on his behalf and prevent him from committing patricide. The other ronin is just as stereotypical-a sloppy and loudmouthed cur that’s only interested in making a buck and then getting drunk. He wears a garland of tsuba (sword guards) bandolier style-but if he’s won that many duels and captured so many swords, why does his katana have a bamboo blade? He’s also got the best moment in the film-after a sequence where he’s pinching pennies when buying a real katana with his first ‘paycheck’, he grimaces after Kyoshiro breaks the blade in two and says “Well, you get what you pay for”! 

It’s back to depravity and twisted samurai for the next film, “In The Spider’s Lair”. Ladies and gents, if you thought the daimyo in some of Animeigo’s recent releases (Bushido: Cruel Code Of The Samurai, Eleven Samurai, The Great Killing, 13 Assassins) were heartless and psychotic, they’ve got nothing on the pair in this film. Brother and sister, they’re proud of the fact that they’re legally ‘dead’ and think nothing of kidnapping dozens of people just to serve their murderous whims. They don’t display a single shred of decency in the entire film. Kyoshiro is targeted by the sister, who after finding out that he’s a child of The Black Mass, decides she absolutely HAS to have him. Kyoshiro for his part seems fascinated with her-a being of pure evil, who doesn’t display any of the hypocrisy he so despises. In fact, she’s one of the few evil women in the series he ends up not killing. Her brother seems to have quite the unhealthy interest in her as well, as does her henchman, a large brute with a staff that serves as her enforcer. This is also one of the rare times in the series where we see Kyoshiro brought down-he takes a poisoned arrow to the shoulder but is luckily saved by a Shogunate official who wants his help in bringing ultimate justice to the siblings. But of course, he turns out to be a scheming backstabber as well. This film points firmly in the direction Japanese jidaigeki films were going to take in the 70’s-increased violence, torture, sexual depravity, and over-the-top set pieces. It would fit right into the ‘Hanzo the Razor’ series. Director Yasuda Kimiyoshi had also directed prior entries in the series along with Zatoichi films (some of the more extreme entries), horror films like Daimaijin, several ghost stories, even a ‘Hoodlum Priest’ movie, and puts his familiarity with cinematic violence and cruelty to good use. 

And lastly we have ‘Castle Menagerie’. By this time star Raizo was quite sick-he was to die from cancer just a few months after this film was released. Knowing this, you can see telltale signs onscreen-he often looks drawn, haggard, and tired, but it’s to Raizo’s credit that you can only spot it if you’re looking for it. Ikehiro Kazuo returned to the director’s chair and turned in an entry that was even more visually stunning and surreal than “A Trail Of Traps”. The film hits the ground running with ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ slaying a government official and later, after raping a woman, (off screen) carving (what else) ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro Raped This Woman’ into her flesh. But when the government official’s daughter shows up looking for revenge, Kyoshiro denies having done any of this. And he hasn’t-it’s his ‘shadow’, another child of the Black Mass and a hidden Christian who’s working to secure the freedom of his fellow worshippers. He’s an eerie sight, dressing like Kyoshiro and even wearing a creepy, expressionless Kyoshiro mask-it’s almost like watching a character from a late 70’s/early 80’s slasher film. A nice touch is that Kyoshiro really doesn’t care that he’s doing all this-he was only curious as to what his motivation was. At times it seems that there’s little difference between the real and fake Kyoshiro-in fact, the fake seems to come off as more noble-he’s doing it for a cause, whereas Kyoshiro only acts out of boredom and self-interest. The show-stopping moment in the film comes when Kyoshiro is set upon by a flock of dancing white cranes and black crows-or at least, ninja who drop from the sky dressed as such. Rather than attack, they ‘dance’ him into a room where the wife of a dead Noh mask maker requests that he infuse her husband’s greatest creation with his spirit-by making love to the woman wearing it. Happens all the time, right? The unplussed Kyoshiro naturally agrees but then asks Miss Noh why she has the body of a whore when she claims to be a virgin, and by the way, is that poison lipstick on her mask? The big payoff comes when the Noh Masks ‘hanging’ on the darkened walls of the large room come to life and attack, exposing themselves as the ‘crows’ who had blended into the darkness. In the course of slaying them all, Kyoshiro kills the last by killing ‘himself’-striking his reflection in a mirror to skewer the woman behind it. But he has failed to kill his shadow after all, as his ‘evil twin’ appears to take him down. Director Ikehiro ended the Raizo run on ‘Sleepy Eyes’ on a high note with Kyoshiro fighting Kyoshiro, each employing the deadly Full Moon Cut. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Kyoshiro’s adventures in the Ooku or preventing an illegal abortion because the perceived hypocrisy of the mother pissed him off… 

The Kyoshiro series, and indeed the studio that produced it, was not to survive Raizo’s passing long. There were actually two more films in Daiei’s “Nemuri Kyoshiro” series-“Full Moon Swordsman” and “Flyfot Swordplay”. Both starred Matsukata Hiroki in the role Raizo made famous. Matsukata was a fine actor in his own right, known more for his roles as a tough guy in Yakuza films at the time. He’s appeared in such well-known films as “Battles Without Honor Or Humanity”, “Ichi”, “Father Of The Kamikaze”, “Izo”, and the recent Miike Takashi remake of “13 Assassins”. He turned in a solid performance as Kyoshiro, but Raizo had made the role his own. Japanese audiences didn’t accept Matsukata as Kyoshiro and the films performed poorly at the box office. And only two years after Raizo’s death, Daiei studios followed suit, declaring bankruptcy in 1971. Still, it might be worth Animeigo’s while to look into releasing the final two films here in the US, perhaps as some sort of ‘double feature’ disc, truly bringing the series to a close. 

The transfer on the films is solid-while it isn’t as eye-poppingly gorgeous as Animeigo’s recent release of the “Lone Wolf And Cub” films on Blu-ray, it’s still quite excellent. Each film gets its own disc instead of being crammed onto one or two, and they’re in an attractive trifold insert. We noticed that while Animeigo’s translations and subtitles are still the best in the business, this time around they seemed a bit edgier and less formal than usual. Lines such as Kyoshiro being told “What’s that look? You look like you’ve never been laid before!” or a woman being told by Kyoshiro that “Let’s see what it’s like to screw the Grim Reaper!” come off wonderfully in their context and fit the mood of the films perfectly. Extras are a bit thin-each of the four films has its own trailer along with one for another recent Animeigo release and image galleries of lobby cards and stills. Program Notes (one of the most enjoyable things on an Animeigo release and something that sets them apart from other companies) are extremely slim, being only one short entry for three of the films (along with director bios). 

One of the final lines of dialogue spoken by Raizo in his film career takes place at the end of Castle Menagerie: “There can only be one Kyoshiro”, to which his doppelganger replies “Your evil name will live on eternally…”. Did writer Miyagawa Ichiro and director Ikehiro, knowing of Raizo’s sickness, insert these lines into his final scene as a fitting tribute to his tragically short career? They proved to be apropos-the demise of the ‘Sleepy Eyes’ series showed that Japanese filmgoers believed there was only one Kyoshiro. And this release by Animeigo helps to insure that Raizo’s name will indeed live on eternally. With this set, the Full Moon Cut has now come Full Circle-but unlike its victims, viewers will have the luxury of an unpunctured body afterwards. 

“Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3 will be released February the 12th. You can pick it up on Amazon or get a steep discount by buying it direct from Animeigo

All photos courtesy and copyright of Kadokawa Pictures 2013.