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Sunday, Dec. 15, 2002

Screen dreams of the good old samurai days

Japan Times film critic

With the stock market heading south and the political situation taking an uncanny resemblance to the last sclerotic days of the Soviet Union, no wonder Japanese moviegoers want to be anywhere but here and now. Even so, the number of new and recent Japanese films set in the past is extraordinary, given that only a few years ago the jidai geki -- the period drama genre -- was all but dead.

News photo
Hiroyuki Sanada in a scene from the recently released "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)"

A jidai geki revival has been underway for some time now, with older audiences driving much of the demand -- and older producers and directors rushing to fill it. The most successful of these films, however, including Masahiro Shinoda's "Owls' Castle (Fukuro no Shiro)" (1999) and Yojiro Takita's "Yin-Yang Master (Onmyoji)," (2001), have had strong fantasy elements, created with sophisticated CG effects that appeal to younger audiences. In other words, these are not your father's -- not to mention Akira Kurosawa's -- samurai movies.

Until recently, effects-driven films were deemed too costly by the local industry, with the exception of family fare that could get by with less-than-Hollywood quality (such as hiring a guy in a rubber suit to play Godzilla). Now, though, sophisticated computer-generated effects are everywhere, from TV commercials to big-budget films that go head-to-head with Hollywood.

Though several of these new effects extravaganzas are set in the future, the past is still a more popular destination for Japanese filmmakers, though the stories now often derive more from the wilder imaginings of manga artists than the sober recountings of historians.

One such project is "Azumi," which tells the fictional tale of a 16th-century woman warrior who battles the powers-that-be for the right to rule the country -- a goal that her present-day sisters have yet to reach four centuries later. Newcomer Aya Ueto stars, while Ryuhei Kitamura, whose martial-arts fantasy "Versus" has made him an international cult celebrity, directs. Toho will release the film this May, in time for the Golden Week holidays.

Still another is Hideyuki Hirayama's "Makai Tensho," to be released by Toei this spring. It stars Yosuke Kubozuka as a Christian who dies in the government-ordered persecution of 1838 and is reborn to lead a crusade against his oppressors. Kubozuka is the hottest young male star in Japan, following his success in this year's "Ping Pong" and last year's "Go."

Some directors, however, are still making jidai geki the old-fashioned way, with only an occasional assist from the CG staff. The one with the biggest buzz is Yoji Yamada, who made his name (and his fortune) with the 48-episode Tora-san series, but recently released his first jidai geki in his four-decade career. Titled "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)," the film is set in the last days of the Edo Period (1603-1867), in a Japan that resembles today's, complete with premodern versions of recessionary lifestyles, corporate restructuring, office politics -- and men who can't say what they feel.

The hero, played by genre veteran Hiroyuki Sanada, is a low-ranking samurai salaryman, who works as a clerk in the clan office, but is just barely scraping by. Though ridiculed by his colleagues for heading straight home after work (thus his nickname, "Twilight Seibei"), he is a devoted family man, taking care of his two young daughters and his senile mother after the death of his wife. This, Yamada indicates, is a role model for modern-day Japanese males -- but Seibei is no bloodless wimp. He shyly woos a childhood crush (Rie Miyazaki) who has returned to her parents' home in disgrace after leaving her abusive husband. Later, at the order of his superiors, he reluctantly sets out alone, armed only with a sword, to battle a dangerous clan rebel.

The climatic showdown between Seibei and the rebel, played by celebrated butoh dancer Min Tanaka, is a dazzler, less for its flashy swordplay than its tense duel of wills -- and its revelation of the two contestants as brothers in injustice and misery. It's one of the best things Yamada has ever done and has helped make "Tasogare Seibei" a crtical favorite, with several awards this year to its credit.

Still another veteran director with a different take on period-drama conventions is Kei Kumai. Based on a script by the late Akira Kurosawa, his "Umi wa Miteita (The Sea Watches)" is less a Kurosawa film by proxy than Kumai's interpretation of Kurosawa's vision. Like Kurosawa's late-period films, "The Sea Watches" has a valedictory air, but it also features women as its central characters and a star-crossed romance as its dramatic focus -- both rare in the Kurosawa filmography.

The heroines, prostitutes working in a Fukagawa brothel, try to help one of their number, the gentle-hearted Oshin (Nagiko Tono), wed a young samurai who has fallen in love with her. In traditional dramas of this type, such an affair can only end in tragedy, but Oshin and her friends persevere when the samurai proves to be a dud. By the end, Oshin has found a new love, though her future is far from assured (and the brothel is sinking under the waters of a monster typhoon).

These recent period dramas, and others like them, may have successfully attracted older audiences, who are less interested in digital flash and filigree, but in both quantity and quality they are still a far cry from the genre's glory days. In the 1950s nearly half of all Japanese film production was devoted to jidai geki, from formula swashbucklers to the masterpieces of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, at a time when the industry was churning out as many as 800 films a year.

In the 1960s, however, period dramas began to migrate to television, followed by all but a faithful handful of their audience. By the mid-1990s, sporadic attempts to widen that audience with big budgets and big names from the past had resulted mostly in box office disappointment -- and producers were ready to throw in the towel (or the hachi-maki).

In the latter part of the decade, however, directors began to make samurai movies again, this time with a cheeky MTV attitude and tempo (Hiroyuki Nakano's 1998 "Samurai Fiction") or eye-candy effects (the 1999 "Owls' Castle") -- and audiences, including under-25s, began to respond. Now there is something like a minirevival underway, with jidai geki appealing to all shades of the demographic spectrum arriving in the theaters.

Will audiences stay this time? Or will the genre share the fate of the Western, which enjoyed a brief flurry after the success of "Dances With Wolves," followed by box office oblivion?

It's hard to be complacent, but Japanese producers have so far proved adept at adapting an old genre to new tastes and technologies. The good old days may never return, but samurai will probably keep striding across the screen, heading off to new adventures in digitally generated worlds. In the Japanese film business, as never before, the past is the future.

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