Ichi: A Disciple Seeking Enlightenment
Swordsmanship untested in battle is like the art of swimming mastered on land.|
Hanshiro Tsugomo, Harakiri
Aren't you tired of being stupid yet?
Sanjuro Tsubaki, Sanjuro
At the outset of a duel or any formal social encounter, it was customary for a samurai in medieval Japan to introduce himself by stating his name and the swordsmanship style he practiced. So I hereby bow deeply before you and announce that I am Donald Trull, originally a disciple of the Kurosawa school, currently a wandering ronin learning from the many wise sensei I meet on my journey. The art form I study is not kendo and the way of the samurai sword, but jidai-geki and the way of the samurai film. Welcome to The Jidai-Geki Knights, the humble dojo I have founded to train new students of my own, though I'm not worthy of being a master yet.
I'm just an average American white guy who's never been to Japan and knows only the barest basics about Japanese culture and history, although I've developed a deep love for Japanese cinema in general and jidai-geki period films in particular. I've discovered this whole fascinating realm of movies that are all but unknown here in my country. I'm on a mission to write about these films and expose more people to their greatness, and I embark on this enterprise with humility and some degree of fear. I've hesitated for some time because I felt I didn't yet know enough about the subject yet, and I'm sure I still don't. But sometimes you have to say what the hell, and allow your passion to overtake your discretion.
After much planning, movie-buying, movie-watching, reading, contemplation and plain old procrastination, I have put forth my modest offering here before you. The Internet's few English-speaking jidai-geki appreciation sites are scattered and varied in quality, and I hope I can contribute something of value to their discourse. My fellow fans can be a very tough crowd, which is why I've felt intimidated about jumping publicly into their midst.
Like any other community of experts, devotees of Japanese cinema can be hostile and condescending toward those of lesser knowledge. Make a faulty interpretation of a movie's theme, or get your Japanese historical facts wrong, and they can be merciless. The elitism is most difficult to escape in books on Japanese film, which tend to be written in leaden academic jargon dithering on about mise en scene and the flattening effect of telephoto lenses or whatever.
I can't compete with those writers in terms of erudition and insight, and I don't presume to. I'm not an expert on Japanese cinema, and certainly no authority on Japanese history and culture. I apologize right here up front for my inaccuracies and flawed observations. And I know I'm not doing myself any favors my titling my project with a cutesy Star Wars reference. That's going to zap my credibility with the cineastes right there, especially when they discover that I rank the prequel trilogy right up there with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. But that's okay -- I'm accustomed to fending for myself as an authority in that arena. When it comes to Japanese cinema, though, I'm a pure novice. There are countless other places where you can find better analysis and documentation on this subject matter than what I have to offer, and I invite those interested in learning more to use my testimony as a starting point and not the final word.
There's one thing lacking in the arena of jidai-geki discussion, in print and online, which is the simple joy of appreciating great art and entertainment. And that's what I have to offer, if nothing else. So many other critics develop such refined standards that they hate everything besides their chosen few acceptable classics, or they assume the roles of historians and denounce anything that deviates from the documented facts of Japan's past.
But me? I'm just a guy who likes samurai movies, and that's all I'm trying to prove when I write about them. I'm not concerned with the particulars of history and advanced scholarship. I'll never be Donald Richie, but I am Donald Trull, and maybe that's enough to count for something. My modest objective is to discuss an obscure pop culture genre that has captivated me, for a complex assortment of reasons, in an unlikely set of circumstances. My major role model in this endeavor is author Patrick Galloway, whose books and web postings approach samurai cinema with the same unpretentious appreciation that I hope to bring to the party. I thank him and the other members of The Ninja Dojo forum for their insights and inspiration.
No doubt, putting The Jidai-Geki Knights out there fills me with trepidation, and makes me wonder if I should hone it for another year or two before I publish it. But like Tokezo emerging from his three years of learning in solitary confinement and embarking on his journey to become Musashi Miyamoto, it's time for me to escape my self-confinement with a DVD player and a laptop and venture out into the wide open world. The only way to grow from student to master is to test your training among peers. Hopefully I won't have to face too many duels to the death, but I'll be delighted if my readers can teach me more than I teach them.
About The Jidai-Geki Knights
The Jidai-Geki Knights is composed of two sections: a rambling five-part introduction and a cross-referenced movie database. The "Introduction and Statement of Style" you're reading now forms a general overview covering the basics: a detailed definition of what jidai-geki movies are, a personal history of how I became a fan with a buyer's guide to where you can find these obscure things, and an analysis of why samurai films are so magnificent. There's also an afterword in which I address the crucial relationship between jidai-geki and the Jedi.
The real backbone of The Jidai-Geki Knights is "The Works of the Sensei," the ambitious movie database documenting the films in my personal collection. If the introduction covers the what, how, where and why, "The Works of the Sensei" is all about the who. I have included some commentaries about the individual films, but my real objective here is interlinking all the resumes of the great men and women who created and continue to create this movies. All the filmmakers and the actors are themselves the jidai-geki knights.
The format of my movie database is directly inspired by the Internet Movie Database, which is such an invaluable resource for Japanese cinema that I have thoroughly linked its pages into mine. But to make "The Works of the Sensei" more than a rehash of what you can find on IMDb, I am attempting to fill in some of its gaps and offer a deeper focus. One goal in particular is that I will include multiple photos of every actor and actress on their entry page, no matter how minor they are, to facilitate the tricky detective work of identifying Japanese character actors. I'm also listing the sources where you can find some of the more obscure films, which you wouldn't learn from IMDb.
In my movie commentaries, my goal is to describe the essence of each film and sketch out a rough idea of the plot without giving away the ending. I want you to see these movies for yourselves, even though that will be highly difficult in some cases, and spoilers are just no fun.
In citing Japanese names, I have chosen to follow the Western convention of placing the given name before the family name. I felt justified in this decision because that's the way The Criterion Collection does it, and if it's good enough for Criterion, then it's damn well good enough for Lard Biscuit Enterprises. And besides, I would feel just unbearably pretentious if I went around saying "Kurosawa Akira" and "Mifune Toshiro" when those names are so familiar in the reverse order. I promise never to mind if Japanese folks feel more comfortable calling me Trull Donald. Or it might come out something more like Tsuru Donarudo.
Just for fun, I score all the movies using the highly scientific and internationally respected method of the Lard Biscuit rating system:
|Crap (not that you'll find many of those)|
There is no six-biscuit rating, and yes, the masterpiece-level rating is so numbered in honor of Seven Samurai. These ratings are based purely on my own opinions and personal assessments, and are basically meaningless. They're only relative values that don't cut across all directors and movie styles. Diverse movies with the same biscuit ratings aren't necessarily created equal, and when I rate a fun trashy flick like The Samurai Pirate higher than Throne of Blood, I'm not saying Senkichi Taniguchi is superior to Kurosawa. It's just a matter of what I like.
If you're new to jidai-geki but interested in checking them out after all my long-winded yakkin', you might feel intimidated by the sheer volume of movies I've covered here and not know where to start. Never fear – you can check out my Viewing Guide & Recommendations for some suggestions ideal for beginners, with movies you should be able to buy at your favorite DVD retailer or rent from Netflix. I've also got some advanced recommendations to share with my more experienced peers out there.
The Jidai-Geki Knights serves as much (or more) as an index of my movie collection for my own personal benefit as it is a reference for you folks. I can't keep track of all the films I have and which ones all the various actors are in, and I've been wanting a scoresheet to keep things straight in my own head. So I'll enjoy using this site I've made even if no one else does. The films you'll find listed in "The Works of the Sensei," whether linked or unlinked, are all in my personal collection. If there's a particular movie you don't see listed here, it's because I don't own it or haven't seen it yet. Please send me your suggestions. The lists will be growing all the time.
For the initial launch, I've only fleshed out the entries for a limited circle of the top filmmakers and actors. This is a work in progress that I intend to keep building until every movie, every director and even all the actors in my jidai-geki library are documented and cross-referenced. I may be like Chaucer setting out to write The Canterbury Tales, and biting off more that I'll live long enough to chew. But I've just got to sharpen up my sword and start cutting them down, one by one.
I'll take up the tatami mats so our feet won't slip in all the blood.
Ni: Period Dramas & Swordplay|
Jidai-geki vs. chambara, definitions and misconceptions.