Introduction and Statement of Style
A Fistful of Ryo

Yagyu Secret Scrolls “For 500 ryo, your request will be fulfilled. The number of victims is of no consequence. My only requirement is that you tell me all the details.”

— Itto Ogami, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

We've established that jidai-geki films aren't all that popular in the United States and most of the Western world, and the truth is that they've had their ups and downs in Japan as well. In their homeland today, these movies are considered somewhat old-fashioned and out of style. So jidai-geki fandom really a niche interest over there as well, sort of like being a listener of jazz instead of Top 40 radio.

In the century since the first Japanese films were produced in 1898, the place of the historical drama has evolved to match the country's tumultuous social and political conditions. As mentioned earlier, the jidai-geki genre was born among the earliest silent films that were adaptations from kabuki and other theatrical traditions. It progressed in popularity through the 1930s and Japan's burgeoning militarism. During this time of foreign conflicts, samurai movies surged as a rallying point for national pride. The political role of jidai-geki grew more overt during World War II, when the government coerced the studios and filmmakers into churning out samurai movies as propaganda tools. That trend abruptly halted after the war, when Allied occupation forces practically outlawed jidai-geki films for fear that they would stir up rebellious nationalism.

The end of the occupation gave rise to a jidai-geki renaissance, with filmmakers now liberated to express themselves as they pleased. They widely chose to comment on the Japan of the present through symbolic depictions of the past, resulting in such eminent 1950s classics as Seven Samurai and Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji. The flowering of creativity continued into the '60s with a bumper crop of smart and socially relevant chambara in the postmodern vein established by Yojimbo.

As popular tastes in action/adventure movies turned toward modern-day yakuza films in the 1970s, jidai-geki fell out of favor and found itself relegated more to television. Theatrical chambara releases grew more sensationalistic and extreme in content, marked by buckets of spurting blood and abundant sex and nudity in a genre where kissing was formerly seen as risque. Samurai films have forever been compared to American westerns, and I think the parallel holds true in their demises as box-office mainstays. Young people in Japan came to regard jidai-geki as boring movies for old people – the kind of thing a teenager would be embarrassed to have Dad watching on TV when friends come over.

Recent years have seen a modest resurgence in new jidai-geki productions, many of them quite excellent. It's interesting to note that these "revival" films tend to focus on the injustices low-ranking samurai faced during the late years of the samurai period, suggesting today's Japanese are more interested in how that era ended than in its glorious prime. But even if jidai-geki aren't cool in Japan anymore, at least the fans over there can easy find a huge selection of movies and TV shows to collect, watch and enjoy.

It ain't so easy over here in America.

Apprenticeship Under the Master

Jidai-geki enthusiasts overseas can only see what they can find, and there's never been a whole lot commercially available for us. That's changing slowly with a trickle of new releases from the few DVD distributors who find this tiny market worthwhile, but there's a tragically high number of great movies that we'll never find on our local retail shelves.

In order to become a fan of something, obviously you have to have access to it first. Becoming a jidai-geki nut is therefore a challenge that's not going to result from passively allowing corporations to shove money-making products down your throat. You've got to put some initiative into it, and make do with what you've got. The following is my personal story of how I struggled against the odds to become a fanatical devotee of samurai movies, thanks to some unexpected help and serendipitous timing along the way.

I suppose I first got interested in samurai and historical Japanese culture through the comic books of Frank Miller. His legendary run on Daredevil contained a heavy streak of Eastern mysticism and a captivating – if entirely unrealistic – depiction of modern-day ninjas. Later his visionary Ronin series taught me the crucial concept that a ronin is a masterless samurai. Ronin's prologue set in feudal Japan was actually way more interesting to me than the futuristic milieu of the rest of the story. Miller's endorsement of the Lone Wolf and Cub series led me to read the American reprints, and the saga of Itto Ogami turned out to be the only manga that's ever captured my fancy. In college a Taiwanese friend told me about the cool Lone Wolf and Cub films he'd seen as a child, but it would be many years before I found access to those treasures.

Long before that, like so many other Americans, I had my first exposure to Japanese cinema through the films of Akira Kurosawa. Those familiar with my lifelong obsession with Star Wars might guess it was the George Lucas connection that led me to Kurosawa. But no, not exactly. I'd seen the interviews with Lucas crediting Kurosawa's influence and I heard about the jidai-geki/Jedi name thing, like all fans did back then. But back in those early Star Wars days I didn't have the wherewithal to go track down a Kurosawa film – I didn't even have a VCR until 1984! Besides, an old black & white foreign language movie would have been too weird when I was such a young kid.

Ran It so happens that my benefactors who introduced me to Kurosawa were none other than Siskel and Ebert. They reviewed Ran upon its initial home video release when I was in high school, giving the film two big thumbs up. The clips of the siege on Hidetora's castle riveted my attention. This was when I was in an experimental teenage phase of renting lots of obscure, avant-garde movies like Liquid Sky and Zardoz, so I had no hesitation picking up Ran at the video store. I was captivated and transformed. Even with the subtitles and the strange stylistic flourishes, I immediately felt that this was one of the best movies I'd ever seen, an important and meaningful work of art.

I subsequently rented Rashomon, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress, with mixed results. I thought Rashomon was pretty good, but the whole thing with the spirit of the murdered guy testifying at the trial through a medium didn't work for me. Yojimbo I did not get at all. And The Hidden Fortress was a major disappointment. I'd heard all about it being a major inspiration for Star Wars, but I couldn't see any tangible connection to Jedi Knights and Darth Vader, and it was just kind of boring. I had loved the vivid use of color in Ran, whereas these three older films were in drab black and white. And it didn't help matters that Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress were compositionally butchered in pan and scan, although I wouldn't have realized it back then. In short, I was disappointed with my explorations into Akira Kurosawa. I remember asking myself why I was voluntarily watching these old subtitled movies, because it felt like all "educational," like an assignment you'd have for a class. I concluded that Ran was probably Kurosawa's only worthwhile film and lost interest for a number of years.

The Wandering Ronin

In college I had a single memorable encounter with Japanese cinema beyond Kurosawa: Juzo Itami's comedy masterpiece Tampopo, which remains one of my favorite movies of all time. The general unavailability of Itami's films, as well as the director's tragic suicide, hampered my potential development as a Japanese comedy aficionado. Tampopo was left as a singular blip of weirdness in my cinematic pantheon, although I later found further expression of the Japanese obsession with food would in the immortal Iron Chef television series. I was a huge fan of Chairman Kaga's Kitchen Stadium, and for a long time that program was my only other point of interest in Japanese exports aside from Kurosawa.

I had practically forgotten about Kurosawa through most of the '90s, when I was more interested in Monty Python, the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. It was the arrival of DVD that brought me back around to the old master. Upon buying my first DVD player in 1998 and seeking out good old classic movies, I fondly revisited Ran. Now older and wiser, I thought about giving Kurosawa's back catalog another try. So Seven Samurai became the second Kurosawa DVD I bought, although I'd never seen it, probably too intimidated by its 3-hour length to give it a rental back in the day. And it clicked. Suddenly I got it. Seven Samurai opened my eyes to the Kurosawa classics and compelled get them all on DVD. Sadly, my 1998 Kurosawa awakening also marked the year of the director's death. But I had a lot of catching up to do.

Revisiting those three vintage Kurosawas I'd rented as a teenager, now older, wiser and with superior video equipment, I felt as if I was seeing them for the first time. The monochromatic cinematography was now bold and striking. Rashomon was now purely magical. The link between The Hidden Fortress and George Lucas was now more readily apparent. Yojimbo still took some work for me to grasp, but I came to appreciate the calculating shrewdness of Mifune's character in ways that had escaped me before. In short, I gradually learned how to tune in to a Kurosawa film, how to adjust my perceptions and preconceptions about the visual language of cinema to interepret these exotic artifacts more accurately. I also ventured beyond Kurosawa's jidai-geki into his contemporary films like Ikiru and Rhapsody in August.

That was a big step forward, but at this point I remained solely interested in Kurosawa when it came to Japanese cinema. Feeling adventurous, I made one attempt to branch out with a rental of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai I, which proved unsuccessful. Despite its stellar credentials and the presence of Toshiro Mifune, I found the movie tedious and uninvolving, and felt no motivation to see how the trilogy played out.

In a way, I think I actually wanted to dislike this Inagaki guy, to validate my convenient but closed-minded opinion that Kurosawa was the only Japanese director worth messing with. From all the talk about Kurosawa being Japan's filmmaker most accessible to Western audiences, I had developed the notion that the other artsy Japanese directors would be esoteric and baffling. Plus, my conception of non-Kurosawa samurai movies was tainted by notions of cheesy kung-fu flicks and poorly dubbed Power Rangers type stuff. I recall once seeing a supremely trashy Hong Kong martial arts flick on cable called something like Samurai vs. Ninja, which was a mindless and ahistorical bloodfest. Hilarious though it was, it obviously bore no relationship to the sort of thing Kurosawa did. So I persisted in my view that any samurai movie that lacked the golden touch of The Master must be either impenetrably boring or chop-socky garbage.

Ultimately, it took the groundbreaking works of another cinematic genius to convince me otherwise. And his name is Quentin Tarantino.

“I Need Japanese Steel.”

Yes, believe it or not, Kill Bill Vol. 1 may actually be the single most influential movie in my life aside from the Star Wars saga. It's the pivotal turning point without which I may never have developed my mania for jidai-geki or ended up writing any of this stuff you're reading now. Through a gradual, unexpected chain reaction of discoveries, Tarantino lit the fuse on this whole thing for me.

Kill Bill Just to make it all the more perfect, I was totally skeptical about Kill Bill before its 2003 debut. I was a Tarantino fan anxious for a new movie from the low-output director, but this project looked like a major career misstep. I mean, Uma Thurman fighting a bunch of people with a samurai sword... who was ever going to take that seriously? And yet it worked spectacularly. Tarantino's loving two-part mishmash of his favorite film genres gave shout-outs to Japanese cinema through allusions to anime, yakuza films and chambara. My curiosity about the movies that inspired Tarantino led me to check out the Hong Kong classic Master of the Flying Guillotine and a 1970s Japanese film called Lady Snowblood.

Featuring a female swordmaster who tracks down a group of enemies to exact revenge, Lady Snowblood is well established as a primary influence on Kill Bill. The theme song performed by its lead actress is even used for a climactic sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. In consideration of these attributes, plus the cool-looking scenes shown in the "Making of Kill Bill" feature on the DVD, I made Lady Snowblood the first Japanese movie I ever bought aside from Kurosawa and Tampopo. I wouldn't call it a particular classic, Lady Snowblood significantly opened up some doors for me like a gateway drug to chambara addiction.

Specifically, the Lady Snowblood DVD included trailers for the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. I was aware that these fabled films had recently been released in the U.S., but was sure if they were woth getting. These trailers looked absolutely bad-ass. I was also impressed with the American DVD publisher, AnimEigo, which primarily imports Japanese animation but also markets a line of "Samurai Cinema." They did a great job with picture quality and subtitles on Lady Snowblood, and I was also proud to find that AnimEigo is based here in my home state of North Carolina. Thus I gave the Lone Wolf and Cub series a try, collecting all six movies before long. Now I was on to something special. These movies are beautifully produced entertainment, boasting some of the bloodiest, craziest fight scenes ever committed to film. They were also the best and most faithful comic book adaptations I'd ever seen, with scenes playing out exactly like I remembered reading in high school. I was delighted with how much fun these movies were, and anxious to dig up more like them.

And thus it began.

Rebel Samurai My first explorations stuck to the now-proven brand name of AnimEigo, as I picked up the Toshiro Mifune troika of Samurai Assassin, Red Lion and Incident at Blood Pass. Samurai Assassin was revelation, something much different than the fun popcorn flicks I'd uncovered thus far. This was a riveting drama of true depth that could bear comparison to Akira Kurosawa. Director Kihachi Okamoto transcended the status of anonymous Japanese guy in the opening credits to become an artist I needed to learn more about.

As serendipity would have it, right around this time I also got digital cable and its blessings of high definition and oodles of new channels. Among these was the Independent Film Channel, whose "Samurai Saturdays" introduced me to one of the greatest series in the history of chambara. I had seen trailers for Zatoichi movies on my AnimEigo DVDs, but I guess I was afraid that the concept of a blind swordsman was too preposterous. Fortunately IFC let me see the light, if you'll pardon the pun. I got hooked on Ichi's adventures in a major way, settling into the privileged habit of watching new Zatoichi movies every Saturday morning as if they were some really awesome TV show. Once IFC cycled through its inventory of Zatoichis, "Samurai Saturdays" went on to grant me my first look at such classics as Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai and Hiroshi Inagaki's Life of a Swordsman.

Now things were starting to get exciting, and all the synchronicity was getting kind of scary. In 2005 Criterion unleashed a perfectly timed tsunami of samurai films I might well have overlooked a year or so earlier. First came Kihachi Okamoto's The Sword of Doom, swiftly followed by Masaki Kobayashi's superb Harakiri and the wondrously enlightening Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics four-film box set. I was in jidai-geki heaven, gorging myself on a rapturous feast of classic cinematic gems that kept coming at me through DVD and cable in a steady stream, one thrill after another, on and on and on.

And then it all dried up.

Scavenging on eBay

Sometime in 2006 I discovered that I had tracked down, bought and watched pretty much every last jidai-geki and chambara film that had been released in North America. There were no more. Like a junkie cut off from his source and suffering withdrawals, I was desperate to find a fix any way I could. I'd read about all these other great samurai movies and I knew they had to be out there somewhere. Looking beyond Region 1, I discovered a distributor called Masters of Cinema that's like the British counterpart to Criterion and carries a few choice Japanese classics. But that wasn't enough, and most other foreign jidai-geki releases didn't have English subtitles. So I had to keep looking. And like everybody does these days when you're trying to get your hands on something hard to find, I ended up on eBay.

eBay To my delight, I struck paydirt. eBay was brimming with listings for exotic and enticing Japanese films, some I'd heard of, most I hadn't. None available in stores. Of course, this being the badlands of eBay, I had no idea what caliber of product I'd be bidding on until it arrived in the mail. The picture and sound quality could be horrible, the English subtitles could be in "Engrish" or non-existent, and these DVDs were most likely not on the happy side of the law. But they were cheap, as low as five bucks apiece, and I was a desperate man. I was jonesing and I had to feed the monkey.

So I ordered a few, and yeah, they were pretty crappy bootlegs. Video was fuzzy, jittery and non-anamorphic, looking like dubs from VHS or television broadcasts. These bootlegs often have a really annoying slow-down, speed-up effect where the video drags momentarily then sprints forward to catch back up with the steady audio track – and this hiccup recurs about every 20 seconds or so. If you can sit through a feature-length film like that, you must have some sort of neurological disorder. And yet, despite getting burned by these eBay pirates, I came back and bought some more. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I couldn't help myself... until something remarkable happened.

In one of my eBay bootleg orders, I got about five movies. All of them were the customary near-intolerable quality except for one. I got a copy of Hideo Gosha's Kumokiri Nizaemon that was spectacularly beautiful. Gorgeous anamorphic widescreen, vibrant color, excellent subtitles, even a professional menu screen in English. What a marvelous surprise, like a hobo subsisting on roadkill finding himself presented with a juicy slab of prime rib. How did this eBay pirate end up with one awesome bootleg amongst the turds?

Of the People, By the People, For the People

Soon I solved the mystery. Google searches led me to a forum for fans of Japanese cinema called The Ninja Dojo. This forum was connected with something called Kurotokagi Gumi, and there was talk of something else called Samurai DVD. It took some reading and investigating for me to learn that these were the two leading fansubbers for jidai-geki movies. This was a concept I'd never heard of before.

Fansubbing is the unauthorized duplication of movies and TV shows with fan-written foreign language subtitles added. The grass-roots phenomenon has its roots in the international popularity of anime. When fans around the world developed an avid interest in anime material that was only available in Japanese, and no licensed translations were commercially available, fans took matters into their own hands. Fansubbers like Kurotokagi Gumi and Samurai DVD add English subtitles not included in commercial releases from Japan (or Asian and European editions of Japanese films) and make it possible for fans like me to enjoy them. Sure, fansubbing is illegal. But the best fansubbers adhere to a code of ethics to cease distribution of titles that gain legitimate releases, and they only want to charge enough money to cover their costs for translation and production, which are considerable.

The fantastic copy of Kumokiri Nizaemon I ended up with was a fansub created by Samurai DVD. It was really what you might call a bootleg of a bootleg. The eBay pirate got his hands on the high-quality Samurai DVD and duplicated it to re-sell, a shady practice known as scavenging. The fansubber does all the hard work to create a good product for foreign fans, then the scavenger copies it to pocket his own profit, knowing the fansubber has no legal grounds to stop him.

Once I learned all this and identified the sources for the best quality movies, I quit dealing with the eBay scumbags and began buying direct from the fansubbers. Legally it's a questionable enterprise and the subject of much controversy and debate. But I don't feel bad about it in the least. It really comes down to being a question of economic reality in which intellectual property and copyright laws are beside the point.

Companies like Criterion or AnimEigo would love to license and distribute all these movies in the English-speaking world, but the market is so small that they would never make a profit. The legitimate releases are so few and far between because the distributors have to cherry-pick that are likely to be the best sellers and skip the rest. The Japanese studios recognize all too well that the North American rights to their back catalog of old jidai-geki features aren't worth diddley squat, so if someone subtitles and distributes them to a minuscule fan base, they really don't get very concerned about it. The sole Japanese studio to achieve large-scale distribution in the U.S. is Toho Company, best known for the Godzilla series, the Pokemon movies and the bulk of Kurosawa's output. The other studios like Shochiku, Toei, Nikkatsu and Daiei have found only spotty licensing deals, which is a key reason why non-Toho filmmakers like Hideo Gosha and Tomu Uchida are practically unknown over here.

Fansubbing is free enterprise solving a problem and supplying a demand in a way that doesn't hurt anybody. The only real bad guys in the equation are the scavengers, who turn a buck for doing nothing and burn the fans with shitty copies. I only bought from those sleazes because I didn't know any better. Even with my level of interest in jidai-geki, it took me a long time to find the quality fansubbers. I hope the promotion I'm giving them here will help steer more fans in the right direction and persuade them to stop supporting the eBay scavengers.

With new advances in digital distribution and broadband video on demand, maybe soon it will be economically feasible for the Japanese studios to offer fully licensed, subtitled, HD-quality downloads of their jidai-geki properties for fans all around the world. But until that wonderful day arrives, Kurotokagi Gumi and Samurai DVD don't deserve to be called bootleggers. They deserve to be called heroes.

Go visit 'em right now! You can come back and finish reading my crap later.

Live Action Anime

So that's how I got into these obscure old jidai-geki films and manage to pursue this interest to my content despite the apathy of the mainstream entertainment-industrial complex. Between the legit releases from the boutique distributors and the blessed gifts from the fansubbers, I'm really a happy hobbyist at this point.

To draw upon my experiences as a comic book fan once again, I remember how exciting it was back when I was first getting serious as a collector. There were all these elusive back issues of legendary stature that I wanted to track down and own. Attending comic book conventions was one of the great thrills of my youth, running around to all the different vendors and capturing all the coveted old treasures I could afford. Finally I got to the point where I had got all the back issues I wanted, and the only thing left was newly published comics. And there's no question that my comics hobby was never as much fun after that.

With jidai-geki, I feel I've found that old teenage thrill once again. There's this huge volume of old classics from the past 60 or 70 years out there waiting to be discovered. It's just a matter of getting access to them. As much as I'd like to have all those movies in my hands right now, I have to acknowledge that the pursuit of the elusive is a big part of the fun.

Still, the situation definitely needs to improve. I think the major problem right now is that the world of samurai cinema remains so invisible to the general audience. The infrastructure we have in place now is great one you're plugged in as a hardcore fan, but the barriers to entry are formidable. Those willing to experiment with offbeat movies are oriented toward doing so through rentals, and sadly you're not going to find most of the films covered here in The Jidai-Geki Knights at Netflix or Blockbuster. I've advanced way beyond rentals to the stage where I'm ready to buy just about any cool-looking Japanese flick from a reliable source, sight unseen, but of course your average person doesn't want to spend that kind of money or start building a big collection. We need wider conventional distribution not only to satisfy fans like me, but also to expose more people to this amazing and rewarding category of cinema.

And my friends, there is hope. I have seen indications of samurai movies being mass-marketed as "live action anime." Now, I have to say I found this term insulting and demeaning at first. But when you think about it, it's genius. There's a huge market of anime fans here in the U.S., and shelves stocked full of anime at your local Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. If we can get those people interested in classic samurai movies, then I say hell yes, "live action anime" is a damn sight better than jidai-geki or chambara or any of that fancy-talking crap! By God, I'll change the name of this project to The Live Action Anime Knights if it'll help.

All it takes is for some major-league anime property to create a wave of Kill Bill curiosity about the Hideo Gosha or Tomu Uchida films that inspired it and get the diehard fans hankering to see the originals, and then we'll all be in business.

Shi: Ask the Sword
Why samurai? Exploring the jidai-geki mystique.

The Jidai-Geki Knights