A Piece of Steak

I watched the poor-boxer-makes-good movie Cinderella Man recently, and it really echoed a classic boxing short story by Jack London: A Piece of Steak. In fact, the script had Russel Crowe specifically talk about “a piece of steak” in what must have been an allusion.

If you’ve never read it, I think that this story is worth a look because it really focuses on the battle of youth versus experience as a tired, old, dirt poor, washed up fighter uses wisdom and tricks to wear down and attempt to defeat an up-and-coming young buck.

This is the paragraph that has stayed with me over the years:

And Tom King patiently endured. He knew his business, and he knew Youth now that Youth was no longer his. There was nothing to do till the other lost some of his steam, was his thought, and he grinned to himself as he deliberately ducked so as to receive a heavy blow on the top of his head. It was a wicked thing to do, yet eminently fair according to the rules of the boxing game. A man was supposed to take care of his own knuckles, and, if he insisted on hitting an opponent on the top of the head, he did so at his own peril. King could have ducked lower and let the blow whiz harmlessly past, but he remembered his own early fights and how he smashed his first knuckle on the head of the Welsh Terror. He was but playing the game. That duck had accounted for one of Sandel’s knuckles. Not that Sandel would mind it now. He would go on, superbly regardless, hitting as hard as ever throughout the fight. But later on, when the long ring battles had begun to tell, he would regret that knuckle and look back and remember how he smashed it on Tom King’s head.

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Hidden Fortress Yari Duel

I just came upon a clip of one of my favorite samurai movie-duels, Toshiro Mifune’s yari (spear) fight from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress:

http://www.stolaf.edu/depts/asian-studies/projects/kurosawa/films/Hidden.html

While famous as the film that inspired (in part) Star Wars, it isn’t one of Kurosawa’s best. However, this scene is far and away the best one in the movie (at least for those of us partial to the yari).

Some other clips are also on the site: http://www.stolaf.edu/depts/asian-studies/projects/kurosawa/films.html

"No Bullshido," The Movie

A funny thing about practicing in a space right on the street is that all of the neighborhood comes walking by. In The Mission, we get a lot of weirdos walking by to be sure, but I always suspect that they think it is us who are the weirdos in funny costumes. Plenty of normal people stop and stare as well; I suppose we are just local color in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago a guy walked up to us on a Friday evening and introduced himself. He said he lived in the neighborhood and had seen us practicing before. He went on to explain that he was working on a film competition and wanted any advice or help we could give him. He and a group of folks needed to make a short film with the topic of ‘martial arts’, and the entire project had to be completed within 48 hours.

Gary offered to help them with choreography and with props. In the end, they decided to do their film as a comedy; thus they did not need to worry about the choreography being practiced and did that on their own. However, they did use our dojo as the set for the first scene and borrowed some costume elements from us.

I think the whole idea of this contest is great, I can see how the time limit would really inspire passion and dedication in the participants. It really sounds like a lot of fun. The film, titled “No Bullshido”, turned out pretty well too. I like the balance they kept of making fun of the protagonist and his martial arts with a light touch.

The film and a description of the project is available at:
http://burntwire.tv/2006/07/burntwiretv21-no-bullshido.php.

A direct link to the video is: http://burntwire.tv/burntwiretv21_h264.mp4

The 48 Hour Film Project: http://48hourfilm.com/sanfrancisco/

Movie Review: The Last Samurai

Title: The Last Samurai
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Chad Lindberg, Ray Godshall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Masahi Odate, John Koyama, Timothy Spall, Schichinosuke Nakamura, Togo Igawa, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Shun Sugata
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Date of Release: 2003
Running Time: 154 minutes

When I first heard they were making this movie I was very excited and couldn’t wait for it to be released at the theatre. Then I heard Tom Cruise was cast as the lead and my enthusiasm hit rock bottom. I swore to my family, friends, and students that I wouldn’t waste $9.50 to see this at the movie theatre. And I didn’t.

Even after many people told me the film was very good and that I would enjoy it, despite Tom Cruise, I still didn’t break down and go. Yes, I’m stubborn!

Well, even after all was said and done I did finally watch it on DVD. And you know what? Despite Tom Cruise, I did really like it. I thought the movie was very well done despite some major faults and historical inaccuracies.

Now, I’m not a Tom Cruise basher; he has done some good work over the years. I just couldn’t picture him cast for this part. There would have been so many actors more suited for this role. I do, however, have to admit I really enjoyed watching him get the crap beaten out of himself over and over again. (Funny how many people agree with that statement, even if they have other reasons to feel that way.)

While I enjoyed the movie, I felt many parts of it were too Hollywood, and either could have been left out, or changed.

For example, I would have liked to see more action and/or training sequences, instead of so much romance. After all, it’s really hard to believe that a woman could fall so in love with the man who had killed her husband. Wouldn’t the wife of a samurai seek revenge, especially against a barbarian? I mean at first that’s just what she wants to do.

In addition, how in the hell could have Tom Cruise’s character survived the final battle. Everyone else died, and he was shot numerous times with a large gauge caliber gun. They made sure to show that in graphic slow motion detail. It didn’t make sense.

Then at the very end of the movie he returns to the village where the “rebels” had their base. I would have thought, given the history of Japanese warfare, that such a village would have been burned to the ground. There would have been nothing to go back to, even if the Japanese would have let him return. After all, he was a rebel, a criminal. I would think if, and I mean if, they let him live he would have at least been deported.

Another issue I had with this movie is that technically the audience is made to route for the bad guys. At least they were the bad guys from a true historical perspective. After all, these men were rebels, trying to restore Japan’s old ways. They were anti-government and they killed people (innocents and politicians) to try and push their political agenda.

Those are some of the elements I didn’t like. Fortunately there were plenty of things I did like, which when all totaled makes the movie worth watching.

First of all, I liked the music and the cinematography. The costumes are also great, and I will always be jealous that Tom Cruise got to wear samurai armor before I did. I know that’s petty, but I’m still envious of Richard Chamberlain ever since he did “Shogun,” and wore all those beautiful hakama and kimonos.

Then there was the character played by Ken Watanabe. I really felt his character exemplified the true code of bushido. He was a real warrior, who knew in heart he was fighting a lost cause, but was willing to fight for what he thought was right.

In addition, I liked that his character wasn’t just portrayed as a cold-blooded warrior. He definitely had a sense of grace and refinement about him. He was educated, articulate, and poetic. A true samurai.

I also liked the fact that Tom Cruise’s character was just a man. A flawed man (a drunk) who wasn’t superior, mentally or physically, just because he was a westerner. He was also not a very good fighter, a trait. I truly appreciated since I would have been very upset if he had been depicted as some type of super-warrior who was unbeatable. In fact his lack of skill made the movie more believable.

I really liked that he was not good with a sword, which shows how the west had turned to the gun and abandoned sword work by this period in history. The training sequences where he learns to use the Japanese sword are some of the best moments in the movie. I really enjoyed watching him get battered.

Sort of reminded me of my training, and those days when my teacher would lose his patience and just whack me over and over. It was a quick way to learn a lesson since you only get hit so many times before you learn to either move out of the way, block, or die. This is a lesson Tom Cruise’s character clearly and quickly learns.

Then there is the parallel that was made between the struggle of the American Indians and the Japanese who were trying to hold onto their traditions and way of life. It made a lot of sense that tradition had so much meaning; meaning enough for these men to die for. They simply didn’t want the glory of their past forgotten, especially just to usher in foreign ways.

Naturally, I also liked the action sequences, and fully appreciated they were real and not some digitized special effects. The fight scenes displayed a lot of emotional power and technical finesse, without sacrificing any artistic appeal. They depicted true combat of the period, no holds barred.

Like I said I had mixed emotions when I first heard about this movie, but once I saw it any reservations I had were set aside. It’s not what I would call a great movie, but it is entertaining, thought provoking, and emotionally stirring. I don’t think anyone who watches this movie won’t feel a sense of loss when the rebels are mowed down by gunfire.

Anyone who knows the history of this story knows they’re going to die right from the start, but by the end of this movie you really wish they would win. You are truly drawn to these men, and their way of life. The life they want to preserve.

Samuraidvd.com

I have been collecting jidaigeki* films for several years now. They are a genre of film I thoroughly enjoy.

At first I started with the basics, “Seven Samurai,” Samurai Trilogy” “Hidden Fortress,” Yojimbo,” Baby cart Series, and several of the Zatoichi adventures. But as time went by, I started searching for some of the more unknown, harder to find films.

Recently I found a website that offers some of the difficult to obtain jidaigeki films. That site is called “samuraidvd.com.”

Looking over their site they offer at least 100 movies, ranging in price from the upper twenties to low forties. Titles such as:

They also offer the five-part Musahi movie, which is based more closely on the book written by Eiji Yoshikawa than the better-known Mifune version, as well as the complete Satan’s sword trilogy. Two movie sets I had had a hard time finding in the past.

Since I have only recently discovered this site, I have not had the chance to order anything yet, so I cannot comment on their customer service or the quality of their products. However, I look forward to making my first purchase really soon.

* “Jidaigeki is a genre of film and televeision or theater play in Japan. The name means period drama, and the period is usually the Edo period of Japanese history which was from 1600 to 1868. Some, however, are set much earlier — “Portrait of Hell,” for example, is set during the late Heian period. Jidaigeki show the lives of the samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants of this time. Jidaigeki films are sometimes referred to as chambara movies, a word meaning “sword fight”. They have a set of dramatic conventions including the use of makeup, language, catchphrases, and plotlines.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Movie Review: Satan’s Sword Trilogy

These three films tell the story of the vicious and psychotic swordsman Tsukue Ryunosuke, a man who is in possession of, and possessed by, an evil sword. It is based on the novel “Daibosatsu Toge” (“Great Buddha Pass”) one of Japan’s greatest novels.

The story within “Satan’s Sword” has been told numerous times, and anyone who has seen the movie “Sword of Doom” will instantly recognize this tale. However, where “Sword Of Doom” left viewers with a cliffhanger, this trilogy tells the complete story.

I was able to obtain the first two of these films at the same time, but it took me over three years to locate part three. That was quite frustrating since like part one, part two ended with another cliffhanger. (Part two ends with the two main characters appearing to fall over the side of a cliff while having a sword fight.) You can just imagine how I felt having no idea how things would turn out.

Sorry no spoilers here. Let’s just say there is a part three, and all the characters are back, a little more battered, yet still intent on finding their destiny.

The Satan’s Sword trilogy is a great movie experience, even though there are some flaws with the overall storyline. I’m assuming this is due to the fact that this story is very well known, and the producers and director must have thought anyone watching it would already know the story and sub plots. (This is not uncommon in Japanese cinema. It’s something that can greatly interfere with one’s Japanese cinema experience, if they don’t know the history, context, or mythology referred to in the film that makes a scene more relevant.)

Since I didn’t know the story prior to seeing the movie, there were times I felt the movie jumped around and wasn’t linear. However, once I viewed the trilogy a second time I was able to better understand all the plots and sub plots.

Clearly, knowing a little about this period in Japan’s history will also help, as a lot of the political intrigue contained within this movie is historically accurate, as are the people and places involved.

One review I read even stated that the main character is supposedly based on an actual individual named Fuda Ryuzaburo Takafumi, a swordsman of the Kogen-Itto-ryu.

Basically, the main plot of this trilogy is a story of revenge, or the hunt for revenge. The plot revolves around the unnecessary yet intentional killing of a samurai during a contest of skill. Hyoma the brother of the deceased hunts Ryunosuke, the killer, who is a psychopathic murderous swordsman.

Of course this search for revenge is set amongst the backdrop of civil war, the search for enlightenment, love, and jealousy.

Needless to say this movie trilogy is loaded with action and there are plenty of sword and spear fights. Most are very well done, and the lead actor, Ichikawa Raizo, displays some excellent skills.

The only thing I didn’t like was how the trilogy ended. I won’t give it away, but it was a let down. While it makes sense in the context of the movie, it most likely won’t be what one expects from a movie of his genre.

Like I said I really enjoyed this trilogy, and I recommend it.

Movie Review: Samurai Saga

Since my next entry on this forum is going to be a long bitchy rant I thought I would keep this one simple and more fun.

While I’m no movie connoisseur I know what I like, what I find entertaining, and with the cost of movie tickets what types of movies I’m willing to pay to see. Even with these parameters I still find myself less and less impressed with what Hollywood has to offer. Sure there are some movies that are good for killing an hour or two, that I see because my wife and/or children are interested in, but I can’t remember the last time I left a theatre feeling like I truly got my monies worth. Then again, I can barely remember the last time I even went to the movies. Basically because I’m still working on a backlog of DVD’s of movies I’ve missed.

However, I recently did see a movie which exceeded my expectations, and that if I ever find on DVD will definitely be added to my collection.

That movie is titled “Aru Kengo No Shogai,” (Life Of An Expert Swordsman), or as it is better known in the West, “Samurai Saga.”

Filmed in 1959 and directed by Hiorshi Inagaki, Samurai Saga is basically the story of Cyrano De Bergerac with a Japanese twist.

Toshiro Mifune plays the lead, and his role is both humorous and emotionally touching. Especially when he dies in the arms of the woman he has always loved, but thought he could never have due to his physical deformity (big ugly nose). The use of light, the cherry blossoms falling, and his ghost evoke numerous feelings of loss and unfulfilled desires Mifune’s Cyrano has had to live with all his life.

While many might wonder how a French tale of a physically impaired warrior poet would translate, it translates extremely well. Of course some changes were made, but anyone who knows the tale of Cyrano would instantly recognize the characters, events, and key plot elements.

From the opening scene at the theatre where Mifune’s Cyrano character makes fun of his deformed nose while showing his mastery of fencing, to the classic scene of Cyrano in the bushes wooing the woman he loves on behalf of another suitor, the movie evokes emotions ranging from laughter to tears. The pace is excellent, and the use of colors, cinematography, and choreography only add to the overall experience.

Of course the movie also has plenty of swordplay, a battle scene (most likely its weakest moment since it looks like stock footage), intrigue, and suspense.

Clearly, this movie may not be one of Mifune’s masterpieces, but it is worth watching.