Personal Pantheon++

Ryuhei Kitamura is a God. Why is he a God? Not just because he’s made Azumi, the movie that introduced my eye-candy-deprived self – well, in 2003, at least – to Aya Ueto and her roaring rampage in a village full of crazed bandits. Just for the record, there is some crazed fan over in the IMDB boards who calculated that the total number of kills Azumi made in the movie is 164, which is about twice that of The Bride in Kill Bill. *snicker*

Using Ms. Ueto in a manner that befits her stature is but the least of Ryuhei Kitamura’s virtues. What makes him a member of my Personal Pantheon is this movie he made way back – called Versus. Understand this – a movie like Versus is Genre-redefining High Concept. Take a Samurai movie, which has sword-fights and arterial sprays galore, take a standard Yakuza shoot-em’-up, with dollops of John Woo-ish coolness. To this, add a Zombie movie set-up. If your brain has exploded from the possibilities this mixture has opened up before you – wait up, I am not done yet, so put that gooey mess back inside your head and keep listening. Every scene in the movie takes place in a forest, just because Kitamura and his crew could not afford a set. The entire movie was completed under 400,000$, and everybody involved did their own stunts. ( Yes, having a commentary track on a DVD does help, thanks)

But no, a movie like Versus would probably be relegated to wannabe-action-movie status, if not for two redeeming factors. One is Tak Sakaguchi, the actor who plays the lead role and rightly enough, modifies “acting” to “actioning” – he indulges in sword-and-gunplay with an inherent coolness that should put people like Keanu “I wanna Be The One” Reeves to shame. Tak Sakaguchi is The One in every freakin’ frame of the movie – but, whoa, hold on, I am not going to talk about him. I want to talk about the other name that makes Versus a repeat watch for me.

Nobuhiko Morino.

The guy who composed the soundtrack to Versus. A mish-mash of sounds that kicks the mood of the movie into overdrive from the word go. Begins with low strings and the shamisen and a bit of taiko drumming, a tabla riff here and there, discordant elements that suddenly erupt into chants – quite an appropriate music for a lone samurai fighting zombies. “The Escapee” is the setup piece, rock guitar howling out a warning of things to come. The fun begins right after that – the tabla-ghatam-drumbeat of “Big Trouble on The Way”, the Jew’s Harp on “I’m a Feminist” ( the specific scene when this bit of music kicks in falls in my personal list of All-Time Great Musical Moments in Cinema), the electric-guitar-that-sounds-like-a-sarod-solo in “Join The Party”, the completely bluesy groove on “I’m A Fighter”, the total chaotic feel of…erm…”Total Chaos” – these are the tracks productive days are made of. All the songs are instrumentals, most of them electronic squelches and beeps and break-beats, loads of rock guitar, a little bit of orchestral music, which is there just to wind the listener up before a really kickass track begins. Kenichi Yoshida contributed with his Tsugaru-Shamisen, which is a Japanese stringed instrument that you must have heard sometime or the other.

I haven’t heard any other albums by Nobuhiko Morino – he seems to have composed very few other movie soundtracks, Kitamura’s Alive, and part of Godzilla: Millenium Wars. I really dunno how the man’s tunes will gel with movies that do not have the frenetic pace of Versus, but hey, no harm listening to the soundtracks, right?

Thus, another quest begins.

Comics, Manga

Lone Wolf and Cub Volume 1: Chapter 9 – The Assassin’s Road

Shogun Assassin is a comic-book lover’s gift from heaven. A movie that follows the original comic-book ( Kazuo Koike and Gosei Kajima’s Lone Wolf and Cub) manga almost panel-by-panel. Of course, it is a pastiche of two Lone Wolf movies – there being six of them made between 1971 and 1974, all but one directed by Kenji Misumi, and all starring the formidable Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto. Itto the Lone wolf, assassin for hire – who along with his three-year old son Daigoro walks the road to perdition. Pretty straightforward story, or so it seemed when I began reading the series – the standard format of the nine chapters in the first book being X hires Ogami to kill Y, Ogami hatches plan, kills Y, kills a lot of other people in the bargain.

But the last chapter of the book signals an end to the journey that was beginning to appear a little too familiar, or one might say, this chapter actually begins it after leading you through eight episodes and settling you in, depending on how you look at it. And I thought I would share.

It starts off with the image of Ogami Itto and his son watching a couple of children playing, they are bouncing a ball, and singing a song.

As the song of the children attain a hypnotic tone – we flashcut between Ogami’s eyes, brooding, grim and alert, and Daigoro’s, innocent and yet full of loss.

The scene shifts. It is the house of Ogami Itto, and both him and his son, in noticeably better times.

“Daigoro”, the father says, “The Kenshiyaki will soon be here…but your father is resolved to defy the Shogun and escape.”

He continues – “To avenge the Ogami clan and clear the name of the Kaishikunin executioner, I abandon the way of the Samurai, and travel the path to hell, a living demon of Meifumado! Listen well, Daigoro! Your father now walks the Assassin’s Road, a path of blood and corpses, slaughter and heartless cruelty. There is no other way to avenge ourselves on the assassins of the Yagyu clan…No other way to assuage the spirits of our dead, denied Buddhahood by their unavenged murders.”

At this moment of truth, the father offers the son a choice, a way to find his own path.

“Choose the sword”, he says, “and join your father on the Assassin’s Road. Choose the ball, and I will send you to join your mother in the land of spirits.”

This is what happens next.

“You would have been happier at your dead mother’s side, child”, Ogami Itto says, as he holds his son close to him. “An assassin with child. Remember, Daigoro, this is our destiny.”

The next day, Ogami is paid a visit by the Shogun’s henchmen, his house surrounded by sword-wielding guards, and as the representative, holding the official scroll in his hand, walks into the house, he finds Ogami Itto and his baby son sitting together, both dressed in white. The formal announcement is made, “…Your innumerable insults against our Lord and Ruler leave us speechless. Know that you are stripped of your title of the Shogun’s Executioner, and your family name striken from the lists. Your sentence is death by Seppuku for you and your only child, Daigoro.” Having read the scroll, the official sniggers at the silent man arrogantly – “You greet us in the white robes of death. Your resolution is admirable. I would expect no less from Kaishakunin Ogami Itto, whose sword is known throughout the land. Magnificent determination!”

And then, let me just say that all hell breaks loose, as Ogami Itto, with his son in one hand and his sword in the other faces off against the armed guards. “Can you kill me?” He roars. “Can you kill the Shogun’s own executioner with those feeble arms?”

The answer’s obvious!

“Why rush to die?” Itto asks them, as he cuts a bloody swathe towards the door of his house, and freedom.

And suddenly, the door opens, to reveal a band of grim-looking men waiting outside the threshhold of the condemned man’s house. An old man, obviously in control of the other younger followers behind him, challenges Itto – “Cut open your sword with dignity. Refuse, and we will be your opponent. Even your Suio Ryu cannot break the sword walls of the Yagyu clan.”

So it’s them, then. The infamous clan of Ninjas who were responsible for bringing the shogun, Tokoguwa Ieyasu into power, and his personal bodyguard. Led by the old Lord Yagyu, head of his clan, the men are aghast to find that beneath his white robes, Ogami Itto was wearing his Executioner’s dress – bearing the hollyhock crest of the Shogun himself. The ninjas find themselves in a dilemma, for to strike the man wearing the Shogun’s crest would be to dishonour their master. Itto laughs in their face. “I have faithfully served the crest for twenty seven years. It’s time I got some use out of it.”

The old man then takes matters into his own hands.

Ogami Itto accepts Lord Yagyu’s offer, and as the two foes face off, there is a bit of history for us, which presents an answer of sorts to whatever is going on right now.

Two warriors, Lord Yagyu’s son Kurato, and Ogami Itto face off in the middle of a clearing. “Heh heh heh”, the crafty Yagyu leader thinks ( and yes, he does say “heh heh heh”, which shows that I am not the only guy saying that at the drop of a katana) “Kurato has the setting sun at his back….and Ogami Itto his son at his.” The Lone Wolf goes to battle with his child slung across his back.

The sky darkens. And katanas at the ready, the two duellers rush towards each other. What happens next cannot be expressed in words.

And thus it ends, the way it began.

The sequence that happens here is copied word-for-word, nearly, in Shogun Assassin. For that matter, it’s a frame-to-frame copy as well, as the duelers are transposed from Ogami’s house to the clearing where the duel occurs in, literally, a blink of an eye. Not coincidentally, Kazuo Koike was the scriptwriter on the original movie (Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance) as well. The only thing that ruins the movie, in my opinion, was the cheesy synthesizer-heavy background music, and the terrible dubbing of the villains, who sound every bit like villains sound in badly-dubbed South-East Asian movies — nasal, with clipped sentences and bad pronunciation. Ogami Itto’s dub is a magnificent baritone, with an English accent —  and Daigoro’s is that of a slightly affected American child artiste, the kind of kid who knows he is dubbing for a Japanese movie.

So now you know why I am all jacked up about reading the complete series. This was a manga written sometime in the seventies, and it stands a landmark of it’s genre to this day. If you read Frank Miller’s Ronin or even Sin City, or see Road To Perdition, you will find the ghosts of Ogami Itto and Daigoro looming large behind these great works. Salut, Koike-san and Kojima-san.