Thursday, 1 December 2016
The Lone Wolf and Cub series takes place within a society that fetishes death. Life under the Shogunate is a brief, transitory state where something as final as suicide becomes a bureaucratic equaliser for elites who have fallen out of favour. There's always a sense in these films that the lives of commoners are worth very little. The brutal, pre-industrial caste system places them at the bottom of the heap, to be used as playthings by a sadistic ruling class. Former state executioner Ogami Itto would seem to be an exemplification of these horrifying, fatalistic ideas, since he kills basically everyone who crosses his path, but Itto's ire is aimed firmly at the untouchables who govern the nation.
In Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril Itto is tasked with eliminating Michie Azuma's Oyuki, a renegade bodyguard who has turned on the household that raised her up from a wandering circus performer to the servant of a prominent feudal lord. Oyuki is discussed as an aberration, she's a woman who has dared to bite the hand that feeds, committing violence not only against the lord's men but the entire concept of samurai chivalry. Naturally, this is enough to arouse sympathy in Itto. He still kills her, of course, but he also goes on to manufacture a series of situations in which the people who wronged her come to sticky ends themselves.
Buichi Saito takes over directing duties from Kenji Misumi for this fourth Baby Cart instalment. Saito's major contribution to the roaming, episodic house style is the decision to dispense with Misumi's oblique, illusory framing. Baby Cart in Peril, despite introducing elements that are firmly supernatural, loses Mizumi's deliberately hazy sense of proceedings, punching up the brief run time with multiple voice-overs that explain the concepts guiding people's actions. Action scenes, frenzied and chaotic under Misumi, now advance along strictly ordered horizontal plains that show off Tomisaburo Wakayama's snappy in-camera stunt work. His Itto is presented as less emotionally superhuman in this film too. He isn't just stone throughout, Saito and Wakayama finding a way into Lone Wolf's stuffy emotions. After Daigoro scrapes through yet another dangerous incident, we see this strange father visibly moved, clutching his tiny son close to him.
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Sunday, 27 November 2016
Innocence, Mamoru Oshii's follow-up to 1995's Ghost in the Shell, imagines a future full of cybernetically augmented people with various hard and wireless data ports woven into their bodies, allowing them instantaneous access to all-recorded information. Frustratingly, this cerebral elevation hasn't brought about a profound change in the behaviour of mankind. Old habits die hard. Criminals still have various, horrifying, skin trades cornered while stock job roles and interpersonal patterns hold sway in the lives of the lawful.
Basic conversation has evolved in step with this mind-expanding progress though, transformed from bland, interchangeable pleasantries into passive-aggressive jousts. Participants use knowingly obscure, philosophical musings to bully their quarry into compliant silence. There's a sense in Innocence, especially since we spend so little time in the company of civilians, that an entire class of people have sealed themselves inside plastic and metal fortresses that enable them to mainline statistics and broadcast ideology. Understanding only their reality, Innocence's denizens are lonely and isolated, forever puzzling out the exact connections that anchor them to their physical world.
Innocence's plot revolves around a politically sensitive investigation into a brand of sex doll who are malfunctioning, killing their affluent owners then tearing themselves apart. In deference to their status as coveted but ultimately shameful product, the toys themselves are diminutive and sad looking, their bodies designed with the same super-articulated care as expensive, Japanese action figures. Interestingly, the automatons spark a sense of kinship rather than revulsion in lead detective Batou. After all, he is himself a piece of dense, dutiful machinery. For the finale Oshii cuts loose, trading static posturing for maximum movement. Kenji Kawai's wonderful The Ballade of Puppets: The Ghost Awaits in the World Beyond thunders along the soundtrack while a liquid lithe Batou dodges crumbling gantries and an army of high-kicking drones to breach and clear his way to a resolution.
Tuesday, 22 November 2016
The Baby Cart films consistently explore what it is to be an individual within a failing system. These films, like Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's manga series, contextualise Ogami Itto's powerful, singular focus as a force that works in direct opposition to the lethal bureaucracy of the Shogunate regime and the cynical ambitions of this ruling class. Itto stands outside the norm, refusing to conform to any external behavioural code. He doesn't require the input of lesser minds. His identity is complete, his will unshakeable.
On the surface, Tomisaburo Wakayama's Itto is a mangy ronin who, by refusing to commit ritual suicide, has irreparably damaged his name and legacy. Further, Itto's decision to sell his lethal abilities to anyone who can afford them has placed him so far beyond the pale that he is widely considered a beast. These perspective presupposes that those that conform and thrive within Japan's rigid, feudal castes are on a higher moral plane than those that do not. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades torpedoes this notion, exposing the officer class as a sham - broken clans turn to organised crime and sex trafficking to survive while low-class Samurai use their last remaining shred of status to rape with impunity.
Kenji Misumi's film imagines genuine merit as something valuable and perhaps even incomprehensible to those who do not possess it. It frightens them, threatening to expose their own shortcomings. People who truly understand the path Lone Wolf and Cub have chosen are also few and far between, so when someone appears who combines both these aspects the film bends over backwards to ensure we're clued in to their importance. At Baby Cart to Hades' conclusion Itto faces an entire army, making incredibly short work of them. They are conformers and therefore do not matter. Go Kato's Kanbei, another disgraced Samurai, is treated differently. Misumi pores over Kanbei's encounter with Itto because it is a cathartic experience for both men. Although they will never fight side-by-side they have each, finally, met another person who understands the burden of being exceptional.
Saturday, 19 November 2016
Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx is not in the least bit interested in providing a conclusion, or really even any continuation, to the threats proposed by Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance. Archenemy Retsudo is nowhere to be seen, although his hand is felt in the endless waves of suicidal ninja pursuing the titular pair. Instead, the film is content to iterate on its predecessor, exploring emotional notes the previous entry ignored whilst also accentuating the bloodletting with fantastical characters who possess surreal skills.
This time Kenji Misumi begins by giving us a sense of what it's like to actually be Ogami Itto. We see that the immunity he projects masks a mind constantly scanning and analysing situations, searching for even a hint of danger. He has to. The father and son are constantly assailed and attacked, their endless, expert enemies bringing death by a thousand cuts rather than one, decisive blow. Misumi has fun with this idea of psychological siege, layering in creeping noise and foreboding music to make even mundane situations seem potentially threatening. Naturally, Itto sees right through the director's childish affectations, silencing the aural dread with a well-aimed glare.
A contract issued by a profoundly unsympathetic textiles clan takes Itto and his son Daigoro to a desolate, featureless desert to face the three bodyguards of a fleeing fabrics specialist. Of course, when Robert Houston and David Weisman chewed up this film and its predecessor to create Shogun Assassin they turbocharged the confrontation's pleasingly mundane stakes, promoting the absconding serf from a worried working man to the Shogun's brother. The finicky duo also saw fit to junk most of Baby Cart's deliberately spare sound design, subbing out skin-shearing winds for a Moog synthesiser score. Grunts and sound effects were also added to every little movement, just in case the audience could not discern that the people on-screen were moving. Houston and Weisman were terrified of silence and inactivity, Misumi revelled in them.
Thursday, 17 November 2016
Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance introduces us to Ogami Itto, a man with an unwavering conviction that he is correct. Wronged by a ninja clan looking to muscle in on his cushy position within a terrifying regime, Itto abandons the Samurai code to wander the land with his infant son as an assassin-for-hire. As with Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kajima's original manga, Sword of Vengeance takes a unique tact with its hero. Itto is portrayed in inhuman terms, demonstrating no flaws or failings. His sense of self is airtight, completely unpolluted by the thoughts and feelings of those around him. He doesn't have conversations with people, even those he loves, instead he makes statements and issues diktats.
This assuredness leaks out of Itto and into the film itself, most crucially in how director Kenji Misumi uses sound to signal shifts in temporal space. The film is structured as a series of instances that demonstrate a typical mission for the duo. Along the way, Itto's mind wanders and replays the events that set him down this path. When we share Itto's headspace, the character's certainty is expressed in how little diegetic sound registers on the film's audio mix. Although rain lashes down incessantly, Itto's memories are focused entirely on his words and those of his foes. Everything else is extraneous detail and is therefore deleted.
Celebrated magnificent stranger films like Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars at least flirt with the idea that their hero can be damaged. We get a taste of fatigue bleeding in around the edges before the wanderer vanquishes his enemies and wins the day. Sword of Vengeance is different in that there's never a second in which Itto seems truly vulnerable. Indeed, the mistake all of his adversaries keep making is their belief that this is even a possibility. Regardless of their station in life, Itto's opponents think using the patterns and models they've learnt from a society based on class and strict formal behaviour. These largely ceremonial traps fail because Itto has forsaken such petty limitations and decided to be a monster instead. As such, their words and deeds are completely useless against him.