Samurai Swords

Toshiro Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The above scene is an evocative moment in Musashi Miyamoto (1954), the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. Musashi, heretofore called Takezo, has been imprisoned in Himeji Castle by the wily (and wise) Buddhist priest Takuan for three years. He has just stepped out of the castle for the first time and takes a look back at the walls that held him while he learned to tame his wild impulses.

I first saw Inagaki’s trilogy at a seminal point in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start studying film history and criticism at UCLA. Before my classes  began in January 1967, the Toho La Brea theater began screening Musashi Miyamoto. In the following months, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)—the remaining films of the trilogy—were to be shown. Although I had seen many films at Dartmouth College, I was just starting to get into the whole jidai-geki genre.

Also, I fell in love with Kaoru Yachigusa, the perennially frustrated love interest in the trilogy.

In fact, I got so much into it that, in June, I moved to an apartment on Mississippi Avenue, right in the heart of the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhood. At that time, there were two Japanese restaurants around the corner, the O-Sho and the Futaba Grill, where I frequently dined, learning how to tame those unruly chopsticks. My ignorance was still pretty much in evidence: I took the squares of tofu in my miso shiru soup to be shark’s fin.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, the Love Interest in the Trilogy

Before long, I was going with my film friends to all five Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles: Not only he Toho LaBrea, but the Kabuki (Shochiku Studio) and Kokusai (Daiei Studio) near Adams and Crenshaw, and the Sho Tokyo (Daiei Studio) and Linda Lea (Tohei Studio). Now all five theaters are gone, but back then, I collaborated with two of my friends (Alain Silver and Jim Ursini) in a column for The UCLA Daily Bruin entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which commemorated not only the Japanese theaters, but some of he others. We wrote under the collective pseudonym of Tarnmoor.

The Criterion Collection has released DVD and Blue-Ray editions of the Samurai trilogy, which are well worth your while.

A Baker’s Dozen of Great Japanese Filmmakers

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakii (1962)

I have written on a number of occasions of my admiration of Japanese films, particularly those of the 1950s and 1960s, when it seems their film industry could do no wrong. Following is a list of my favorite directors followed by my favorites of their films.

If it seems most of the films deal with samurai, it is because I dearly love the genre.

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969)
  • Kon Ichikawa: The Burmese Harp (1956), Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1965), Castle Menagerie (1969)
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: The Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)
  • Keisuke Kinoshita: The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
  • Masaki Kobayashi: The Human Condition Trilogy (1959-1961), Harakiri (1962), and Kwaidan (1964)
  • AKIRA KUROSAWA: Just about anything he did, most notably Rashomon (1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), and The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  • Kenji Misumi: Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)
  • KENJI MIZOGUCHI: Just about anything he did, especially Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)
  • Kihachi Okamato: Samurai Assassin (1965), The Sword of Doom (1966)
  • YASUJIRO OZU: Just about anything he did, including Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953)
  • Kaneto Shindo: Onibaba (1964)
  • Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Woman in the Dunes (1964)

The directors whose names are in red (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu) are by far the greatest, with Kobayashi not far behind.

 

The Black Finger Cult

Indulging in Past Favorites

Indulging in Past Favorites

Not two weeks ago, I wrote a post about one of my favorite Japanese actors, Raizo Ichikawa, particularly as he appeared in a 1960s series called variouslythe Kyoshiro Nemuri films and “The Sleepy Eyes of Death.” Since then, I checked out eBay and found that the whole series of twelve films was available for just over a hundred dollars in Zone 1 DVD format. Naturally, I wasted little time in buying the set.

Tonight, I watched my favorite title, Trail of Traps (1967) directed by the underrated Kazuo Ikehiro. I sat entranced as Kyoshiro walked his way between Tokyo (called Edo in those days) and Kyoto, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary for safekeeping. Along the way, he is seduced several times—Kyoshiro is, after all, an anti-hero—and attacked by a group of devil worshiping baddies who call themselves the Black Finger Cult.

It’s nice to feel the same way after almost half a century about a film one loved to distraction back in the day. Raizo Ichikawa was indeed an excellent actor, and the Daiei Studio people did a great job putting the series together.

Too bad Raizo had to die so young. I think he was even more promising than James Dean.

 

My Japanese Years

Mifune Toshiro in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

It all came back to me while I had a Japanese meal with Martine at the Aki Restaurant in West Los Angeles. When I first came to Los Angeles in late 1966 I quickly became a Nipponophile. I lived for a while on Mississippi Avenue in the middle of the Sawtelle neighborhood, the old Japanese plant nursery district. Even before I started my explorations of Mexican food, I started becoming a Japanese foodie. I even thought the little tofu cubes in my miso soup were shark’s fin. (I marveled at my sophistication in eating “shark’s fin” soup.)

Since i was a graduate student in film at UCLA, I made a point of seeing as many Japanese films as I could. I remember taking the MTA #81 bus down Wilshire Boulevard to La Brea and walking a couple blocks south to the old Toho La Brea theater. The first films I saw there were Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamato Musashi (based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel) trilogy: Samurai (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). I fancied myself falling love with the sweet Kaoru Yachigusa, who played the part of Otsu; and of course I hero-worshipped Toshiro Mifune as the hero of he saga.

The Toho La Brea theater had a clock over the left emergency exit that was illuminated with the words Sumitomo Bank. All features were preceded by an Asahi Shimbun newsreel in Japanese without subtitles. Although I couldn’t understand a word, I looked forward to the newsreels.

A few years later, I joined with my film freak friends in visiting the other Japanese theaters in town: the Kokusai and Sho Tokyo (both Daiei studio), Kabuki (Shochiku), and the Linda Lea (Tohei). Today all five Japanese theaters are gone.

By the way, ever wonder why I call this website Tarnmoor? That was a pseudonym I used along with two of my friends in a UCLA Daily Bruin column entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which was mostly about these Japanese theaters.

Japangeles

Get Your Fried Squid Legs Here!

Get Your Fried Squid Legs Here!

What I like most about Los Angeles is its rich texture of ethnicities, from the Mexicans of “East Los” to the Salvadoreños of Pico-Union to the Armenians of Glendale to the Japanese of Little Tokyo to the Russians of West Hollywood and the Koreans of Koreatown—I could go on for another four or five lines before running out of options—Los Angeles is a veritable crossroads, especially from countries bordering the Pacific.

Yesterday and today saw the first annual Japan Fair held in Little Tokyo. There was a full program of entertainment, most notably a seventeen-year-old boy who played the shamisen with the sophistication and maturity of a master. There were numerous interesting snacks, including several types of pancake dishes, which are apparently very popular in Japan.

We took the bus downtown as it cost much less than finding a good parking spot—especially as there was a sold-out Hello Kitty exhibition and convention a scant two blocks away. I did not want to mix it up with any of those Hello Kitty thugs: They are the worst!

Shamisen Player

Shamisen Player

 

Ginza West

Christmas Tree at Japanese Village Shopping Center

Christmas Tree at Japanese Village Plaza

Before ascending the foothills to visit my friend Bill Korn in his Altadena mountain fastness, Martine and I stopped in Little Tokyo for lunch. As usual, we ate at the Suehiro Cafe on First Street. Both of us had bento box lunches (the Okonomi Plate) with miso soup and a choice of optional mains and sides as shown on the menu. Then we walked over to the Kinokuniya Bookstore on Weller Court where—miraculously—I didn’t buy any books or samurai films on DVD. Then, we went over to the Yamazaki Bakery at the Japanese Village Plaza. As a diabetic, I was only able to watch as Martine bought some tiramisu for herself and strawberry cream puffs for Bill and Kathy Korn.

Had we the time and inclination, we could also have visited several other adjacent Japanese shopping centers, two Buddhist temples, dozens of gift shops and food stores, and the Japanese-American National Museum. There is also the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, where one delirious day I once saw four consecutive Raizo Ichikawa films, including one of the now hard-to-see Kyoshiro Nemuri samurai films directed by Kazuho Ikehiro.

Immersing ourselves in another culture is one of the most fun things to do in Los Angeles. My interest in the Southern California Japanese began early, in 1967, when I lived in a little Japanese neighborhood off Sawtelle Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Around the same time, I started going by bus to the Toho La Brea Theater to see Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy and all the latest films from Akira Kurosawa. As I made more friends in the film department at UCLA, I discovered four other Japanese cinemas in the area: the Kokusai and Sho Tokyo (both running films exclusively from Daiei Studios), the Kabuki (Shochiku Studios), and the Linda Lea (Tohei). We used to eat at the old Ichiban Cafe at the corner of First Street and San Pedro Street.

Japanese Magazines at the Kinokuniya Bookstore

Japanese Magazines at the Kinokuniya Bookstore

There are a number of other ethnic neighborhood concentrations in Southern California. The largest are probably the Mexican neighborhood in “East Los” (East Los Angeles) and Boyle Heights; the sprawling Koreatown along Olympic Boulevard as it approaches downtown; and Little Saigon in Orange County. Then there are the Central Americans in Pico-Union, the Armenians in Glendale, and the Russians in Hollywood and West Hollywood. And those are just the ones I’ve visited!