Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Apparently, a big schnoz is embarrassing no matter what country you're from

Samurai Saga (Japan, 1959, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki):

This generically-titled samurai movie is actually a very well-done adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Now that's a cool idea! As the movie starts, a (Kabuki?) play is being put on in a Japanese town, but the star singer is afraid to go on because she's been receiving threats from a man named Komaki. Her manager convinces her to perform, but the play is interrupted when Komaki shows up; it's Toshiro Mifune, playing the Cyrano character. He objects to the actress performing due to reasons pertaining to honor and loyalty (the movie takes place at the time the Tokugawa shogunate was taking over Japan; I apologize if I get any details wrong; I'm not especially well-schooled in Japanese history). He's wearing a wide-brimmed hat, but he takes it off when a guy challenges him to let the actress perform; he has a huge nose, and he dares the guy to make fun of it. In fact, he demonstrates several ways to make fun of his nose, then beats the guy up. The local lord, who is in attendance, has all his men storm the stage. Komaki decides to compose a song about how badass he is while he's kicking all their asses. Awesome.

So that's the beginning of the movie. Then we get into the Cyrano plot; he is childhood friends with the beautiful Princess Ochii, and she comes to him to let him know she is in love. But not with him; she loves a young, handsome guy named Jurota, and she asks Komaki to watch out for him. Komaki begrudgingly accepts, deciding he'll never know love with his ugly face. It turns out Jurota is also quite the badass, so they end up getting in several fights together against Tokugawa's men. Jurota also digs Ochii, but when he tries to woo her, she's unimpressed with his expressions of love; the best he can come up with is to repeat "I love you," over and over. So Cyrano, I mean Komaki, comes up with the plan to write poetry for Jurota to read to her. She digs it, of course, so they're in love. There's a few bumps in the road, like when Jurota decides he can go it alone without Komaki's help, but then bombs terribly, causing Ochii to wonder if he doesn't love her anymore. She's really kind of dense if she can't figure out where the tenderness is really coming from, but that's not the point.

Eventually, Komaki and Jurota get called away to war, so they head off to the infamous Battle of Sekigahara, where they are unfortunately on the losing side. They both get wounded pretty bad, and together they try to escape before they get massacred by Tokugawa's army (poor winners!). Jurota realizes that he can't go home to Ochii; she doesn't really love him; she loves Komaki's words that he parrots. So he kills himself, telling Komaki to go home and love Ochii. Komaki makes it home, but he can't bring himself to tell Ochii; he ends up watching over her for ten years, visiting her each year on the anniversary of the battle. Tokugawa's men are still searching for survivors though, and they find him, managing to badly wound him. He makes it to see Ochii one last time, and when he's reading her "Jurota's" final letter, she realizes he has it memorized, and it was him that loved her all along. But it's too late, his wound is fatal, and he dies in her arms. The end. Sad stuff.

It's a classic story, and the filmmakers do it justice here. Toshiro Mifune is the standout, as always. He was quite the performer in his day; if you ask me, he had it all: powerful body language, facial expressions, and voice. He completely took over whatever scene he was in. He really gets the wit of the character across here, showing Komaki as an intelligent and poetic man who is unmatched in battle. There's a great scene just after Ochii has informed him that she loves Jurota. Komaki's getting drunk, and all his army buddies show up and insist that he tell them the story of how he defeated 25 men (it's not some tall tale; this took place a couple of scenes earlier). Jurota's there with the men, but he's the new guy; another guy admonishes him to never mention Komaki's nose. So, of course, while Komaki's telling the story, Jurota keeps butting in, saying things like, "You gave them a nose full," or "you had them by the nose." Komaki gets angrier and angrier as this goes on, but he's realized who Jurota is; he's pledged to make sure he doesn't come to harm. Eventually he roars (if you've seen The Seven Samurai, you should be able to picture him doing this) for everyone to leave, then takes a few breaths, tells Jurota he admires his courage, and has a drink with him. It's a great scene.

It's also a beautiful movie, with lush backgrounds of cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, and landscapes. I'll have to check out some of director Inagaki's other movies; he also did the Samurai trilogy about Musashi Miyamoto.

So, if you like cool samurai movies, or are interested in seeing Western stories adapted in an Eastern style (see also: Ran, Throne of Blood), try to check this out. I saw it on IFC, so they might rerun it sometime.