Pandemonium in the Dark

In Japanese cinema, the samurai film can be many things. It can be a ghost story (Ugetsu, 1953), a rousing adventure (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), a tragic romance (Gate of Hell, 1953), a sweeping historical epic (Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955), a Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood, 1957) or even a revenge saga (Chushingura, 1962). The latter is my favorite sub-genre in the category and the best samurai revenge films are usually driven by the avenger’s sense of honor being defamed and/or moral outrage at personal injustice. This is certainly the motivation behind the heroine of Lady Snowblood (1973), played by Meiko Kaji, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is also the central premise of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (aka Seppuku, 1962), which is more doom-laden and brooding than the kinetic action of the Lady Snowblood films but nevertheless explodes in a bloody, sword-wielding finale. But if you want to go deeper, darker and crueler, it is hard to top Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons (aka Shura aka Pandemonium, 1971) for pure malice.   Continue reading

The Age of Assassins (1967)

A paranoid conspiracy thriller delivered in a droll tongue-in-cheek style with generous helpings of black comedy and anti-establishment satire doesn’t really fit neatly into any genre and Kihachi Okamoto’s The Age of Assassins (1967 aka Epoch of Murder Madness; Japanese title: Satsujin Kyojidai) was generally dismissed by critics and avoided by audiences when it was first released in the late sixties. Like many of Okamoto’s films, it didn’t receive theatrical distribution outside of its own country and that’s a shame because the film has the essential goods to become a bona fide cult classic on the order of Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) or Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard (1968). The Age of Assassins arrived at the tail end of the secret agent craze but it is not really a James Bond parody. Think of it instead as a crazy quilt journey through an off-kilter, pop culture universe where no one is who they appear to be.   Continue reading