Tuesday, May 13, 2014

YouTube Finds

From now on, every week, I'm going to scour YouTube for cool Asian cult film related shit and post five things. Here's what you all get for our trial run:

Macross: Do You Remember Love? is the coolest anime movie ever, aside from The End of Evangelion. Anime is shit now compared to how badass it was in the 80s.

I actually don't think Resurrection of Golden Wolf is all that well made a film, but it's better than the fun looking but kind of boring Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and does speak to bored Japanese salarymen everywhere who want to abandon their humdrum working gruelling hours and having sex with their wife only once a year lifestyles and start robbing banks and dealing heroin. That and Yusaku Matsuda is so badass he actually makes his co-star Sonny Chiba, at least in this film, seem like a sissy in comparison.

I used to have this on my Myspace. I've never actually seen Supermen Against the Orient, but I plan on buying it on the week of my first paycheck once I can attain employment. This is the first and last movie where you get to see the lovely as always Shih Szu, Lo Lieh and some Italian dudes dress up in superhero outfits and kick ass. I wish Hollywood producers today would think more like Run Run and Runme Shaw did!

Rare trailer for Chang Cheh's The Blood Brothers, a rare Chang Cheh film in which the bloodshed was caused not by just male hormones, but by the pretty Ching Li AND male hormones. Either this, Vengeance or The Boxer From Shantung are his masterpieces, it's really hard to choose.

May I present to you, the Holy Grail of trailers! The trailer Toho doesn't want you to ever see. Judging from the Chinese characters on the bottom of the screen, apparently it was floating around in Hong Kong. Kudos to whoever tracked it down.

Godzilla is a model Dad.

A nice scene from HK exploitation master Kuei Chih Hung's The Killer Snakes, the film that PACTV wasn't too happy that I aired on their station! I stopped doing Cinematic Damnation: The Show, by the way.

Warning: This trailer can cause uncontrollable orgasms at the sight of Lo Lieh and Lee Van Cleef together in one shot! If you are a fan of both Spaghetti Westerns and kung fu films, not watch in public places!

A Rare Assortment of Shaw Brothers Treats

I apologise for the lack of updates, between writing screenplays, writing reviews for Toho Kingdom and getting my Open Studios together, I've been busy for a man with no life. So I decided I'd compensate with extra long post. Anyways I watched a bunch of Shaw Brothers flicks in the past few weeks, some of which I've seen before, some of which I haven't. These films include Vengeance, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, The Super Inframan, Clan of Amazons and the non-Shaw Brothers but still Chang Cheh-directed Shanghai 13.

Vengeance, for starters, is absolutely superb. It's a gritty, violent and highly entertaining flick from Chang Cheh, a Chinese director whose body of work isakin to that of Sam Peckinpah, in that his works are ultra-violent with a general feel of manliness and testosterone. Chang also reinvented the Chinese martial arts film in a similar way to Kinji Fukasaku's reinvention of the Japanese gangster flick and made many young actors famous, including Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai and of course, The Venoms. Vengeance is no exception and is one of his very best collaborations with an actor which to Chang Cheh was like Robert DeNiro to Martin Scorsese: David Chiang.

The film stars Chiang as a young man in 1920s China, out to get bloody revenge on a vicious General and his men for the death of his brother(played by Chiang's frequent co-star in Chang Cheh's films: Ti Lung). After the spectacularly gruesome death of Ti Lung, the film builds up in intensity until the ending, in which Chiang, clad in a white suit, takes on the General and his men in an orgy of crimson. It's a supremely bloody 15 minutes that would only be outdone in kung fu bloodshed by the similar ending to Chang's martial arts/crime epic The Boxer From Shantung. Chang's direction is his typical work, lots of whip zooms, charmingly ragged camera motion and a generally gritty fell throughout. Aside from Ti Lung and David Chiang, the film also features frequent Chang Cheh villain actor Ku Feng and the cute Wong Ping as the love interest. In the end, next to The Boxer From Shantung, Vengeance is one of my all time favorite Chang Cheh films.

I've seen Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan and if you know me well, you'll know that it's my favorite Shaw Brothers production of all time and is pretty high up on my favorite films in general. A young named Ainu (played by the cute Lily Ho) is kidnapped and sold to a brothel, run by vicious lesbian Madame Chun (Betty Pei Ti). Though at first she rebels and tries to escape, eventually she gives in. Years later, she begins her spree of vengeance against the men who first deflowered her.

Chor Yuen is by far one of the most interesting directors to come out of the Shaw Brothers Studios. His wuxia films were far more female oriented than Chang Cheh's and have an almost lyrical quality to them. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is absolutely no exception. The cinematography is some of the most gorgeous in a Shaw Brothers film, with the whole film taking place during winter and numerous highly memorable and haunting images, particularly a shot of Betty Pei Ti licking blood off her fingers. Freeze frames are also used to great effect, quite like in the films of Kinji Fukasaku. The film features a mix of sleazy erotica with classy, gorgeous cinematography and settings that highly reminds me of such Japanese cult films as Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. The film's acting is excellent as well, with a great sense of chemistry between Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is simply an amazing piece of cinema all around.

I then gave my long unwatched R1 of The Super Inframan (or Infra-Man) a viddy. The film is the first Shaw Brothers production I was ever exposed to. Watching it, at the tender age of nine, on a badly panned and scanned VHS of the infamous Peter Fernandez dub was like a religious experience. To this day, Infra-Man is still one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures (though I'm not terribly guilty about liking it). I feel about Infra-Man quite like how Patrick Macias feels about Kinji Fukasaku’s wild space opera Message From Space, in that if I was only allowed to take one film bearing the Shaw Brothers logo with me to a deserted island, you bet your behinds that it would be this film. No film is quite as insanely kinetic, as colorful or as all around fun as Inframan. The only film to come even close is Ryuhei Kitamura’s kaiju action orgy Godzilla: Final Wars, made some 30 years later.

Picture the martial arts action of a typical Lau Kar Leung film. Now combine that with the colorful insanity of such Japanese tokusatsu shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. That is the gist of Infra-Man. The film is full of colorful monster costumes that put most of the creatures in your average sentai show to shame and garish sets that bring Message From Space to mind, all lovingly lensed by veteran Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto (billed here as Ho Lan Shan), best known for his work on Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon and who, back in his native Japan, DPed such films as Nobuo Nakagawa’s horror masterpiece Ghost of Yotsuya. The direction by the then 33 Hua Shan is also quite energetic as well and the film boasts a furious pace that never really lets up. It is simply one of the most insanely entertaining films produced in any country.

Next up was Clan of Amazons. Clan of Amazons is yet another example of the many adaptations that director Chor Yuen did of Ku Lung's martial arts novels. I think The Magic Blade is the finest of these films, but Clan of Amazons, while not nearly as entertaining as The Magic Blade, is still a decent piece of martial arts cinema sure to entertain.

The film's plot revolves around a martial artist's quest to catch a mysterious thief who robs his wealthy victims and then blinds them with embroidering needles. His trail leads to a mysterious clan of female martial artists known for their embroidery. As with nearly any film with a Ku Lung book as it's source material, the film can appear almost nonsensical to Westerners, with numerous difficult to keep track of characters, wild, eye catching sword play and a plot that twists and turns as much as a walking catfish.

Therein, however, lies what I believe is the charm of these movies and what makes them entertaining in the first place. Chor's direction is masterful and, as usual with one of his films, the cinematography is gorgeous and shows off the Shaw Brothers sets, then the finest in the whole Hong Kong film industry, very nicely. The cast is top notch too, with Anthony Lau playing the main character and quite a few other recognizable faces as well, including Ching Li (who is in almost all of Chor's Ku Lung adaptations), the lovely Shih Szu, the well known and prolific Yueh Hua, scumbag actor Chan Shen, the matronly Ha Ping, future Lau Kar Leung-collaborator (and girlfriend) Kara Hui and many others. As I've said before, if there's one thing that makes Chor Yuen's films very different from Chang Cheh's, aside from his films' more lyrical and lush quality vs. Chang's harder edged, grittier work, it's his use of female characters. In Chang's films, the females just stand and watch while the men fight whereas in Chor's films, the women play quite a large role in the plot of his films. Nowhere is it more evident than in Clan of Amazons.

Last and also least is Shanghai 13, which while fairly entertaining, is a real mess of a film, saved only by it's incredible cast, one of the finest assembled in any Hong Kong action film. The plot makes absolutely zero sense to me as I watched it on a crappy panned and scanned DVD with cut off subtitles, so onto to the technicals. The film is directed by Chang Cheh and for a film directed by the fellow who had redefined the Chinese martial arts film and given a new meaning to cinematic violence in the Hong Kong film industry, it's highly disappointing. The production values, especially when compared to Chang's sprawling Shaw Brothers epics like Marco Polo, Boxer Rebellion and 7 Man Army, are absolutely zero. It looks like a really cheap Taiwanese production (which it probably was), though it does have it's moments of Changian bloodshed, which, if not for the film's stellar cast, would be the film's only saving grace.

The film's real charm is in it's cast. The film, literally, stars almost everybody, a veritable who's who of 70s Hong Kong grindhousecinema, including many of Chang's entourage and is one of the few, if not the only, films to see some of Chang's original actors on screen with members of the Venoms. The film features everybody from Jimmy Wang Yu (The One Armed Swordsman), David Chiang and Ti Lung (The Heroic Ones), Chen Kuan Tai (The Boxer From Shantung), Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng (The Five Venoms), Chi Kuan Chun (Boxer Rebellion) and Danny Lee. If Alexander Fu Sheng had been alive when this film was made, he'd likely have been in it too. The film also stars Andy Lau, who one day would appear in such films as Infernal Affairs and House of Flying Daggers. Most of the actors only appear briefly, though, but seeing all these actors in one film is quite an experience. It's really the only thing making this otherwise rather depressingly cheap film worth seeing.

Wicked City

It's been a while since I've watched a good anime. I used to be a huge (quite literally), raging otaku, who spent hours on end watching Love Hina, eating ding dongs and watching my waistline grow. Recently I decided to take a walk down ol' memory lane and I ordered the Japanese R2 for Wicked City. I have a funny story to tell you about this one. When I was 13-15, while the other kids were experimenting with drugs and sex, I was tracking down many films (then on VHS) highly inappopriate for my age. Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Evil Dead Trap, Guinea Pig 2, The Street Fighter and Nakagawa's Jigoku all had something in common. They were all Japanese films in my collection that shouldn't have been. I also was starting to get into anime and tracked down a bunch of anime that I probably shouldn't have watched so young. Wicked City was one of them and just when the opening scene, in which Taki, the main character, fucks a demon women and almost gets castrated by her toothy, snapping vagina, was playing, Mum walked down stairs and saw it all. The tape, of course, was confiscated, though I snuck up and stole it back later.

Wicked City is directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, called the Michael Bay of anime by some. I disagree with that analogy, as while they both do favor style over substance, Bay's shit is just painful to watch, wheras Kawajiri's early work, from this to Demon City Shinjuku to Ninja Scroll is loads of insane fun. To me, he's more the Brian DePalma of anime, in that he made loads of stylish, highly entertaining works. Sadly, however, like DePalma, he sold out after Ninja Scroll with Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, which, while looking easily 10 times better than it's 1985 prequel, isn't even close to as much fun as the original Vampire Hunter D. It also pales in comparison to Wicked City, which to me, is possibly Kawajiri's masterpiece.

People sometimes label Wicked City as a hentai. That just pisses me off, as, while it is likely NC-17 level, the sex, while still quite there and figuring heavily into the plot, does not dominate thefilm. Like Ninja Scroll, it's an action flick primarily, though yes, like Urotsukidoji and LA Blue Girl, it does mix eroticism and the supernatural, only it's about 10 times better than those awful films. The animation is pretty fucking cool, with lots of seizure-like flashing and really cool demonic morphing (often compared to the morphing scenes in John Carpenter's The Thing). I really dig Kawajiri's animation style, which tends to feature characters with much smaller eyes than most other anime, though sadly he dispensed with that with the X TV series and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. What really sets anime apart from US animation is how innovative it is. Wicked City is no exception. It features nearly as many camera movements as a live action film, which is amazing when you consider how difficult it is to animate that sort of thing. Wicked City, all in all, is not just an anime film, it's a really awesome piece of badass cinema. The film would be remade in live action in Hong Kong by Tsui Hark years later, plus sadly, like Akira, Evangelion and others, the film is also getting US live action remake status. Just as The End of Evangelion scene where Shinji violence jacks off over Asuka's catatonic body will likely be cut from Evangelion: The Live Action Movie provided they are even able to raise enough money to make it, I don't think the snapping-vagina-with-teeth sequence will be in Wicked City Live Action, either.

J-Horror Top 10

In honor of the month of October, here are my top 10 horror films from Japan. Watching these 10 films is absolutely mandatory, not just for Asian horror fans but really horror fans in general. Also, yes, yes, I know, where the fuck is Ringu? Great, by far one of the better new wave J-horror films, but too overexposed. Juon? Not a big fan. Why doesn't this include horror films from other Asian countries? Haven't seen enough of those to make a top 10 list. So without further adeau, I present what I personally are the 10 greatest horror films to come out of Japan, not objectively, but more based on my personal taste.

10. Evil Dead Trap (1988)
Evil Dead Trap is an absolutely top notch 80s J-horror film. The film, directed by Toshiharu Ikeda, is heavily influenced by such Italian masters as Argento and Fulci and really shows it in it's nicely slick style. The music even, as Michael Weldon of Psychotronic once noted, sounds like Goblin. From the absolutely wince inducing snuff film opening to the creepy shock ending, Evil Dead Trap is one of those kind of films that never lets up in it's intensity and insanity. The whole action ark takes place in an abandoned military base which makes for a nice, eerie backdrop for the gruesome killings and general weirdness that soon follows. Highly recommended for those with a strong stomach.

9. House (1977)
Where does one even begin when writing about Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1977 horror cult masterpiece? According to the wonderful source of information that is Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, all Obayashi was asked to do was make a horror film that would sell well with youth. Obayashi did do that, but he did so much more, using every avant garde cinematic technique you could think of to create what resembles a horror themed music video 10 times better than Michael Jackson's Thriller. This is no doubt the strangest thing ever to greenlit by Tomoyuki Tanaka himself and boasts an insane, completely erratic feel and numerous absolutely arresting visuals.

8. Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968)
Now, thanks to Quentin Tarantino, this is best known as "that movie where the blood red sky in Kill Bill came from" but is still sadly unreleased on R1 DVD and underappreciated in the West. I first saw this film when I was the tender age of 11 and it scared the ever living fuck out of me. Basically an apocalyptic sci-fi/horror hybrid and modern day vampire tale heavily influenced, stylistically, by the films of Mario Bava but also boasting a very unique "Japaneseness" with a heavy anti-war element and surprisingly gorgeous cinematography. It's a pretty depressing, unsettling movie in actuality. Particularly unsettling is the film's somewhat infamous "possession" sequence, in which a blue alien blob enters the skull of the film's main villian, a white suited terrorist, through a vagina shaped gash in his forehead. That, my friend, is cinema!

7. Wicked City (1987)
The only anime film on this list, this is no doubt one of the roughest, coolest horror-themed anime around and one of all time favorites in the genre. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri from a novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi (Vampire Hunter D), Wicked City is a surpremely badass film with everything you could ever hope for, from spider women with snapping sharp tooth vaginas, grisly demonic transformations and loads of sex and violence, bringing the film up to easy NC-17 terrority. Fuck anybody who calls this a hentai, however, as the graphic sex in this film is hardly the main attraction. Kawajiri would later give us the almost equally good Ninja Scroll, another anime work that nicely mingles the worlds of sex, violence and the supernatural.

6. Jigoku (1960)
Jigoku (or Hell) is an absolutely fucking incredible film from Japanese horror master Nobuo Nakagawa, the man who, prior to this, gave us Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (or Ghost of Yotsuya) his own unique, Hitchcockian vision of the famous Japanese Yotsuya Kaidan legend. For this film, Nakagawa goes way further, taking us into, where else, but the depths of Hell itself. After an amazing intro, the film actually plays it pretty subtle for it's first half, with everything simply playing out as a drama. However, no sooner does it start to get boring than does, literally, all Hell break loose as the main characters are all mercilessly sent down into the infernal depths of Hades, where they, for the next thirty minutes, wander around eerily lit landscapes and breathtaking sets that would have made Mario Bava jealous and are subjected to various grisly tortures that predated H.G. Lewis' Blood Feast by three years.

5. Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Kaidan (1994)
Speaking of the Yotsuya Kaidan legend, here's our next selection, one of the later films of Kinji Fukasaku, one of the greatest directorial geniuses to come out of Japan. Fukasaku was nostranger to Japanese literature, having adapted the Chushingura (47 Ronin) legend in 1978 as The Fall of Ako Castle and the Satomi Hakkenden legend twice as Message From Space and Legend of the Eight Samurai. For this film, not only was he taking another shot at Chushingura, but he also combined it with the Yotsuya Kaidan story, an idea he had wanted to do back in 1978, making Iuemon, the main character of Yotsuya Kaidan, one of the loyal 47 retainers. From the film's almost Kubrick-like use of Wagner's O Fortuna to sharp editing and fine direction, the film is, as usual with Fukasaku, one of the finest, most entertaining examples of it's genre.

4. Audition (2000)
No doubt the best film the otherwise rather overrated TakashiMiike has made and likely ever will make. What starts out as a simple, almost dull drama gets creepier and creepier, until, in the last, grotesque, hyper disturbing, sadomasochistic reel, the film gives you what is the cinematic equvalent to a drop kick in the nuts. Whether it's more of a fucked up drama and less of a horror film I'm not sure, but that does not change the fact it is likely the scariest thing to come out of Japan, making Ringu and Juon look like The Adventures of Milo and Otis and it's easily twice as gnarly as Hostel.

3. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1988)
Tetsuo is the breakout film of Japanese cyberpunk director Shinya Tsukamoto and is, to me, quite frankly a fucking incredible piece of experimental cinema, like Kafka's The Metamorphosis on crack. It's also far more a horror film than sci-fi, as there is no real scientific explanation for the goings on. The film's got loads of gnarly gore, nightmarish imagery a plenty, a superb use of pixelation animation, a thundering metal score by Chu Ishikawa and yes, the film's infamous "power drill penis" sequence which you really have to see to believe. The B&W 16mm cinematography, interestingly enough, is surprisingly beautiful and the whole film is quite insanely entertaining.

2. Matango (1963)
In terms of my favorite classic Ishiro Honda/Eiji Tsuburaya film, I frequently go back and forth between Gojira (Godzilla) and this film, once best known as Attack of the Mushroom People, which I could best describe to anyone unfamiliar with it as a Japanese Gilligan's Island on shrooms. That said, it's a lot deeper than that, if Gojira was Honda's own warning against atomic weapons, this is Honda's own warning against the dehumanizing effects of narcotics and it's hell of a lot more scary and effective (not to mention far more entertaing) than say, Reefer Madness. It's got some of the best production design and cinematography around in a Toho flick and was as some of Tsuburaya's best, most subtle FX work and film's titular "mushroom people" are some of the creepiest monsters to come out of Toho's FX workshops. It also features some of the best performances of such veterans as Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Yoshio Tsuchiya and company.

1. Onibaba (1964)
Onibaba is an absolutely amazing piece of cinema, a genuinely fucking scary film with vague but very much present horror elements. It's a stunning work of art directed by the ingenius Kaneto Shindo with absolutely amazing B&W cinematography and is a gritty, stark, highly sexual film boasting with some of the eeriest, loveliest monochromatic images you will see in a film from the terrifying visage of the film's hanya mask to the corpse filled hole to the swaying reeds that look almost unreal. It's a truly arresting piece of cinema and totally deserves it's number one spot. Kaneto Shindo's next foray into period horror: Kuroneko, well not quite as powerful, would be nearly as good.

7 Man Army and The Fall of Ako Castle

In the later days of his David Chiang/Ti Lung/Alexander Fu Sheng era and right before his Venoms cycle, Chang Cheh was making what I could easily call "kung fu epics", long, big budgeted Shaw Brothers productions with a large scale, these include such films as Boxer Rebellion, Shaolin Temple and 7 Man Army, the later of which I found out about thanks to finding the trailer on YouTube. 7 Man Army tells the story of 7 Chinese soldiers who, during Japan's initial occupation of China, holed themselves up and defended a fortress against Mongolian mercenaries and the Japanese army for days on end before finally being massacred in true bloody Chang fashion. While the film is, as with such other "historical" Chang Cheh films as Marco Polo and Boxer Rebellion, largely fictionalized, it's still quite a great movie, a sort of gritty WWII epic with a little kung fu thrown with an epic scale complete with huge, sweeping wide shots of advancing armies and Japanese tanks rolling across the Chinese countryside and is a nice predessessor to Chang Cheh's even better WWII epic The Naval Commandos. The film also features better than average character development for a Shaw Brothers movie, with each of the characters having a past that is explored in flashbacks. The cast is any Shaw Brothers fan's dream, with Ti Lung, David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Chen Kuan Tai and Gordon Liu all in the same movie, with Ti, Chiang, Fu and Chen playing four of the titular seven men and Liu playing a Mongolian mercenary hired by the Japanese. Overall something of a lost Chang Cheh masterpiece now fortunately rediscovered thanks to the usual painstaking efforts of the people at Celestial Pictures.

I also recently watched The Fall of Ako Castle, directorial genius Kinji Fukasaku's take on the famous Chushingura (47 Ronin) tale. While I've heard a fair amount of people praise that film as being "even better than The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy", I found myself in completedisagreement. While the vast majority of the Yagyu Clan cast is back for more fun, the film just isn't nearly as much fun to watch, being something of a bore, something you would never expect from a director like Fukasaku. The thing about The Fall of Ako Castle is that, unlike Yagyu Clan, it barely feels like a Kinji Fukasaku film at all, only suddenly warping into "Fukasaku" for it's bloody climax at Lord Kira's mansion. The reason behind this is explained nicely in Patrick Macias' excellent as usual liner notes. Fukasaku wanted to make a Wild Bunch-like film completely in his own style, but actor Kinosuke Yorozuya fought him and insisted that he make the film in a "traditional style" and was able to convince the producers to bring in cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima (best known as Masaki Kobayashi's DP of choice). Miyajima and Fukasaku are sadly not a good pairing at all, with the film's cinematography looking neither as beautiful as what Miyajima was usually capable of (see Kwaidan or Samurai Rebellion for proof that Miyajima was second to none in capturing beautiful images) nor as gritty as what Fukasaku was usually known for. The reason the climax feels so much more "Fukasaku" is because Fukasaku employed his cinematographer of choice, Hanjiro Nakazawa. Aside from the climax, the film is surprisingly dull, boring and uninteresting for a Kinji Fukasaku film and is also, at 159 minutes, three minutes longer than the Japanese version of Fukasaku's doomsday epic Virus even, way too long. Fukasaku's second go at the source material, almost 20 years later: Chushingura Gaiden Yotsuya Kaidan (Crest of Betrayal) would be much better.

Yakuza Graveyard

I will start this blog entry off with a very bold statement, unlike 99% of the Asian film afficionados out there, my favorite Japanese filmmaker is not Akira Kurosawa. My favorite Japanese director is Kinji Fukasaku.

Yes, I know, Kurosawa's films are better from an artistic standpoint. However, most of Kurosawa's films, as wonderful and emotional as they are, just aren't that much fun to watch. Fukasaku's films, on the other hand, are a fucking blast. As Patrick Macias noted in his book Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, if Kurosawa is Japan's John Ford, Fukasaku is surely the country's Sam Peckinpah. One only needs to compare and contrast say, Samurai Reincarnation to Kagemusha or Legend of the Eight Samurai to Ran to see my point. Kagemusha and Ran are artistic masterpieces wheras Samurai Reincarnation and Legend of the Eight Samurai are fairly sleazy jidai-geki actioners with horror/fantasy elements and Sonny Chiba. That said, they are surprisingly well made and are also a lot more fun to watch. Come on, call me unsophisticated, but what you rather watch, Sonny Chiba battle undead samurai in a nonstop orgy of action or Tatsuya Nakadai descend into insanity for three hours? If you answered b., just go to some "prestigious" Asian film blog instead of mine (I'm sure there are a lot of those around). Fukasaku was also much more prolific and directed a much wider range of filmsthan Kurosawa, working in virtually every genre from the five film yakuza epic Battles Without Honor or Humanity to the two and a half hour mega budget international doomsday sci-fi epic Virus to, of course, Battle Royale. He worked fast as well, producing multiple films per year until the 90s. After years of The Green Slime being the only Fukasaku film that even the movie geeks could name, Fukasaku's work is finally starting to get some recognition after his death and the success of Battle Royale (though great as it is, sadly it's the only Fukasaku film most of the dumbass Wapanese otaku are willing to watch). Thanks to this newfound interest in his movies, many of Fukasaku's films are now coming out on DVD, with even the unmutilated version of Virus slated to come out on DVD soon, which leads us to Yakuza Graveyard, one of the newest Fukasaku releases on Region 1 DVD.

Yakuza Graveyard is another gem from the vaults of Toei. Interestingly enough, while the quality of Toho's output was suffering somewhat in the 1970s (Lone Wolf and Cub series and Prophecies of Nostradamus aside), Daiei was now bankrupt and closed down and Nikkatsu was forced to switch to making nothing but adult films to stay afloat, Toei, on the other hand, thrived in the 70s, producing an output of insane exploitation masterpieces from Sonny Chiba's The Streetfighter to the absolutely stunning Female Convict Scorpion films to, of course, many of Fukasaku's yakuza opuses. Yakuza Graveyard has all the trappings of a good Kinji Fukasaku yakuza flick from an out of control human pitbull as protagonist to a liberal use of dutch angles and handheld camera to that hyper gritty and almost documentary-like look to the film stock with bizarre, pastel colors. The film centers around Kuroiwa, an out of control cop who forms an alliance with the Nishida yakuza gang after falling in love with Keiko, the half Korean wife of the clan's former, now jailed, leader. Soon, however, the police decide to side with the Yamashiro family, a rival group of yakuza and crack down on the Nishidas, leading to, as you can imagine, a lot of bloodshed. While in my opinion Fukasaku's masterpiece in the yakuza genre belongs to either Battles Without Honor or Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima or Graveyard of Honor, this is certainly up there. It stars several frequent Fukasaku collaborators and Japanese cult film icons, mostly notably Tetsuya Watari (best known for appearing in Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and who played the crazed yakuza Rikio Ishikawa for Fukasaku in the previous year's Graveyard of Honor), Meiko Kaji (Female Convict Scorpion and Lady Snowblood and previously appearing in Deadly Fight in Hiroshima for Fukasaku), Tatsuo Umemiya (best known for his roles in Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Graveyard of Honor), Nobuo Kaneko (best known as Boss Yamamori in Battles Withour Honor and Humanity), Mikio Narita (star of numerous Fukasaku yakuza flicks and best known for playing, in "silver face", Emperor Rockseia in Fukasaku's space opera Message From Space) and even features In the Realm of the Senses director Nagisa Oshima in a small role. While it's not as outragously violent as Fukasaku's other yakuza films, the plot is a little easier to make out and there aren't quite as many characters to keep track of as in, say, Battles Without Honor and Humanity (which seems to contain more Japanese gangsters than The Lord of the Rings contains hobbits). With the ending, in which Kuroiwa gets his revenge against the corrupt police chiefs and rival yakuza, however, the film really goes full force into Fukasaku territory. Overall, it's an fine film, as one could only expect from the master of Japanese grindhouse cinema.

When I was little, my father was famous.

In 1980, filmmaker Robert Houston, now known for his documentaries, took the first two entries of Toho's Kazuo Koike-derived Lone Wolf and Cub series: Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx and combined them into one film, creating Shogun Assassin, a dubbed piece of psychedelia consisting of most of Baby Cart at the River Styx with a few scenes from Sword of Vengeance added as exposition. The film follows one Ogami Ito, once the shogun's official executioner, now a masterless ronin who is disgraced and has his wife murdered by the evil Yagyu clan and now on the run from the Yagyu's ninja with his son Daigoro. In this film, he must battle a group of ninja women as well as the Hidari Brothers (aka the Masters of Death), a trio of vicious martial arts masters. Baby Cart at the River Styx is an absolutely incredible film, feeling more like a bloody Shaw Brothers flick directed by Chang Cheh than the samurai filmsdirected by Kurosawa that Lone Wolf and Cub's production company, Toho, is so much more famous for. Kenji Misumi's direction is brilliant and the film utilizes several genuinely cool cinematic techniques that at times bring Sergio Leone to mind. The film is incredibly violent and is one of the most inventive bloodletting films ever made. No, the fountains of gushing blood in the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 were not Quentin Tarantino's own idea, he got it all from these Kazuo Koike exploitation chambara films like Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood. What I love about the Lone Wolf and Cub films, particularly Baby Cart at the River Styx is the way Kazuo Koike and director Kenji Misumi seem to think of inventive ways to kill people. Daigoro's Baby Cart is like something out of a medieval James Bond flick and contains everything from blades that come out of the wheels that are activated by Daigoro to a built in Gatling-like gun (though that is not unvieled until film three), not to mention that the Masters of Death are the coolest motherfuckers on the planet, each fighting with a different weapon that they use to gruesomely mutilate their opponents. The film also features everything from heads split in half to breasts slashed open (a shot trimmed in the Shogun Assassin version of the film) to blood actually spurting out and getting on the motherfucking camera lens! Now onto Shogun Assassin. Shogun Assassin, is, undoubtedly, the best example of an Americanization of a Japanese cult film in history and is perhaps the only dubbed foreign film I'm willing to watch these days. After years of being available only on various bootlegs, now, likely thanks to renewed interest in the film due to Tarantino's use of it in Kill Bill Vol. 2, the film comes to Region 1 DVD in a legit, remastered, reconstructed version courtesy of our friends at AnimEigo.

The thing about Shogun Assassin that sets it apart from most of the other hack job Americanizations of Japanese source material, is that everything is actually done with extreme care and love for the material. Sure, the plot is somewhat simplified. Apparently Houston thought Americans wouldn't be able to fully comprehend the idea of the shady Yagyu clan secretely manipulating the shogunate, so he chose to make the films' villain, the sort of Emperor Palpatine of the Lone Wolf and Cub world, Yagyu Retsudo, the shogun himself. The dub job, however, is no doubt the finest dub ever contributed to a Japanese film. It's actually done well and for perhaps one of the few times ever in film history, the talent employed is actually real "talent", including Lamont Johnson, best known for voicing Tarzan on the radio during the 50s as Ogami Ito, then comedienne Sandra Bernhard providing the vocals for Kayo Matsuo and the young Gibran Evans providing Daigoro's incredible narration track. Shogun Assassin is such an excellent Americanization that it actually bests Baby Cart at the River Styx in several respects. Exhibit A is Daigoro's narration track, which adds a whole new level to the movie. Aside from the opening narration, which I have memorized completely and love to recite in falsetto at open mikes as people scratch their heads, most famously sampled in both Liquid Swords and Kill Bill Vol. 2, which is the coolest opening narration in any film, another truly awesome moment occurs when Daigoro talks about how keeps count of how many people his father kills so he can know just how many souls to pray for. At the beginning of the scene, the count stands at 342, however, after Ogami Ito kills a trio of ninja women, he ups the number to 345. The film's new music track is also actually, in my opinion, an improvement on the original, sounding a bit like if Goblin, the Italian electronic group most notable for scoring many of Dario Argento's films (most notably Suspiria) and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, were to attempt music with an Asian motif. It also brings the infamous German-made soundtrack to Jimmy Wang Yu's indie kung fu masterpiece Master of the Flying Guillotine to mind as well. All in all, while Baby Cart at the River Styx is of course superior from a cinematic standpoint, Shogun Assassin is easily the more entertaining cut of the movie. AnimEigo's DVD is probably the closest you'll get to the honor of seeing Shogun Assassin projected in glorious 35mm, I have just one sole grip with the DVD, that the film's title cards are not the original title cards but computer recreations and look as such. Apparently the original negative to Shogun Assassin is toast or something as all the scenes here are taken from the masters of the Japanese versions of the Lone Wolf and Cub films. Still, it's awesome to finally see Shogun Assassin looking pristine on R1 DVD. Now just give me an MGM release of Message From Space and have Toho decide to unban Prophecies of Nostradamus and put it on DVD and my Japanese cult cinema fanboy life will be complete.