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Tube Smuggler
Sep 13, 2004
I especially love them.
Samurai films are on a hot streak at the movies, on TV and on DVD.

A DVD invasion arrives this week in the Rebel Samurai Sixties Swordplay Classics box set (Criterion, $100, or $30 sold separately), which includes Samurai Spy (1965), Sword of the Beast (1965), Samurai Rebellion (1967) and Kill! (1968).

Some new prints of the samurai films that were struck to produce the DVDs have been shown at film festivals in New York and Washington, D.C., and are scheduled for Cambridge, Mass., (Nov. 4-10) and San Francisco (Dec. 2-22).

Several also are being broadcast on the Independent Film Channel as part of its Samurai Saturdays series (Kill! airs Saturday at 8 a.m. ET/5 a.m. PT). In March, IFC will air the Japanese-produced Samurai 7 series, a sci-fi animé takeoff on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

A subset of the martial arts genre, samurai films have been made since the early 1930s in Japan. They gained international status when renowned directors such as Kurosawa (Rashomon) explored the genre.

Interest in Japanese pop culture and easy access to the films on DVD is driving the resurgence.

"It seems they're just now, at the dawn of the 21st century, finally receiving the mainstream appreciation in the U.S. that is their due," says Patrick Galloway, author of Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook.

"The popularity has always been there, and when (samurai films) have properly been revived, they have always done well," says Michael Jeck, an expert on Japanese films who coordinated the American Film Institute's samurai cinema series, now in Silver Spring, Md.

Seven Samurai remains a top-requested DVD in Criterion's 300-plus library and sells steadily on Amazon.com. "I have to think that (Quentin Tarantino's) Kill Bill films spotlighted the genre for many of the uninitiated," says Amazon.com's DVD editor Doug Thomas.

Swordplay is only part of the attraction of samurai films. "What you have in a samurai battle is close-in, bladed warfare, the good guy going against the bad guy face to face," Jeck says. "You have kinetic energy, balletic grace and brutal force, all conjoined."

A foreign cousin of the American Western, samurai films "have struck a chord with U.S. audiences," IFC's George Lentz says.

Director John Sturges adapted Seven Samurai to make The Magnificent Seven; Sergio Leone adopted Kurosawa's Yojimbo to create Clint Eastwood's "The Man with No Name" in three films; and George Lucas says The Hidden Fortress (1958) inspired Star Wars.

More recently, Tarantino has cited the movies starring the blind swordsman Zatoichi as an influence for his Kill Bill films. And Tom Cruise took up his sword in 2003's The Last Samurai.

These films owe a debt to the counterculture anti-heroes in Criterion's Rebel Samurai box set. "They are asking themselves 'Is there a time when how I'm supposed to act conflicts with what I know is right?' It's not just a guy with a sword," says co-producer Marc Walkow. "Life and death are at stake."

A new class of filmmakers is carrying on the tradition:

•Shinobi, a special-effects-infused samurai/ninja flick by director Ten Shimoyama, is playing well in Japanese theaters.

• Yoji Yamada, nominated by the Japanese Film Academy as best director for The Hidden Blade (2004, due on DVD in January), begins work on a new film, One-Line Samurai, early next year.

•When the Last Sword Is Drawn, the winner of last year's Japanese Academy Award for best picture, arrives on DVD Dec. 27.

These directors "are revitalizing samurai cinema by making lyrical films divorced from mythology, presenting the samurai as realistically as possible," Galloway says. "We're witnessing a new chapter in the genre."

Copyright © 2005 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.