Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

Tatara Samurai (2017)

Gosuke lives is a small mountain village known for its steel. His father inherits the position of Murage, or foreman of steel production: a title that will pass to Gosuke in time. However, Gosuke would rather leave the village to join Oda Nobunaga’s armies and prove his strength as a warrior. Following a catastrophic defeat Gosuke returns to the village where he is welcomed back. But there is danger lurking as the village is under threat and with the modern guns revolutionising warfare Gosuke must learn how best to defend his village and his heritage.

Yoshinari Nishikori who wrote and directed this historical drama does a good job with the story. Creating a few strong central characters, Gosuke, his noble friend Shinnosuke, and the salesman Yohei, the film’s story is small in scale but more impactful for it. The direction is good and the cinematography exceptionally beautiful. Costumes and set design evoke the period incredibly well and the village feels real and lived-in. Though the battle sequences are far from the main focus, they are well choreographed and performed. The best parts of the film are the steel making sections. Though essentially only showing the process of making steel, they are imbued with emotional and thematic depth that makes them fascinating to watch both on a technical and dramatic level.

The message of “Tatara Samurai” is one of appreciating life and respecting your heritage. The protagonist of the film begins by saying that he was never sure what “strength” truly entailed and the film deals with this theme. Strength is all too often conflated with violence and war, but there is another strength in courageous acts of defence and in the calm, daily grind of survival. A charmingly well-made samurai tale with beautiful cinematography and a novel take on the everyman hero.

Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

A thrilling pre-titles opening sequence effectively sums up what this series is about. We see a topless swordmistress take down a group of ninjas, blood spraying theatrically across her bared chest. A quick cut to Itto Ogami as he is hired to kill this woman. As the titles roll a couple of minutes in the filmmakers have essentially told you everything you need to know about what is to follow. This is not in any way a criticism, but praise. Film four in the popular series seems to have found the heart of the story and presents exactly what the audience has come to expect. In an interesting twist Daigoro, Itto’s son, wanders off and is discovered by a rival swordsman who threatens him. Realising the child has the Eyes of Death, due to his repeated contact with violence, he spares him. This time spent with Daigoro helps set up his character a little more as we see the toll his father’s choice has had on him. We also learn more about the woman from the beginning of the film from a tattoo artist who produced the artwork we see on her at the beginning.

Utilising voice-overs and characters talking about stories lends the film a story-book quality, as though this is a famous historical event or legend. This also helps us to see certain characters as archetypes and their struggles as universal. The character of O-Yuki (the female warrior Itto is hired to assassinate) is mysterious and poignant. She is a more sympathetic villain than in previous instalments and one worthy of Itto’s respect. Once again the film does not spare the bloodshed and in a thrilling scene in a small temple we see Itto dispatch of a group of ninjas, severing limbs, blood pouring out across the floor. Decapitations, lopped off arms, splitting skulls, every conceivable wound that could be inflicted with a blade is used in a violently creative series of action sequences. As might be expected there are a couple of scenes that are similar to previous instalments, with an onsen, a climactic battle, but the action and story are highly entertaining.

Itto Ogami’s legend has at this point grown so that he is known throughout the land. It is always hard with a long running series not to make the protagonist into some kind of superhero. Baby Cart in Peril does a good job of this by seeing him badly injured and struggling to maintain the absolute composure he shows in usual circumstances. By giving us an example of Daigoro in trouble we also see his second major weakness: that of protecting his son. This film also shows us again that while he is undoubtedly capable of callousness and not averse to killing, he does maintain an underlying code of honour in his behaviour.

Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional  zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.