Armchair Cinephile

Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD

Go East, young Quentin

This week, in honor of Kill Bill (Vol. 2 opens Friday, Vol. 1 hit video stores this Tuesday), Armchair Cinephile travels to Japan. While Tarantino's epic draws on any number of genres, its Japanese influence is pervasive; the last couple of months of DVD releases provide some valuable context.

Most important, perhaps, is Lady Snowblood (AnimEigo), one of many KB inspirations in which a lone woman seeks revenge. In this one, the woman is given to unleashing arterial sprays of blood with her sword as she hunts the four people responsible for her family's destruction. Like Bill, the film contains titled chapters and some animation, but its most lasting contribution is the haunting song "The Flower of Carnage," which appears in both KB chapters.

Snowblood was based on a comic book co-created by Kazuo Koike, as was the very successful Lone Wolf and Cub series, which is also being reissued by AnimEigo. (Their latest installments are Baby Cart in Peril, Baby Cart to Hades, and Baby Cart at the River Styx.) In the '80s, Roger Corman's film company edited the first two LW&C films into one dubbed adventure called Shogun Assassin - a film that plays an important part in KB2.

Speaking of long-running series:

The Godzilla series inspired one of KB1's coolest elements, the model Tokyo seen when the Bride flies in to confront O-Ren Ishii. In honor of the series' 50th anniversary, Columbia/TriStar released two recent installments, Godzilla vs. Magaguirus and Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

The long-running Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman saga is now being tackled in complementary releases by no fewer than three video companies. Home Vision has released over a dozen, AnimEigo just put out three more of their beautifully researched editions, and now newcomer Tokyo Shock arrives with Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi, the only episode written and directed by its star.

Tokyo Shock takes its name seriously: They're busy issuing the most gory, most taboo-shattering, most violent cinema coming out of Asia today. Tarantino has often proclaimed his love for the prolific lunatic Takashi Miike, whose cartoonishly sick Ichi the Killer is legendary. It and Miike's Visitor Q are available from Tokyo Shock; between them they depict sado-masochism, rape, incest, mutilation, disembowelment, and some perversions for which I know no name. Those who were shocked by Kill Bill would spontaneously combust if they watched these: there's more goofy gore here than in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. (Speaking of goofy: Tokyo Shock's Riki-Oh features an exploding head scene so silly it was a favorite on The Daily Show.)

For my money, Miike movies work better as individual moments of id-exploding bizarritude than as overall movies, but QT seems to love them wholeheartedly. He also gives props to Japanese auteurs like the young Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose thriller Cure is available from Home Vision) and Kinji Fukasaku, director of Battle Royale. Fukasaku's Blackmail Is My Life (Home Vision again) is one of the more coherent of the '60s Pop Japanese films I've seen; it works in complicated tricks like stylized flashbacks and disjointed chronology, but the tricks are more effective than in some films from this period. It would make a fine double bill with Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers (Criterion), a kinky '60s comedy about porn, reincarnation, and getting too involved with the landlady.

Then there's Seijun Suzuki, whose candy-colored anarchy leaves QT (who has borrowed some imagery from him) feeling like I feel about Miike. Two extremes of Suzuki's cinema are new to DVD: Underworld Beauty (Home Vision) is a black-and-white film noir from the start of his career, where he hasn't yet found his familiar garish style; Pistol Opera (Tokyo Shock) is nothing but style, featuring sex, guns, and more wild colors than a bag of Skittles. It also - like many Asian action films - features a great silhouette training scene reminiscent of KB1's "House of Blue Leaves" sequence.

Anime novices who enjoyed Vol. 1's animated interlude should hunt down the Manga Video label, the leading imprint for Japanese cartoons. They release not only the familiar sci-fi/action titles, but artsier fare like Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (which Roger Corman describes as Hitchcock via Walt Disney) and The Castle of Cagliostro, an early film by Spirited Away director Hayao Miyazaki.

Finally, in case any readers now think Japanese cinema is all hitmen and exploding heads, the Criterion Collection continues to promote the nation's most poetic films: Akira Kurosawa's masterwork Ikiru, about a bureaucrat dying of cancer; the eerie Onibaba, about two women who survive by murdering samurai and stealing their possessions; and Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds, which is presented alongside the silent 1934 Ozu film on which it was based.

Whew: That's a lot of Asian cinema - and we haven't even mentioned the Chinese kung-fu classics that are the foundation of Volume Two. •

John DeFore on DVD

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