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Shura (Demons)

Posted by martinteller on June 29, 2014

Gengobe (Katsuo Nakamura) is a ronin, a fallen samurai who needs 100 ryo to join the vendetta that will restore his and his master’s honor.  He has no prospects, and spends his time in the company of the geisha Koman (Yasuko Sanjo).  Koman is devoted to Gengobe, to the point where she has a tattoo pledging that no other man shall touch her.  Gengobe’s servant Hachiemon arrives with good news: he has managed to scrape together the money to join the vendetta.  But something else comes up… Gengobe’s friend Sangoro (Juro Kara) says that a samurai is going to buy Koman by paying off her debts… 100 ryo.  Gengobe hesitates, but Koman is in such despair that she threatens suicide.  He hands over the money and Koman is his.  However, it is revealed that the whole thing was a setup.  Koman is already married to Sangoro, who needs the money to get back in his father’s good graces.  Thus begins a cycle of bloody and tragic vengeance.

The story of the “47 Ronin” is one of Japan’s most enduring legends, told hundreds of times in film alone.  It’s a tale usually meant to thrill with its heroic action and glorify the bushido code of samurai honor.  This story puts forth the idea of a “48th Ronin” (the film’s subtitle) and is quite different in tone.  It’s an exceedingly dark film, in more ways than one.  It opens with a sunset and from then on the sun will never be seen again.  Not a moment of it occurs in daylight.  The sparse sets are enveloped in darkness, oppressive shadows crowding the characters, with the sense that only nothingness is to be found beyond them.

The violence is bloody, slow and painful.  No one dies with a quick flick of the sword.  They suffer.  None of it is honorable, by the end there is no one to root for (except perhaps poor Hachiemon, but he’s unlikely to see any good days ahead of him).  It is savage and senseless.  There is an O. Henry-esque twist at the end that you will likely see coming, but I believe that its predictability may be intentional.  As you watch the carnage and despair, the cruel irony of it only makes it more upsetting.  There is an action in this movie that is one of the most barbaric things I’ve ever seen.

There is almost no happiness throughout the entire film, and no humor to be found.  It is not as playful with form as Matsumoto’s earlier (and more famous) film Funeral Parade of Roses, but it does use some interesting techniques.  Violence is often done with extreme slo-mo to enhance its horror and brutality.  Intertitles that at first merely orient the viewer in time and place eventually give way to messages like “HELL” and “This world is a sea of blood.”  Actions or even entire scenes are repeated onscreen, with minor variations but the end results are the same, as if trapping the participants in cruel inevitability.  The film opens with a premonitory dream sequence, and often you are not sure if what you are seeing is real or fantasy.  But they tend to be equally horrifying.

Earlier today, I lamented that my enthusiasm for movies has been waning.  Perhaps that mindset put me in a position where I was too eager to appreciate something, but I don’t think that was the case.  This is a genuinely powerful and masterful — but very very bleak — film.  Many of the best jidaigeki are the ones that criticize lofty notions of “honor”.  This one stands tall among them, and would be a good companion piece to Kobayashi’s Harakiri, showing the senselessness and savage collateral damage that occurred.  Rating: Very Good (88)

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2 Responses to “Shura (Demons)”

  1. greercn said

    I agree with you on this. Although it’s bleak, it’s haunting. I really like it a lot, even though I agree with you that a smidgen of happiness would be nice!

    • Thanks for commenting! I should make it clear, though, that I don’t want the film to have any happiness. I think that would undermine its effectiveness. But it’s certainly not a movie to put on when you want to be cheered up.

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