Monday, August 15, 2016

Yagyu Secret Scrolls aka Ninjitsu Part 1 (Yagyu Bugeicho, 1957)

Hello to all you fans of the martial arts movie world and others!! Hai!Karate comes back with a new review for you, a flick that caught my eye about 5 years ago. That movie comes from the great Toho Studios of Japan, known as Yagyu Secret Scrolls aka Yagyu Bugeicho!! (It's also known as Ninjitsu, which leads to some slight confusion. More on that later.) Released in 1957, this film features a powerhouse cast led by none other than the iconic Toshiro Mifune. Also starring Koji Tsuruta and Mariko Okada, this film is directed by the great Hiroshi Inagaki. The movie is remarkable for a number of reasons, mainly the face that we see Toshiro Mifune AS A NINJA folks. Mind. Blown. So let's get down to the nitty gritty on this picture...

Yagyu Secret Scrolls begins out in a plain with the looming sight of Mt. Fujiyama in the background. We see a samurai striding through cautiously before being attacked by another wearing a ronin-gasa who dispatches him easily. A woman and a young boy look on and prepare to join in but are stopped by a ninja in a tree who turns out to be Tasaburo(Mifune) who is in awe of the swordsman. His awe is justified as the man is actually Jubei Yagyu of the Yagyu swordmaster clan of the Tokugawa regime. After a brief confrontation, Tasaburo escapes in a burst of purple smoke. In the next few scenes, it is revealed that the "Martial Chronicles" are in danger. These three documents, held by three separate entities hold a vast array of information that could topple the empire and the Yagyus with it. One man, Fugetsu Yamada, wants the Chronicles to expose the Yagyus and save the nation from their machinations. Enter Tasaburo and his brother, Senshiro(Tsuruta) to execute the mission on his behalf to get the scrolls by any means.

From that point on, we are treated to a flurry of activity where each ninja goes on their mission -and wind up being involved with women that pose a bit of a risk to their goals and wind up putting them into conflict with each other. In Senshiro's case, he winds up being assigned to infiltrate the Yagyus, and Tasaburo gets to contact Princess Oki(Kyoko Kagawa).The two wind up in conflict, with Senshiro being opposed to Tasaburo's growing romance with the princess, choosing to focus on duty more. By the end though, both men have their eyes squarely set on the scrolls - and Jubei Yagyu.

(photo credit: Vintage Ninja)

Like I said before, Yagyu Secret Scrolls is an intriguing film. Seeing one of the most recognizable actors in Japanese film history as a ninja is slightly surprising, but is not totally unexpected. Mifune's martial skill was quite impressive throughout his career, thanks to the training he received from Yoshio Sugino, a master of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū which is one of the oldest forms of Japanese martial arts dating back to 1480 by some accounts. By studying this form, Mifune had more than enough knowledge to look the part. By this time he had already become well known in Japan for portraying samurai or ronin especially in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy where he played Miyamoto Musashi and Koji Tsuruta played his rival, Sasaki Kojiro. Mifune as Tasaburo brings all of the gruff charm you expect from the actor, with a little bit of tenderness as well. Tsuruta as Senshiro does display some cool and calculating moments here, and to see him and Mifune interact brings a stronger buttress to the film's plot. As for the ladies... well, the unfortunate part is that their characters are merely foils for the plot to move along. Princess Oki is confident but we see her being whittled down. Mariko Okada, who is highly regarded, is striking in her role but winds up taking a backseat to the action as well. I guess it was par for the course in those days with Inagaki.

A little earlier, I had touched upon the point of the film's title. The reason for that is, there's another film that was released that same year, by Toei Studios with the title of Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai: Torawakamaru, The Koga Ninja. Toho may have wanted to avoid some confusion, hence the name of their films. That aside, Yagyu Secret Scrolls stands out because of the painstaking details with regards to the ninja. You see a great deal of their weaponry on display from the difference of shurikens to Tasaburo and Senshiro's different garb depending on the situation. Inagaki's film style also calls for a number of duels, and true to form, each is set up to provide some thrilling action. A tip of the hat goes to Jotaro Togami for his steely and ruthless portrayal of Jubei Yagyu, who comes off very Vader-like in his scenes. Overall, the film moves swiftly and packs a lot in without sacrificing too much. It's plain to see why Toho scrambled to make a sequel.(I'll get to that in the review for the next film.) For those who like their ninja action with a little less hokiness, Yagyu Secret Scrolls does the trick. You can grab a remastered DVD from the fine sites of Kurotokagi and JapaneseSamuraiDVD.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Dirty Ho (Laan Tau Ho), 1979

Welcome back, martial arts movie lovers! Today, I'm happy to jot down some words in praise of one of the best kung-fu comedies ever put together, from the Shaw Brothers Studios, Dirty Ho!!! Now I know the title alone is bound to make you collapse into some giggles a la Beavis & Butthead or make you think of an ODB refrain from his first album, but Dirty Ho is actually a loose translation from Cantonese. The more accurate title is "rotten head Ho" but that doesn't exactly move audiences into the theaters, does it? Anyway, let's dig deeper into this classic starring Gordon Liu, Wong Yue and Kara Hui, directed by the great Lau Kar Leung!!

Dirty Ho starts out with a highly entertaining opening credits scene introducing the two protagonists, Ho Chi(Yue) and Master Wang(Liu)displaying some excellent martial skills in back to back scenes. From there, the movie jumps to open in an opulent brothel in Canton. Master Wang is surrounded by a bevy of lovely courtesans, listening to music and drinking wine. He asks the madam about a special room for the night, allowing for the jump cut to show Ho Chi irate about being snubbed for the room. A back and forth ensues with both men trying to get the attention of all the women by showing off their jewelry - only thing is, Ho Chi is a notorious jewel thief. Their first encounter and the two that follow are all extremely hilarious and all end with Ho Chi somehow getting bested by the clumsiness of Master wang. Or so it seems...

Ho Chi finds Master Wang at the brothel again, after finding out that Wang took his rather large box of stolen jewelry and donated it to charity. He goes in to snuff Wang once and for all, even if he is in the presence of Tsui Hung(Kara Hui) who is innocently playing the lute. What happens next is another fisticuff-laden feast for the eyes as Ho Chi is thwarted by Tsui Hung - but it's actually Master Wang who beats Ho back by using her as a shield. In the aftermath, Ho Chi runs away once the authorities are called, but suffers a nasty cut on his head that grows worse by the day no matter how many patches of medicine he puts on it. He seeks out Master Wang who reveals that he gave Ho Ching the cut and wants him to be his disciple to keep him out of trouble. In turn, he'll give Ho the antidote over time. Ho Ching begrudgingly agrees to the deal. But both men are in for a hard road, because the other secret that Wang has been hiding is that he's really the 11th Prince of the ruling Manchu Empire, and that someone wants him dead enough to enlist the help of General Liang Jing Chieng, played by the legendary Lo Lieh! Through intricate plots and fights, Prince Eleven aka Master Wang trains Ho Ching in the fine arts of fighting well and being a gentleman - but can they both make it back to the palace in Peking in time for the Emperor's birthday so he won't get into trouble and most importantly, stay alive?

Let's make it plain - Dirty Ho is one of the best films of the genre ever made. I don't say that lightly. One has to consider all of the elements of this movie. First, this film was made during the time where Lau Kar Leung was at the top of his game in direction and fight coordination. Gordon Liu was THE star of the studios, just another role removed from the film that would forever immortalize him as the "Master Killer", Priest San Te in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in 1978. Wong Yue was fast becoming a favorite of the studio as well, building off a steady stream of roles that showcased his innate comedic timing and fighting skill, most notably in The Spiritual Boxer. He and Liu had worked in a few films prior to this one, and their natural ease with each other shines throughout the picture. From the opening scene in the brothel, both men will have you in stitches. One prime example comes in the second scene where Ho Ching tries to get his merch back from Wang, only to run into a gang of disabled thieves known as the "Handicapped Devils". The one-liners are incredible:

Ho Ching: How come you use both arms?!

One Armed Handicapped Devil: I have to exercise both of them!

Ho Ching: You'll ruin your image!!

A good deal of Dirty Ho is the intertwining of witty slapstick with some elegant and spectacular martial arts. Yue's charming and precocious acting ability serves him very well here as "Dirty" Ho Ching, a thief who's nature inspires Prince 11 to take him under his wing. As Prince Wang, Gordon Liu keenly walks the line between being an effete jewelry merchant who loves wine and antiques and being someone who feels trapped by his lineage. In this way, he bonds with Ho Ching because he feels that he too is trapped in being someone he doesn't want to be. Their dialogue lays fine groundwork for the movie and some remarkable scenes. First, lets get back to the scene with Tsui Hung. Note that she takes quite a bit of punishment in the scene especially in her midsection. Kara Hui Ying-Hung, who'd go on to be an award-winning star in her own right, actually revealed in an interview on women martial arts stars that the particular scene needed more than one take. She had thrown up after the first one. In fact, it took close to FIFTY TAKES before getting the one you see in the film. Subterfuge reigns supreme as Ho Ching and Master Wang encounter baddies along the way, including an acrobatic showdown with recurring Shaw villain Johnny Wang Lung-Wei that will make your eyes pop out.

Dirty Ho is definitely one of those films I would recommend to anyone who's never seen a kung-fu flick before in their life. It's one of those movies that whenever I see it come on TV these days(thanks El Rey Network) that I will watch no matter what point it may be. If you've never seen it before, please remedy that. And if you want to see it again, it's now widely available thanks to Celestial Pictures right here and via YouTube.