Tuesday, December 22, 2009
ACF 441: Samurai Films by Roland Thorne
This book was one of those 'faith' purchases I make every now and then. It was 'recommended' by Amazon.com based on my other purchases of Asian film related books. Because the book seemed interesting and was reasonably priced, I decided to take a chance on it. While it has its faults, overall I'm quite happy I bought it and consider it a worthwhile addition to my collection.
Roland Thorne is a writer based in Australia and this is his first book. He rather broadly defines samurai films to include other Japanese swordplay movies. This is actually tipped off by the cover photo of Takeshi Katano in his 2003 version of 'Zatoichi,' which he both directed and starred in. Zatoichi is a blind masseur and, despite his visual handicap, a master swordsman, but he most definitely is not a samurai. Still, Thorne shouldn't be faulted for this decision, as he has picked terrific films to discuss, whether actually concerning samurai or considering swordspersons in general. Furthermore all his picks are readily available on DVD.
The first chapters briefly discuss the history of the samurai and of samurai films, some important directors, and a few of the major stars. The bulk of the book is devoted to actual reviews , and takes a chronological approach. Information about each film - including the Japanese title - is followed by sections devoted to plot summary, analysis, and a verdict of the films worthiness.
The writing at times is a bit repetitive, and Thorne has a tendency to overuse the phrases "worthy of mention, 'should be commended,' and variations of them. Also the images are somewhat disappointing: most of them appear to be screenshots that are not particularly sharp.
Occassionally his statements are rather questionnable, to say the least. For example, on page 23 he writes: “Beginning with the excellent Rashomon, Kurosawa made one classic film after the other, throughout the 1950s and 60s” [emphasis mine]. In fact, Kurosawa's next film after Rashomon was The Idiot (1951), which was a critical and box office failure. In Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote that if it hadn't been for the awards that he received for Rashomon, he would have had to "eat cold rice" because The Idiot would have seriously derailed his career. And several of his other post-Rashomon films, while worthwhile, are hardly deserving of being called "classics."
Still, Thorne writes about films that anyone interested in samurai or Japanese swordplay films should know about. I've seen almost all the films covered and I think he has done an essentially sound job in describing and discussing them. I learned a fair number of new things.
Samurai Films is a very worthwhile guide book for viewers new, or relatively new, to samurai and swordplay cinema. However, if you're already very knowledgeable, it may not be of particularly great value.