The first film with subtitles I ever saw, the first movie that I consciously knew was foreign, was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which probably says it all. I was sixteen. My mom had gone somewhere, probably out with my aunts, maybe a weekend excursion with some girl friends, and my younger brother was at a sleepover. When these absences occurred, my stepdad and I used the opportunities to treat ourselves to a VHS movie night with homemade popcorn (drizzled melted butter, just a dash of salt), perhaps a Piggie Pies Pizza from up on Mockingbird Avenue. That’s how I grew to love Ray Harryhausen movies—Jason and the Argonauts, in particular—and cheap 1950s SF films (Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly), because my stepfather had loved these as a kid himself.
I remember those nights fondly but nothing prepared me for Kurosawa. I think I groaned when Stepdad came home from Premiere Video (also on Mockingbird; everything cool in my East Dallas neighborhood was on Mockingbird or Greenville) with a three-hour, black-and-white, period movie that was gonna force me to read as I watched. But I think I had mentioned, pretentiously at the dinner table the week before, something about Star Wars being the greatest action movie of our time. Something like that—I’m sure I said it with the authority that comes only with being a teenager who knows far less about the world than he thinks he does, and who doesn’t even know about the existence of great swaths of the world in the first place. That was me regarding Japan, and regarding Japanese cinema.
Honestly, I’m not sure my stepfather had ever seen The Seven Samurai. But, unlike me with my ignorant over-confidence (and aren’t those two traits always combined?), he had heard about it. He knew of its influence. He had read about it. So, he rented it, with the aim of educating me and, perhaps, himself as well. Ten minutes in, I was hooked. Mesmerized, really. Kurosawa and crew create a vivid world, full of subtle social cues and broad gestures alike. These cues included plenty of stuff I missed, because of unfamiliarity with Japanese cultural norms and Japanese history, but because they were adult gestures—smutty jokes, sly asides, philosophical digressions, small talk about things I didn’t know enough to care about yet. For a shy black teenager, it showed that adulthood could be exciting and weird and could maintain its mystery, even—and maybe especially—during the quiet moments. And Kurosawa’s masterpiece is full of quiet moments, full of gradually building tension as it becomes clear what the stakes are for the villagers and the samurai alike, and how the odds are so stacked against both parties. The flood of fighting—with whip pans, a camera that seems to hurtle and lunge but somehow gracefully, with frenzied action and boiling blood—comes only in the last 30 minutes. Those last 30 minutes of destructive mayhem hurt, and caused my stepdad and I to still our breathing, because of the 120+ minutes beforehand of constructive world- and character-building.
The Seven Samurai isn’t a kids’ flick by any means but it is safe for children. Kurosawa, Mifune, and the rest create an adult world that a child can aspire toward. Last week, there was a silly Slate essay that told us we should be embarrassed to read YA literature. As dismissive as I was of the piece’s argument, I understand and halfway agree with its central concern, which is that YA literature all too often allows us to wallow in an adolescent—binary, melodramatic, narcissist—comprehension of the world without nudging us toward a more nuanced, complicating understanding of existence. Sometimes, I feel that YA novels capture perfectly the world of adolescence without suggesting that there are wilder, richer, more mysterious worlds beyond it. (Incidentally, I don’t think this is what J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. That septet reveals richer, and more adult, shades with every book. It truly is the tale of a coming of age.) Anyway, The Seven Samurai features a bunch of arrested adolescents—a good chunk of the samurai but Toshiro Mifune in particular—who become capable of saving the village only by learning to grow up and to care about more than their own selfish desires. (Which ain’t to say selfish desires aren’t important—just that they aren’t the only games in town.) It offers a path toward growth. I drank it up.
I was hardly alone. What is it with black folks and Bruce Lee? Bruce Lee, of course, is a stand-in here for any form of Asian action-oriented cinema—wuxia films, Shaw Brothers productions, yazuka movies, samurai movies from Kurosawa to Takashi Miike (whose 13 Assassins is a terrific, ferocious homage to The Seven Samurai). But, still, it was Bruce Lee specifically, too. The dude’s the epitome of cool for black folks, ranking up there alongside Shaft, Superfly, Questlove, Nina Simone, and Prince. By the time I’d gotten through college, I had noticed more than my share of African American fans of Jackie Chan. A little later, I saw Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers in packed movie houses that were 80% African American. I fell in love with anime series Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, both of which fuse African American culture with Japanese pop conventions. I’d seen Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a cinematic riff on samurai codes set in New York City, and starring a black samurai dealing with Italian gangsters, themselves weird stand-ins for Japanese yakuza figures.
Once you start looking, Afro-Asian cultural exchange and deep love is everywhere. W.E.B. Du Bois got some formative political ideas from Asia. Kanye West made a dope video that riffs on Akira. Paul Beatty’s Tuff features a roughneck black protagonist who’s deeply in love with Japanese cinema, enough so that he funds a tribute at a New York arthouse theater. RZA provides the most astute DVD commentary for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin possible. In fact, c’mon, there’s the entire existence of the Wu-Tang Clan. The backlists for hip-hop mail-order catalogs should probably be subsidized by the Chinese and Japanese film industries, in thanks for how much business black folks give to them.
What’s the appeal? Certainly, a lot of it goes back to 1955, when Asian, African, and Caribbean nations realized they had common political/cultural interests, and common enemies, too. (The Bandung Conference was a big-enough deal that Richard Wright wrote a book on it.) For me, it was about possibility. Here were colored folks who got to move with grace and beauty—to this day, martial-arts cinema remains my favorite form of dance and choreography. (Well, outside of a great basketball game, anyway.) Here were nonwhites who got to speak, act, and live in a broader range of experience than the binaries of thugs vs. Carltons, with action setpieces that were better-budgeted and better-conceptualized than, say, Foxy Brown’s grainy-shot clunkiness. In the other direction, maybe it is the seemingly freewheeled expressionism of black pop culture that appeals to the more regimented Japanese and Chinese folks alike. I dunno, and I hesitate to employ essentialist tactics about rigidity on cultures that produced Seijun Suzuki’s schizoid oeuvre, pink films, the madcap marvels of Stephen Chow, and the loose-limbed wonders of Lat’s comics.
Whatever it is, the samurai held me in his grasp. From The Seven Samurai, I found Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and then found Stan Sakai’s marvelous comic, Usagi Yojimbo. Swords, stoicism, silence, and a code to live (and die) by. That code was important, at a time (adolescence) that seemed to have no rules I could understand, and nothing that made sense from day to day. The possibility of death embedded in that code was significant, too, in that it gave me a needed dose of mortality during an age when I thought the world was limitless in its ability to press its thumb on me, and I was limitless in my self-absorption.
I grew away from samurai flicks, as I increasingly saw the samurai’s stoicism curdling into another kind of narcissism—the solitary individual, always at odds with society, always heroic for his iconoclasm. The more adult I became, the more pressed down by loneliness I became. I craved solitude less and less, and I saw the samurai as a figure who overly romanticizes his lack of connection to the world. I wanted to see the world, the communities, the networks, not some cool dude who adopted an aloof pose and dealt with life by the sword rather than by the heart.
I was being unkind and unfair. Recently, I’ve come back around to samurais.
For a few years now, Zatoichi has captivated me—in theory. Created by Kan Shimozawa, he’s a blind masseur, continually feeling up men for his job. He’s also the best, most feared swordsman in Edo-era Japan. The character inspired short stories and, significantly for me, over twenty films and a TV series during a two-decade period, worked over by a host of directors and crews but almost always portrayed by Shintaro Katsu. “Blind swordsman” seemed like a crazy concept but no crazier than Daredevil, one of my favorite superheroes. In terms of seriality and continuity, Zatoichi seemed like the Japanese version of James Bond.
And, just like I’m interested in the idea of James Bond but dislike the movies (and books), I kept Zatoichi off to the side. But he stayed in my head.
Back in November 2013, the Criterion Collection released a huge, gorgeous box set of the first 25 Zatoichi films. That intrigued me. Four months later, the company held a 50% fire sale, and I couldn’t resist. I’ve dug in, and enjoyed the sightless swordsman’s adventures more than I care to admit to. Some of the films are understated masterworks; others are diamonds in the rough; others are, um, just coals in the rough; others inspire me to mutter “WTF?” out loud. It’s amazing how such a singular character—again, played by the same great, charismatic actor—can inspire such wildly divergent visions. It amazes me how much difference can be wrought from the same basic narrative—“samurai wanders into troubled village; trouble indeed ensues.”
So, over the next however-long-it-takes, you’re going to see me wrestling with the filmic legacy of Zatoichi on this blog. My reviews will be impressionistic, maybe a little too formalist, maybe a little too personal, more cryptic than straightforward. They’ll driven by my whims that day, for I see—ha, funny word there—a lot of myself in Zatoichi. Well, I see enough to wrestle with, anyway. I hope you’ll wrestle alongside me.