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Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion, starring Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Shogun), is the most traditional of the four: Visually elegant and austere, it meticulously traces how a forced marriage leads to a family's collapse in a bloodbath. Repressed emotions erupt in honor-shattering violence as a father and son turn against the lord of their clan in the name of love. In the other three, the moviemaking itself reflects the upset in values. Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast follows an aimless ronin (a masterless warrior) who, pursuing gold, finds a new meaning in life as he battles killers from his own clan. "To hell with name and pride!" he shrieks in the first five minutes of the movie, mere seconds after a sexual dalliance in the underbrush. The story roars along, the visual style loose and dynamic, the characters far more gritty and rough than the stiff-backed soldiers of Samurai Rebellion.
Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy fairly explodes with spectacular action sequences and dynamic editing; the politics are almost impossible to follow, but the story rips along as a handsome spy navigates a treacherous war, musing about life and death when he's not engaged in acrobatic swordplay. The final film, Kihachi Okamoto's Kill!, is as outrageous as its title. From the opening scene of a starving ronin stumbling out of a howling dust storm, Kill! pushes the complexity of clan politics to absurd proportions and discards stylized duels in favor of realistically brutal and clumsy butchery, backed up with a startling surf guitar soundtrack. Black humor abounds as wildly eccentric characters--including Tatsuya Nakadai as a laconic, Robert-Mitchum-flavored ronin--scrabble for food, sex, and some shred of dignity in a ravaged landscape. All four films will be a revelation to anyone who thinks the samurai genre begins and ends with Kurosawa. Each is mesmerizing on its own; as a package, they're a potent education. Essential viewing. --Bret Fetzer