Wenn die Orte der Geschichte aus einer neuen Perspektive erzählt werden

Der Film Landscape of Resistance (2021) schildert das turbulente Leben der Serbin Sonja während einer der düstersten Episoden des europäischen Kontinentes. Mit nicht einmal 18 Jahren schloss sie sich dem serbischen Widerstand gegen die deutsche Besatzungsmacht während dem zweiten Weltkrieg an. Als überzeugte Kommunistin sah sie sich jedoch ebenfalls in der Pflicht, für ein stärkeres Demokratieverständnis einzutreten und setzte sich hierbei insbesondere für ein Wahlrecht für serbische Frauen ein, wobei sie versuchte bei diesen ein Bewusstsein zu schaffen, warum deren politische Partizipation so wichtig sei. Gleichzeitig er- und überlebte Sonja die von den Nationalsozialisten begangenen Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit, wurde sie doch von diesen gefangen genommen und nach Ausschwitz deportiert. Doch auch dieser Ort des Schreckens schaffte es nicht, ihren Willen zu brechen, zettelte sie doch nicht nur einen erfolgreichen Aufstand an, sondern es gelang ihr sogar die Flucht. Diese unglaubliche Lebensgeschichte erzählt sie als betagte Dame ihrer Großnichte, welche ebenfalls die Drehbuchautorin war, vor einer Kamera. Aus diesem Bildmaterial schuf die Regisseurin, Marta Popidova, einen experimentellen historisch-biographischen Dokumentarfilm: Landscapes of Resistance. Der Film überzeugt nicht nur mit einer äußerst persönlichen und berührenden Schilderung, sondern eröffnet eine feminine Sicht auf die Ereignisse des zweiten Weltkrieges, welche normalerweise aus einer hauptsächlich männlichen Perspektive betrachtet werden. Dabei gelingt es dem Film eindrucksvoll ein Beispiel einer Heldin aus dem kollektiven Gedächtnis festzuhalten und gleichzeitig die Rolle und den Einfluss von Frauen, welche in der Geschichtsschreibung noch häufig heruntergespielt und marginalisiert werden, zu betonen.
Marta Popidova (1982) ist eine Filmregisseurin, Content Creator, Forscherin und feministische Aktivistin aus Serbien, deren Filme bereits auf der 63sten Berlinale aufgeführt wurden und nun sogar Bestandteil der permanenten Sammlung im Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York sind. Die junge Künstlerin engagiert sich für den politischen Kampf gegen Diktaturen und Totalitarismen und setzt sich insbesondere damit auseinander, wie sich dieser im Alltag äußert. Diese Grundeinstellung zieht sich durch den Film Landscape of Resistance und wird durch das Einnehmen dieser neuen, femininen Perspektive auf die zeitgenössische Geschichte Serbiens sehr gut veranschaulicht. Um neue Aspekte zu der (Herren-) Geschichte hinzuzufügen, greift Popidova auf Sonja als eine Symbolfigur für Mut, Unabhängigkeit und Selbstbestimmung zurück, welche mit Recht als Vorbild für Emanzipation von Frauen gelten kann. Die Großaufnahmen der Protagonistin selbst werden sparsam, aber dadurch umso wirkungsvoller eingesetzt. Während des Interviews mit ihrer Großnichte werden mithilfe von Ausschnitten Details von Sonjas Wohnung, ihrer Katze und auch von Sonjas Körper gezeigt, womit die Aufmerksamkeit auf normalerweise vernachlässigte Aspekte gelenkt wird, wobei dem Publikum neue und versteckte Perspektiven nähergebracht werden.

Mithilfe der innovativen Nutzung des Kontrastes zwischen Detail und Supertotale in den Aufnahmen gelingt es der Regisseurin die Spannung zwischen den individuellen und kollektiven Körpern greifbar zu machen, wobei auch die temporale Komponente betont wird. Die Darstellung von Sonjas Figur und den gezeigten Orten der Geschichte erlaubt es, ihre Erzählung so hautnah erlebbar wie möglich zu machen, auch wenn das Erlebte der Protagonisten teilweise wie Fiktion anmutet. Die Landschaften werden durch kubistische Abbildungen überlappt, welche eine Parallele zur Kunst aus der Zeit Sonjas erzeugen und es somit schaffen, diese Örtlichkeiten des Widerstands, trotz deren Verwandlung durch die Zeit, vor dem Vergessen zu bewahren.
Dem Dokumentarfilm gelingt es, die Erzählung einer Heldin darzustellen und diese mit den Ansätzen Walter Benjamins zu verknüpfen, wobei die Abweichungen zu der offiziellen Geschichtsschreibung mithilfe der Visualisierung von Denkmälern dargestellt wird. Hierbei schafft es Marta Popidova auch, elegant eine Brücke zwischen der Vergangenheit und der Gegenwart zu bauen. Weiter weckt der Film die Neugier auf weitere, noch nicht erzählte Geschichten aus der Vergangenheit, welche das politische Selbstverständnis und Bewusstsein bis heute prägen.
Der Film Landscape of Resistance schafft es mithilfe des Beispiels von Sonja die vielen kleinen Helden und Heldinnen sichtbar zu machen, welche zwar für jeden erfolgreichen Widerstand gegen ein Regime bitter nötig sind, für gewöhnlich jedoch in den Chroniken der Geschichte einfach übersehen werden.

Eleonora Bonazzi

The_Rickshaw_Man_(1943)

by Andrea Grunert

Inagaki Hiroshi’s The Rickshaw Man (Muhō Matsu no isshō, 1958) was the second Japanese film after Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon (1950) to win a Golden Lion at the International Film Festival in Venice. Inagaki’s film is the remake of an eponymous film he had directed in 1943. The screenplay was written by Itami Mansaku (1), an eminent figure of Japanese pre-war cinema, and it is the adaptation of a novel by Iwashita Shunsaku (2).
Remakes are not at all unusual in Japanese cinema (3), and the fate of The Rickshaw Man, made during the war, could be an additional explanation for Inagaki’s decision. About ten minutes of the original film had to be cut to satisfy the requirements of the Japanese censors and an additional eight minutes to satisfy those of their Allied counterparts during the occupation of Japan. These eighteen minutes are irrevocably lost. Very recently, Miyajima Masahiro, the long-time assistant of Miyagawa Kazuo, who was the director of photography for the first Rickshaw Man, devoted himself to the restoration of the original film. The release of this restored version together with the film from 1958 on DVD and Blu-ray by Carlotta Films in France in spring 2022 (4) represents a good opportunity to have a closer look at these two films made at different points in Japanese history.

Similarities
Inagaki’s remake bears strong resemblances to the original. The setting of both films is the town of Kokura, located in the north of the island Kyushu, and the action starts in 1897 and takes place largely in the two first decades of the 20th century. The Rickshaw Man tells the story of Matsugoro, called Matsu, a rickshaw man who helps the widow of a young officer to bring up her son. Two stars of the Japanese cinema of their time are cast as Matsugoro: Bandō Tsumasaburō plays the role in the first film and Mifune Toshirō in the second. Yoshioka Yoshiko, the officer’s widow, is played by Sonoi Keiko in the original film, and in the remake by a big female star of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, Takamine Hideko (5).
There are many narrative and visual similarities between the original film and its remake. Among the sequences in both films is one in which Matsugoro repairs little Yoshioka Toshio’s kite. Having spotted the child crying in the middle of the street over his broken toy, Matsugoro leaves his rickshaw to come to the boy’s aid. While he is busy with the kite and trying to comfort Toshio, the passenger in the abandoned rickshaw starts making desperate gestures and movements to attract the rickshaw man’s attention. However, the sequences are filmed in a slightly different manner. In the earlier film, Inagaki uses a series of shots showing Matsugoro and the boy in the foreground and the passenger in the background or cutting from the latter to Matsugoro and Toshio. In the remake, filmed in widescreen, the sequence is presented as a general shot in which the passenger remains a tiny figure in the background. Nevertheless, the actor’s clownish, slapstick-like performance is obvious to the viewer.
This scene combines sentimentalism and comedy, realism and theatricality, which are powerful ingredients of both films. The scene is also crucial for the portrait of the main character as a troublemaker with a heart of gold and for the development he undergoes. Matsugoro is known as “Matsu, the Untamed” because he likes a fight and, in spite of his low social status, dares to challenge authority. The fact that he abandons his passenger without saying a word in order to help Toshio is a further indication of his self-confidence, and this sequence also highlights Matsugoro’s eagerness to help and his genuine feelings for the child.
At the beginning of both films, Matsugoro is a rather unruly man, as suggested by his nickname – a querulous loudmouth with a propensity for alcohol. Bandō’s and Mifune’s exaggerated gestures, broad smiles and hearty laugh underline how much he is a larger-than-life figure. Both actors create a number of strong comic and entertaining moments in which Matsugoro contributes an element of burlesque, something that the abandoned passenger does in the kite scene. In the course of the film, Matsugoro becomes quieter as if his relationship with the boy and his mother gradually tames him. He tries to adapt to their more refined manners, shown for example in the sequence at the sports festival when Matsugoro at first vociferously encourages the athletes. Understanding that young Toshio is embarrassed by his behaviour, he starts to calm down, and as Toshio and Yoshiko increasingly become the focus of his life, he takes on the role of a surrogate father for the boy.

The Matsugoro figure
A rickshaw man ranked at the very bottom of the social hierarchy in Meiji Japan (1868-1912). However, although a lowly rickshaw man, Matsugoro is depicted as a model of manhood and is idealized as a caring and honourable human being. After his death, Yoshiko discovers that Matsugoro has not spent one yen of the money she gave him in return for various services for her and her son. Instead, he has put it in a bank account opened in her and Toshio’s name.
Young Toshio is a rather shy and not very courageous boy, something of a crybaby, but Matsugoro succeeds in imbuing him with his (Matsugoro’s) self-confidence. The incarnation of manliness, Matsugoro helps Toshio to overcome his shyness, considered in Japan to be a feminine quality. The boy admires Matsugoro after the latter has won the race during the sports festival, a sequence during which it emerges that Matsugoro is illiterate. However, it also reveals his intelligence as Matsugoro does not win the 500 metres because of his physical strength or stamina but because he employed the right tactics. The editing in both films establishes the strong link between the boy and the man and also makes clear the pedagogical purpose behind Matsugoro’s participation in the race. Although Toshio was at first embarrassed by Matsugoro’s anything but restrained behaviour, he overcomes his shyness and starts cheering him on loudly.
Matsugoro inspires courage in the boy and, by extension, establishes values for a nation at war in 1943. Moreover, he represents a traditional Japan already relegated to the past, being the only one still capable of beating out the rhythm on the big drum at the Gion Festival (6) in the time-honoured exceptionally fast way. Unlike the younger man he replaces as drummer, Matsugoro does not complain about calloused hands, and he beats the drum almost frantically as he increases to a breathtaking speed.

Differences
As well as the difference in running time (7) and the fact that the original is shot in black and white and the remake in colour, there are numerous other differences between the two versions. In the 1958 film, the inhabitants of Kokura celebrate the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904/05). This brief sequence and other references to this war are not in the surviving copy of the original film. The American censors did not want any reference to the topic of war and especially not to a war the Japanese won and which was used as an important reference in the country’s wartime propaganda during World War II (8).
In the 1943 version of The Rickshaw Man, there is only one allusion to the fact that Matsugoro’s is illiterate, but in the remake, he mentions himself that he never went to school but that for reasons he cannot explain he feels attracted to this educational institution. He is shown observing Toshio in his classroom from outside the school building, and he learns the songs the pupils sing. “School” as an important topic in this second version of The Rickshaw Man was added to the script by Inagaki. One explanation could be that Inagaki himself came from a poor family and had not been able to attend school for long but expressed a great love of and respect for education (9).
Both films show Matsugoro’s slow deterioration as Toshio becomes older and less dependent on him. He is embarrassed when the rickshaw man calls him “son” in public and prefers to ignore him. And although his mother scolds Toshio for being ashamed of any connection to Matsugoro, she nevertheless asks the old rickshaw man to call her son “Mr. Yoshioka” from now on.
Matsugoro not only grows older but also starts drinking again. It seems likely that he dies of a heart attack related to his alcohol consumption, but the films deal with Matsugoro’s death in different ways. However, in both there is a kaleidoscopic series of shots revealing images that flash through Matsugoro’s mind before he dies, images of the most important events in his life. In the earlier film, this dreamlike sequence is followed by the shot of a wintry landscape and a sequence at an inn during which Matsugoro’s death is referred to in a dialogue. In the later version, Inagaki dwells on Matsugoro’s body and face, ravaged by age and heavy drinking, and shows his lonely death. Clutching a bottle, the drunken rickshaw man staggers across a snow-covered landscape and suddenly stumbles, putting his hand to his chest (10).
This different approach to Matsugoro’s death changes the way the film’s portrayal of idealized masculinity is to be understood. Just as the traditional drumming style has been replaced by new and less vigorous rhythms, Matsugoro too stands for a vanishing ideal. In both films, he is depicted as an anachronism, and the innocence he shared with Toshio when the latter was still a little boy has gone for Toshio too. Now a young man and a student but no longer living in Kokura, he has been polluted by the modern world and has lost his natural innocence, which, of course, is the fate of all human beings when they grow up. Against the background of wartime propaganda, it was not desirable to show in detail Matsugoro’s physical and psychological decline, and thus in 1943, the ideal of manliness, even if only in a weakened form imbued with nostalgia, had to be preserved.
Both films start with shots of children playing happily in the street. The original film’s last shot once again shows children playing in the street, and children can be seen as symbols of the future and as a reference to the circle of life. In the remake, the final shot is of an almost deserted street with only a water bearer and a stray dog as well as the empty rickshaw in the foreground. This is a clear indication that Matsugoro now belongs to the past, having no place in a society undergoing rapid transformation – the situation during the Meiji Period as well as in post-war Japan in the 1950s.
Most of the cuts required by the Japanese censors had to do with Matsugoro’s feelings for Yoshiko. Although the lowly rickshaw man is presented as a heroic figure, it was not permissible to show a relationship – even a platonic one – between two people from different social classes (11). The widow of an officer had to remain devoted to the memory of her late husband and fulfil the role of the ideal woman – that of a mother. In both films, sexual abstinence is an almost necessary element in the low-born protagonist’s development to become a tragic hero, the kind of hero so greatly venerated throughout Japanese cultural history (12). The male ideal Matsugoro evokes is inspired by the idea of purity and is closely linked to the ideal of the samurai as a heroic figure imbued with purity that was promulgated by the Japanese military regime during World War II. Matsugoro is the idealized hero with only pure thoughts, upholding values such as courage, honesty, loyalty and benevolence, which were attributed to the samurai in the Hagakure (13). He demonstrates that an ordinary present-day man can be as noble as the idealized warriors of ancient times.
Both films depict Matsugoro as a man who enjoys life and whose innocence has a childlike quality. In the original version, there are a few hints created by the mise en scène, editing and acting that cast doubt on Matsugoro’s purity by alluding to his longing for Yoshiko. In one sequence, Matsugoro is an old man drinking in a pub. Turning his back to the camera, a slight movement of his head suggests that he is looking at something in front of him. The camera advances, revealing what has attracted his gaze. It is an advertisement poster showing an attractive young woman. After a cut, the camera switches from the poster, which now hangs outside Matsugoro’s lodgings, to Yoshiko, who is paying him a visit to ask for his help. Camera movements and editing establish a link between Matsugoro’s interest in the woman on the poster and Yoshiko, the true object of his desire.
The 1958 film puts far more emphasis on the poster without the subtle combination of camera movement and editing and approaching the topic of desire not only through visual means but in the dialogue as well. Matsugoro even tries to hide from Yoshiko, who is a symbol of the decent woman and of the female ideal as a mother that was still in vogue in the late 1950s. His desire and his true feelings for the widow are made explicit when, deeply ashamed, Matsugoro confesses to Yoshiko “Excuse me. I have had impure thoughts” before leaving her hastily never to return. This deepening of psychological aspects is supported by Mifune Toshirō’s sensitive acting and creates an overwhelming feeling of sadness.

The experimental character of the two films
The film dating from 1958 contains longer dialogue sequences and puts more emphasis on the story’s human dimension, allowing for more development of the central character. However, the chronology of the story and the realism of the photography are challenged in both versions by optical effects, camera movements and editing. Dizzying camera  pans in the Gion Festival sequence interspersed with shots of the pounding surf and of clouds are features of both films, supporting the growing intensity of the drumming. And in both films, shots of the rotating wheels of the rickshaw punctuate the action, their decreasing speed indicating the passage of time.
The experimental character created by various mise en scène and optical devices culminates in the original film in a series of shots that reveal images passing through the dying Matsugoro’s mind – Matsugoro dancing happily amidst a group of children, shots of fireworks and a lantern parade, shots of balloons and flowers, recurring images of rickshaws, and also shots of the sports festival and the Gion Festival as already seen in the film. There is a similar series of shots in the second film in which these images appear as photographic negatives, thereby distinguishing them from reality. However, the shots of Yoshiko and Toshio in this sequence are not negatives, and this underlines their importance for Matsugoro (14). It is significant that in both films the dying Matsugoro recalls Toshio as a child and not as the young man who became estranged from him. Also significant is the fact that Matsugoro recalls the happy moments in his life, a further allusion to the protagonist’s positive world view.
The 1943 version is dominated by Miyagawa Kazuo’s exquisite black-and-white photography (15), evoking the light and shadow aesthetics of expressionist cinema of the 1920. This is in particular the case in the flashback during which Matsugoro as a young child is walking in a forest at night. The uncanny apparitions that frightens him are produced mainly by nature itself, supported by lighting, camera movements and optical effects that distort the dark branches. Occasionally, white phantom-like figures appear behind the trees, further manifestations of the boy’s fears. A similarly filmed and no less effective sequence occurs in the colour film, but here Inagaki places more emphasis on the physical appearance of the phantom figures.
The rhythm of the longer later version from 1958 necessarily differs from that of the censored original, and as a result, the experimental nature of some of the shots is more obvious in the original film, imbuing it with a highly poetic character. Here, Inagaki relies more on visual devices – elegant camera work and editing – than in the remake. Complex editing and camera movements create a link between Toshio and Matsugoro during the race, with shots of the boy’s face or his hands clutching Matsugoro’s jacket sufficing to reveal the boy’s growing excitement. In the later film, Toshio also voices his excitement and ultimate pride in Matsugoro’s victory in a dialogue, sharing his feelings with his mother.

Inagaki’s humanistic view
Bandō and Mifune contribute significantly to the rich portrait of the main character. Throughout their careers, both actors played rebellious men in conflict with authority (16). Especially at the beginning of the film, Mifune pays tribute to Bandō, imitating his exaggerated gestures and in the race scene adopting Bandō’s running style. However, Mifune’s facial expressions are more vivid than Bandō’s and he is more agile, employing the very fast changes of mood and expression for which Mifune was uniquely famous in Japanese cinema of the post-war period. However, he is much more the focus in many of the sequences, picked out by framing and camera position and given more opportunities for creativity.
For the director, political pressure during the war years may have helped to trigger creativity since mere allusions can be more telling than words. The scene mentioned above with the poster is an important example in the 1943 film of the subtlety of Inagaki’s mise en scène and Bandō’s acting. Matsugoro comes out of his lodgings to greet Yoshiko. He veers towards the wall where the poster hangs almost imperceptibly but sufficiently to indicate that he is trying to block the woman on the poster from Yoshiko’s view.
The original film reflects the ethics and ideals of the wartime government but without being a chauvinistic propaganda film. On the contrary, it is a very personal and even cheerful film. Its compassionate portrayal of an ordinary man who enjoys life and who has tender feelings for the widow of an officer could have been rejected outright as “unpatriotic” by the Japanese censors. The remake is no less warm-hearted, underlining Inagaki’s interest in outcasts and the hardship that people endure. The experimental elements that could have been a thorn in the side of the wartime censors are preserved in the later version made under the restrictions of studio policy, which meant economic rather than political pressure.

Rickshaw-Man

Notes
(1) Itami Mansaku is one of the Japanese writers/directors who in the 1930s used jidai geki (period films) as a medium to express social criticism. The Rickshaw Man was not his first collaboration with Inagaki. Itami had already written the screenplay for Inagaki’s directorial debut Tenka Taiheki and for another film by Inagaki, Hōrō zanmai, both released in 1928. Itami died in 1946, and in 1948, Inagaki adapted a screenplay written by him for the film Children Hand in Hand (Te o tsunagu kōra).
(2) The novel written by Iwashita Shunsaku, an employee of the Yahata Iron Works in Kyushu, had been nominated for the prestigious Naoki Prize.
(3) Another remake of The Rickshaw Man based on Itami’s script was directed by Misumi Kenji in 1965. Katsu Shintarō, a star of Japanese cinema in the 1960s, plays the main character. In the adaptation of Iwashita’s story by Itō Daisuke in 1964, Mikuni Rentarō was cast in the leading role. Both Inagaki and Itami were Itō’s assistants in the 1920s.
(4) https://laboutique.carlottafilms.com/products/lhomme-au-pousse-pousse-de-hiroshi-inagaki
(5) Sonoi Keiko, who made only a few appearances on screen, was famous as a member of the all-female Takarazuka Revue, which performed musicals. She died on 21 August 1945 as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Takamine Hideko played her first role in a film in 1929 at the age of five. Throughout her long career, which spanned over fifty years, she worked with some of the greatest Japanese directors, including Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō, and she is known in particular for her collaboration with the two famous directors Naruse Mikio and Kinoshita Keisuke.
(6) Kokura’s Gion Festival takes place over three days in mid-July. It is a drumming festival in which the participants parade through the town with drums attached to floats. The drumming is supposed to express wishes for peace, good luck in business etc.
(7) On the Carlotta Films DVD and Blu-ray, the original film has a running time of 1:19 and the remake one of 1:43.
(8) The celebration of victory with fireworks and a lantern parade was cut in accordance with the requirements of the American censors. However, shots of fireworks and of lanterns still form part of the sequence showing Matsugoro’s dream at the end of the film in which the important moments in his life reappear.
(9) There are other correspondences with Inagaki’s own life. Like Matsugoro, Inagaki had an unloving stepmother, who even abused him. See the interview with Inagaki’s son Yōzō in the bonus feature included in the Carlotta Films release of Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi Trilogy, 2021.

(10) In both films, Matsugoro says that his father was a drunkard who died from a heart attack and that he is afraid that he will share the same fate.

(11) In Obayashi Nobuhiko’s last film Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), a theatre group performs scenes from The Rickshaw Man and is ordered by a member of the kempeitai, the military police, to stop the performance because the play is considered to contain “anti-war ideology”. The member of the kempeitai explains that it is unpatriotic for a rickshaw man to fall in love with a widow.

(12) See Ivan I. Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan, London, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

(13) The Hagakure is a collection of comments by Saga domain retainer Yamamoto Tsunetomo published in the early 18th century and considered a practical and spiritual guide for samurai at that time. Almost forgotten for two centuries, it achieved renewed prominence during the war years. It also inspired Mishima Yukio, who commented on it in his critical essay Hagakure nyūmon, published in 1967. See for the first English edition Mishima, Yukio, Hagakure: Samurai Ethics in Modern Japan, London, Penguin, 1979.

(14) In the original film, Yoshiko and her son appear as mere silhouettes.

(15) Miyajima Masahiro states: “I think that The Rickshaw Man was the matrix for all his [Miyagawa Kazuo’s] great films.” This view is confirmed by Miyagawa himself in an interview that can be found together with Miyajima’s statement in the bonus feature on the Carlotta Films release of The Rickshaw Man.

(16) Bandō, one of the most popular actors of the late 1920s and the 1930s, became famous for his interpretations of nihilist samurai, for example in Futagawa Buntarō’s Orochi (1925). Before The Rickshaw Man, he starred in three other films by Inagaki, working with him afterwards a further three times. Mifune started his long collaboration with Inagaki in 1950 and was cast in twenty-one of his films, including Inagaki’s final work for the silver screen, Machibuse (1970). A comparison between the acting style of these two actors and the different mise en scène devices used to support their performances is a possible topic for a future article.

Koyata-01

by Andrea Grunert

Miike Takashi’s (1) 13 Assassins (Jūsan-nin no shikaku, Japan, 2010) is a remake of the eponymous film by Kudo Eiichi released in 1963. When I first watched it, I was struck by the number and variety of references to film history. Having stated that and to prevent possible misunderstandings, let me emphasize that Miike’s film is an important work in its own right in which the director develops a clear perspective on loyalty, social justice and individual choice. Moreover, the film’s intertextual dimension – an aspect absent in Kudo’s film as well as in an earlier remake for Fuji Television by Tominaga Takuji in 1990 – contributes to its rich signification. Adding another layer of meaning, it reinforces the director’s critical approach to misinterpretations of bushidō – the way of the warrior – and the values that are commonly associated with it, especially loyalty and honour.
One of the most obvious references to masterpieces of Japanese cinema is established by the figure Kiga Koyata, who shares numerous character traits with Kikuchiyo, the would-be samurai in Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954). This article focuses on Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins and explores the similarities and differences between Koyata and Kikuchiyo, referring also to the performances by the actors who play Koyata and Kikuchiyo: namely Iseya Yūsuke and Mifune Toshirō respectively.

Rebellious characters
The action of 13 Assassins is set in 1844, twenty-four years before the end of the shogunate and the rule of the samurai. A group of samurai, led by Shimada Shinzaemon (Yakusho Kōji), is entrusted with a mission to kill the sadistic Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Inagaki Gorō) in order to prevent his appointment to the Council of Elders (2), which would make him one of the most powerful men in Japan after the shogun. The ruthless Naritsugu, portrayed as the embodiment of evil, is protected by law and must therefore be eliminated in a clandestine operation. In a small village that they have transformed into a killing field, Shinzaemon and twelve comrades-in-arms face Naritsugu and his escort of 200 samurai (3). Eleven of the men who have joined Shinzaemon’s fight for social justice are samurai or ronin (masterless samurai). When they lose their way in the mountains, they meet the hunter Koyata, who becomes the 13st assassin.
The plot, many of the characters and numerous details in Miike’s 13 Assassins – with a filmscript written by Tengan Daisuke – scrupulously follow Kudo’s original, a film based on a screenplay by Ikegami Kaneo, who was also the scriptwriter for Tominaga’s television film. All three 13 Assassins films start with the seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) of one of Naritsugu’s retainers, and some of the shots in this opening sequence of Miike’s film are almost identical with the first shots in Kudo’s 13 Assassins. The lighting is particularly exquisite in both films, with Miike exploring the contrast between light and shade in a colour film rather than Kudo’s black and white original. Miike’s approach to violence is more realistic, and in the long, final battle scene, the combatants are covered in blood and mud, limbs are cut off, and the burning village is strewn with the dead bodies of men and horses (4).
One main difference between the three films is in the character Kiga Koyata. In Kudo’s film, his first appearance is when Shinzaemon’s nephew meets him in the village in which the fight against Naritsugu is going to take place. Koyata (Yamashiro Shingo) calls himself a “peasant samurai“, a samurai of peasant stock, but the village headman expresses doubts about his samurai ancestry. Koyata has only a minor role in this film, mainly two dialogue sequences, during the second of which he is admitted to Shinzaemon’s group of samurai. In the television film from 1990, Koyata has an even smaller role as a samurai who joins Shinzaemon’s “band of assassins” before their departure from Edo (present-day Tokyo) to the village in the mountains. In this minor supporting role, he has hardly any individual features.
In Miike’s film, Kiga Koyata is a much more complex and even mysterious character and, a key figure in the film’s treatment of individual action. Koyata is a hunter but claims to be the descendant of samurai, which explains why he has a surname. In the strict class system of Japanese society ruled by samurai, only the members of this warrior class had the right to a family name. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai however, Kikuchiyo, the seventh samurai, is a peasant who pretends to be a samurai. He stubbornly follows Kanbei, an elderly samurai (Shimura Takashi) who is recruiting fellow samurai to protect a village from a group of bandits. At first rejected by Kanbei, Kikuchiyo is ultimately accepted as a member of the group. Similarly, in Miike’s film Koyata is initially not permitted to join Shinzaemon and his samurai. Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokurō (Yamada Takeyuki) in particular continues to treat Koyata as an outcast, advising him to return to the mountains because he does not belong to the warrior class.
Miike and also Kurosawa in Seven Samurai frequently highlight the topic of social class difference. In Seven Samurai, Kikuchiyo catches a fish with his bare hands and shows his catch triumphantly to Kanbei and the six samurai, who watch him from up on a rock. However, he does not join the others, and he eats his fish alone. In Miike’s film, Koyata kills a rabbit with his weapon, which is a kind of sling. Even though they are exhausted after their trek through the unknown and hostile mountain region, the samurai turn up their noses at the food, saying that they have more important things to do than to eat. Koyata’s reply “Is there anything more important?” reveals that he does not understand their attitude, which is based on the samurai ethic of frugality. These samurai are no longer warriors but live as bureaucrats in Edo (5), whereas the young hunter leads a life fraught with danger, as is revealed by the many scars on his body and the fact that one of his ears has been half ripped off by a bear.
Both Kikuchiyo and Koyata are depicted as rather unsophisticated characters and closer to nature than the samurai, who are prisoners of their social class. Kikuchiyo understands the mentality of his fellow peasants and succeeds in persuading them to leave their houses, where they are hiding in fear of Kanbei and the other samurai and unaware that they are not bandits. He also gives a helping hand during the harvest while the samurai, not used to such manual work, are just bystanders. Koyata is familiar with the forest in which Shinzaemon and his men lose their way and is quite at home in such terrain, but the samurai are disgusted by the leeches that cling to their skin and are soon exhausted by their trek through the dense and humid forest of the mountain region.
The unsophisticated aspect of the two characters is also suggested by their undisguised sexuality. Kikuchiyo expresses carnal desire while observing the village’s women arriving for the wheat harvest (“Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?”), his body language clearly revealing his excitement. Kudo’s 13 Assassins has a romantic love element with Koyata eager to join Shinzaemon’s men to prove his manhood and courage in order to win the hand of the village headman’s daughter (6). In Miike’s film, the twelve samurai find Koyata suspended from a tree in a net, put there as punishment for having coveted his boss’s wife. Moreover, Koyata is obsessed by Upashi, the woman he loves. Later in the film, he talks repeatedly about Upashi, in a daydream he has a vision of her, and at the end of the film, his only wish is to be reunited with this woman of his dreams.
Rebelliousness is a key characteristic of both Kikuchiyo and Koyata, and Koyata in Miike’s 13 Assassins is as untamed and rebellious as Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In one scene, Koyata provokes one of the samurai by putting a live insect in his mouth, and although Kikuchiyo has ambitions of becoming a samurai, in one long monologue scene he accuses the warrior class of exploiting the peasantry. Koyata refers to his samurai ancestry, but he nevertheless criticizes the warrior class, calling the samurai arrogant and inefficient. When Naritsugu’s swordsman Kitō Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika) says to him: “You are not a samurai”, Koyata replies that this fight is a fight between good-for-nothings, adding: “Samurai or not. Good-for-nothings stay good-for-nothings.” (7)

Flamboyant characters and extravagant acting style
Koyata and Kikuchiyo are both flamboyant figures, a character trait reinforced by Mifune’s and Iseya’s strong performances. Their acting is highly expressive and entirely appropriate to the rather wild and adventurous characters they play. Mifune’s energetic style contributes significantly to the portrayal of a character who, unlike the samurai, does not hide his emotions. Kikuchiyo’s exuberant gesturing and jumping, and his roaring laughter “present him as a true force of nature displaying life’s most elemental features.” (8). Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, who explore the potential relationship between Seven Samurai and Japanese theatrical traditions, especially Nō theatre, write: “Kikuchiyo’s performance when interacting with the villagers reminds of a kyōgen figure who belongs to a realm of ‚humorous, stylized, theatrical representation‘ that illuminates ‚truth under the veil of the joke’” (9). Kikuchiyo has sounded the alarm to lure the villagers out of their houses, where they are hiding instead of welcoming the group of samurai who have come to protect them. The panic that his ruse creates delights the would-be samurai, who struts like a peacock, laughing, pulling faces and mimicking the peasants’ fear. His whole body is involved, creating a stark contrast to the restrained behaviour of the samurai.
Koyata, who hops rather than walks, in Miike’s 13 Assassins, gives a performance reminiscent of Mifune’s extravagant acting in Seven Samurai, Iseya’s acting style being an example of the intertext that Miike creates between his film and Kurosawa’s (10). Rather like Mifune’s, Iseya’s acting style is marked by movement. Wild gesturing and loud screaming emphasize that Koyata is a very emotional character, and parallel editing shows Shinzaemon and his eleven comrades discussing their strategy while Koyata moves around restlessly next door, then lies down on a bundle of straw, the expression on his face betraying the inner turmoil stirred up by his wish to join the samurai.
As with Kikuchiyo, Koyata’s body and his body language are constant markers of social class difference. Living in the forest and fighting wild animals, Koyata is presented almost as a savage, even if he is outraged when treated as one. His body is not only covered in scars, his face and chest are also blackened with dirt, making his eyes look even wilder. Make-up and also the way Iseya uses his gaze and his whole body to express feelings contribute to his portrayal of a multifaceted character. Face and body express his concentration – his keen eyes are those of an intelligent man who is curious about the world. In one sequence in the woods, Koyata, sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, communicates only with his eyes and his body. His face and body language express his disdain for the samurai who, at the end of their tether, are simply unable to see the path in the forest, even though it is right in front of them.
Kikuchiyo develops from a braggart looking for glory and adventure to a valid member of the group of samurai and a man prepared to fight for social justice. He inspires his fellow combatants and the villagers to continue their fight after the death of the first of the “seven samurai”. In the sequence in which he saves a baby, he reveals his own traumatic past. Bursting into tears, he stammers: “This baby. This is me. This is what happened to me.” When he arrives in the village, this peasant turned samurai states: “No way I’m gonna die in that dung heap.” However, it is there that he dies, face down in the mud, a wretched end for this man so full of life.
Kikuchiyo achieves what Kurosawa considered the highest samurai ideal – selflessness. However, Koyata, who like Kikuchiyo is eager to live out an adventure to the full, does not undergo any change. His only wish at the end of the film is to return to his beloved Upashi. The destruction around him – the village in ruins, dead bodies scattered everywhere in the smoking debris – does not affect him at all. He joins Shinzaemon’s group for his own sake, stating with sparkling eyes during the fierce battle: “I did not know that playing samurai is so enjoyable.” When Hanbei tells him a little later that the battle is over, Koyata replies: “How boring”, a sentiment underlined by the sullen look on his face.

Koyata, a superhuman being
Iseya plays Koyata as a carefree young man who enjoys the horrors of the battle. The fact that he does not undergo any emotional change can be explained by his ambivalent narrative status, his closeness to nature implying some kind of connection with the supernatural. On his first screen appearance, the samurai ask Koyata: “Are you a savage or a ghost?”, assumptions that Koyata angrily denies. However, his prowess with the sling he uses rather than a sword is extraordinary (11). Stabbed by Hanbei during the battle and his neck pierced by Naritsugu’s sword, Koyata is apparently dead. However, he reappears after the battle as if nothing has happened, jumping about joyfully in the ruins. “Are you immortal?” asks the surprised Shinrokurō.
The samurai’s journey through the mountains figures neither in Kudo’s nor in Tominaga’s film. The forest, filmed in bird’s-eye shots, is presented as an almost impenetrable natural environment. In other shots, the shroud of mist on the mountain landscape creates a feeling of mystery, and the mountains themselves are described as “full of gifts” for mankind but also as a threatening, haunted place that evokes fears of dangers and gives rise to superstitions about ghosts and demons. The eerie atmosphere makes nature seem like a more-than-human world, a liminal space in which the impish Koyata, his face smeared with dirt, might well be a ghost. His sudden reappearance after the battle implies some kind of reincarnation, supporting the idea that he is not simply human, and this link to a supernatural world is also suggested in a daydream he has about his beloved Upashi in which she is eating a fleshy and bloody substance she has taken out of her body and which could be a foetus.
Koyata’s miraculous reappearance, however, is not devoid of irony and can be seen as a reference to the larger-than-life figure Mifune plays in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 1961) and to that protagonist’s mock resurrection. Seriously injured, the yojimbo hides in a coffin to escape from his enemies and he is considered dead. However, he heals his wounds and returns to purge the village of crime and corruption. In both films, this resurrection motif is used in an ironic rather than mystical way but in the framework of a realistic tale (12).

The importance of individual choice
In many ways, Koyata is the opposite of the devilish Naritsugu. The contrast is established by their dress and appearance – the lord wearing white or cream-coloured elegant garments, the hunter clad in black rags. Naritsugu is well-groomed, the hunter covered in dirt, and Koyata’s carefree attitude contrasts with the lord’s emotionless behaviour. Both enjoy violence – although in a very different way. Rather like a child, the hunter is looking for adventure, but the samurai kills for some dark pleasure and considers his lethal deeds a privilege of his class and a demonstration of his power. Koyata may perhaps be a demon, but he joins the good cause to destroy evil, his battle skills contributing to the restoration of order.
Koyata is also an important figure in the discourse on individuality in Miike’s film. In Seven Samurai, the conflict between individual and group and between different social classes is represented by Kikuchiyo (13). Kanbei lectures Kikuchiyo on the importance of solidarity after one of his solo actions has failed, and Kikuchiyo inspires the other samurai and the villagers with his courage, but he does not belong to either of these social classes. Only in death does he seem to become a samurai – his burial alongside the three samurai in the group who also died while protecting the village makes him a legitimate member of the group and combines the celebration of action with a strong sense of individual responsibility.
In all three versions of 13 Assassins, the conflict between giri (loyalty) and ninjō (human feeling) is expressed by Shinzaemon and Hanbei, who have been rivals since their youth (14). Hanbei defends the orthodox position, strongly supported by his lord (Naritsugu), that a samurai’s (15) duty is to serve his lord and that he should never question his lord’s intentions. Shinzaemon has chosen a different path, taking action against a lord whose sadistic impulses put human beings in danger and are a threat to society as a whole. Miike emphasizes the theme of individual action by challenging the authoritarian and militaristic interpretation of the concept of bushidō that was advocated by the Japanese military regime in the late 1930s and during World War II. Naritsugu’s vision of bushidō, requiring the blind obedience of his retainers, is close to this perverted bushidō concept of the war years. The psychopath Naritsugu is eager to use his power for warfare (16) and to establish despotic rule. Individuals like Shinzaemon and also Doi Toshitsura (Hira Mikijirō), who devises the assassination scheme in Miike’s film, pursue the idea of loyalty better than Hanbei as they fight for social justice and show that bushidō is a flexible code allowing room for individual choice (17).
Kudo’s and Tominaga’s films both end with a voice-over narration explaining that individuals, in this case Shinzaemon and his men, are excluded from the official records of the shogunate, which do not mention the battle but state that Lord Naritsugu died of illness (18). In the final sequence of Miike’s 13 Assassins, Shinrokurō and Koyata, the only survivors of the horrendous battle, meet in the smoking ruins of the village. Disgusted by the violence to which he contributed, Shinrokurō, now an outcast, is freed from the constraints of his social class that have imprisoned his uncle, who could only be free in death. Eager to choose his own lifestyle, Shinrokurō considers leaving the samurai and becoming a major criminal in America, where he would make love to a woman. In this sequence, the focus is on the young samurai who teamed up with his uncle Shinzaemon in order to leave a life of idleness behind and find a purpose in life. Koyata’s presence at this point in the film is important for Miike’s discourse on individuality. Koyata is both complementary to and the opposite of Shinrokurū. At the beginning of the film, Shinrokurū is as immature as Koyata, whose exuberant movements underline his youthful joy in killing and who seems unconcerned by the chaos around him. This hunter, who could be a yokai – a supernatural being that appears in very different shapes – represents liminality, and this is suggested by his unclear status between human reality and a different world. Despite his obsession with Upashi, he opposes stable codes as represented by Hanbei’s orthodoxy, and is more like a personification of Shinrokurō’s hidden but unfulfilled desires, thereby pointing to the complexity of modern society with its emphasis on a right to individuality.

Notes
(1) Japanese names are written according to the Japanese custom, the family name preceding the given name.
(2) The Elders (rōju) were among the highest-ranking government officers during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868).
(3) Only about 70 samurai are confronting Shinzaemon and his men in the original film and in the 1990 remake. However, the discrepancy in numbers between Shinzaemon’s men and Naritsugu’s escort is made very obvious in these two films too.

(4) This does not mean that Kudo’s mise en scène of the battle is – in cinematic terms – less effective than Miike’s. In the 1963 film, the brutality of the battle scene is very evident at every moment.

(5) The Tokugawa period is known as a peaceful era in Japanese history during which the samurai, the members of the ruling warrior class, were turned into bureaucrats. Miike’s film frequently refers to the fact that the samurai lack fighting experience.

(6) In Kudo’s film, the more romantic love element is also represented by the hedonistic Shinrokurō, who has left his beloved in Edo. This young man shows great understanding for Koyata and the daughter of the village headman, a feeling that amuses his uncle, who regards it as an expression of immature romanticism.

(7) Mifune Toshirō played rebels throughout his long career, starting with his screen debut in Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate, 1947, Taniguchi Senkichi). Iseya Yūsuke often plays young men in contemporary Japan who are deviant or rebellious characters – as in After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998, Kore-Eda Hirokazu), but also historical figures such as Yoshida Shōin in Burning Flower (Hana moyu, 2015), a taiga drama produced by the public television company NHK that was broadcast in weekly episodes for a whole year.

(8) Andrea Grunert, Kikuchiyo, the seventh samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)”, The Big Picture Magazine (17 September 2017).

(9) Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2008, p. 148. Kyōgen is a form of traditional Japanese comic theatre. Kyōgen plays are often performed as an interlude between Nō acts.

(10) In the television miniseries Lady Nobunaga (Nobunaga onna, 2013, Takeuchi Hideki), Iseya plays Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who has risen from a low-ranking peasant-samurai to Japan’s powerful ruler. His acting in this series – lively facial expressions and exuberant gestures – also evokes Mifune’s performance in Seven Samurai.

(11) Koyata’s almost superhuman capacities extend to his sexual prowess as shown in a deleted scene. The village headman spies on Koyata making love to his daughter. A following shot shows the young woman leaving the hut in which the sexual act took place. She is completely exhausted by the lovemaking while three other women of the village, to whom Koyata has supposedly made love on previous occasions, are agonizing in front of the hut. However, Koyata’s sexual desire has not been satisfied, and when the village headman sees Koyata’s very impressive penis and wants to spare the women, he offers his services to quench the young hunter’s apparently insatiable lust.

(12) Just like Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo, Koyata observes the village from a bell tower.

(13) The difference between the would-be samurai and the six others is supported by Mifune’s acting as well as by the music. A mambo-like tune is associated with Kikuchiyo and is heard when he acts of his own accord. For the use of music with regard to individualization and group association in Seven Samurai, see my article “The Music of Seven Samurai”, The Big Picture Magazine, 23 May 2020. 

(14) In the two other 13 Assassins-films, Shinzaemon and Hanbei are friends but also rival swordmen.

(15) Samurai derives from saburai, the nominal form of the verb saburau, which can roughly be translated as “to be in attendance” or “to serve”.

(16) Excited by bloodshed, Naritsugu dreams of a return to the age of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries. He states that he intends to use his power to reintroduce war in Japan.

(17) Bushidō is a rather flexible concept as shown by its many interpretations over the last 120 years. The concept originated in the intellectual discourse of the 1880s after the end of the samurai reign and was based on ideas about samurai values and behaviour. Nitobe Inazō’s Bushidō: The Soul of Japan, first published in 1899 in English, is probably the best-known book on bushidō. See Oleg Benesch, Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism and Bushidō in Modern Japan, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

(18) In Kudo’s film, the voice-over accompanies a shot of the setting sun. In the television production from 1990, the final shots show Doi (played by Tanba Tetsurō, who had also been cast in this role in the 1963 film), the man who devised the plot to murder Naritsugu because it was not possible to take legal action against him for the crimes he had committed.