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.

(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.


by Andrea Grunert

Acclaimed actor, artist and model Iseya Yūsuke has directed two films – Kakuto (2003) and Fish on Land (Seiji: riku no sakana, 2011). After this brief experience behind the camera, he apparently preferred to continue his acting career and concentrate on the Rebirth Project, which he launched in 2009 (1). However, the two films which he directed deserve closer scrutiny.

Fragmented structures
The main protagonists in both Kakuto and Fish on Land are young men in their early twenties. Kakuto, based on a screenplay written by Iseya, focuses on one tumultuous night in the life of Ryō (Iseya) and his desperate quest for a cigarette packet full of ecstasy which he was supposed to sell for a local yakuza boss but which he has accidentally lost. In Fish on Land, the adaptation of a novel by Tsujiuchi Tomoki, the unnamed main protagonist recalls a summer twenty years ago when, as a final-year college student, he went on a cycling trip round Japan. Kakuto, which could be translated as “awakening person” or “awakening city”, was produced by Kore-Eda Hirokazu, with whom Iseya worked as an actor in After Life (Wandafaru raifu, 1998) and Distance (2001). Some of Kakuto’s narrative and formal aspects are reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (UK, 1996), in particular the episodic structure, the character of the psychopathic gangster, the scatological language, the recurring use of extreme close-ups and of lenses that distort the image to suggest hallucinations and dreams. The sequence in which Ryō vomits, the camera remaining for an inordinately long time on the disgusting liquid he has disgorged, recalls images of body liquids and excrement in Trainspotting, but as Claude R. Blouin put it: “Japanese cinema gives a great deal of room to everything that oozes from the body, a sign that, being alive, it is a factory of constant rejection, a place of metamorphosis: urine, blood, stools, semen, sweat, tears.” (2) Iseya’s directorial debut is by no means a mere copy of Trainspotting and can be fitted into the framework of a new Japanese cinema with a penchant for experimentation, as in the work of Sono Sion, Sogo Ishii, Miike Takashi, Miki Satoshi, Aoyama Shinji and other young filmmakers.
Kakuto follows Ryō and several other characters, most of them only loosely connected with each other. In a series of subplots they meet accidentally or just appear by chance at the same place in a suburb of Tokyo. This is the case with the two yakuza in the red sports car which Shinji (Kase Ryō) steals from the car park outside a supermarket where Makoto (Takano Hassei) and Naoshi (Itō Atsushi) are waiting for their friend Ryō. The two men in the car are the film’s comic duo, contributing an element of slapstick-like humour.
Kakuto starts with a voice-over narration by Ryō before the other characters – including Makoto, Naoshi and Shinji – are introduced. There is no connection between Shinji and Ryō, whereas a group of male students are acquainted with him but play no role in the subsequent narrative. Their presence and talk about sex and fun contributes to the portrayal of young and rather well-off males like Ryō in contemporary Japan. They also talk very much about Ryō, who is a mystery to them. Successful in exams but hanging around with yakuza, he is the epitome of coolness and therefore a kind of idol for them.
Other and more important characters are Tezuka (Terajima Susumu), the son of a yakuza boss, and his henchman Suzuki, with whom Ryō has some dubious business deals involving pornography and drugs. Nakamura (Kagawa Teruyuki), a police officer who is part of a team that observes Tezuka and eventually arrests him, is another character in the film whose story evolves parallel to the main plot about Ryō.
Apart from the first sequences, which take place a few days beforehand, Kakuto is concerned with events on the night before Ryō’s 22nd birthday. In Fish on Land, the frame is spatial rather than temporal as most of the action is set in House 475, a drive-in bar-cum-diner in the countryside. In the early 1990s, the protagonist (Moriyama Mirai). who is addressed as Traveller (3). has an accident while cycling that is caused by one of the customers at the drive-in. Instead of continuing his journey, he starts working at House 475 during this last summer before the beginning of a new phase in his life. He becomes acquainted with Shōko (Nae Yuki), the owner of the place, with its manager Seiji (Nishijima Hidetoshi), and with a group of young men who are regular customers at House 475 as well as with the little girl Ritsuko (Ihara Ryoka) and her blind grandfather Genji (Tsugawa Masahiko).

Get a life!
In the first and last sequences of Fish on Land, the protagonist, now an adult (Nikaido Satoshi), comes back to what remains of the drive-in, which has apparently been abandoned after the tragic events that took place there during his stay twenty years ago. In the long flashback that constitutes most of the film, he is depicted as a quiet young man, observing rather than playing an active part in the story. In Kakuto, Ryō, played by Iseya and in a more lively manner, is presented as an extrovert and happy-go-lucky young man. However, he behaves like a trapped animal after losing the drugs given to him by the yakuza, well aware that he must fear their murderous revenge. In the sequences in which he experiences the hallucinatory effects of the drugs he consumed in Tezuka’s apartment, he gradually loses control of body and mind. The squalid pedestrian tunnel where he collapses contributes to the impression of his degradation. Half-naked, wearing only his underpants in the wintry night, Ryō is closer to hysteria than to his former carefree self.
Kakuto starts with Ryō’s voice from the off talking about a recurring dream he has had since childhood and in which he keeps running “in an endless, monotonous landscape” (4). This dream becomes reality when he is chased by Tezuka brandishing a katana (the long sword of the samurai), which adds a comic dimension to the situation. Iseya’s approach to crime and violence is playful just as Ryō, whose life revolves around drugs and parties, is a nonchalant but nevertheless sympathetic young man. His credo is “Why bother living if it is not fun?” He shows some concern for the young women he finds for the yakuza, and he is eager to believe the lie that they will not be exploited as prostitutes. Apparently without financial problems, he enjoys life in a most carefree manner, and Iseya’s acting – his boyish grin and extrovert behaviour – emphasizes the character’s immaturity.
Traveller is spending a last summer of freedom before the end of his holiday, which also marks the end of adolescence. By contrast, the easy-going manner of the aimless young protagonists in Kakuto does not mask the disorientation of the young generation in the early 21st century as represented by Shinji, whose introversion and aggressiveness are almost pathological. Naoshi, however, no longer wants to run away, even though this is the advice Ryō once gave him. At the end of the film, Naoshi accepts responsibility for himself and his pregnant girlfriend, and Ryō turns out to be a very polite young man and not simply the wild and carefree young man he is presented as throughout the film.
A tragic event puts an end to Traveller’s stay in the countryside. In a voice-over, the adult Traveller comments on it: “And then I escaped to reality.” The reality he refers to is that of adulthood, and twenty years later, Traveller has joined the ranks of the working population and is apparently what could be described as a respectable member of society. He has escaped from the drive-in, which, located in the middle of nowhere, is presented a kind of enchanted place where, as a young man, Traveller was fascinated by the hidden desires and secrets of the people he met there.
Both films deal with adolescence and the path to adulthood. The troubled young Shinji, who is a kleptomaniac with a penchant for violence and self-destruction, also undergoes a change with the help of Nakamura, who discovers him collapsed in a phone box which he has just vandalized in an act of frustration. Shinji is amazed by the police officer’s genuine concern, Nakamura even wiping the mucus from his running nose.
Iseya’s concern is not the dangers of drug consumption or a corrupt society in which the economy and organized crime are closely linked. Instead, his films focus on the feeling of uncertainty and alienation, both in present-day Japan and in the modern world as a whole. “But Japan is totally fucked,” says Ryō from the off at the beginning of Kakuto. Naoshi and Traveller decide to change their lives, whereas Seiji tries vainly to escape from his violent past. Genji says about him that he has too much social conscience. According to the old blind man, humanity can only survive by being less sensitive. These and other reflections on human behaviour and social conditions are addressed in the dialogues of both films. In Kakuto, the aquariums with exotic fish symbolize society’s insincerity – despite their transparency, they are a means to imprison the fish. In Fish on Land, Seiji reveals the hypocrisy of a couple – a man and a woman – who campaign for animal protection, pointing out that their big car and the perfume the woman wears represent a danger for animals and the environment.

Creating emotions
Iseya is however less interested in a philosophical discourse or psychological portrayals than in revealing his characters through mise en scène devices to which the actors, including Iseya himself, contribute. As an actor, Iseya communicates in a highly convincing manner the physical and psychological pain Ryō undergoes when he fights against the effects of the drugs he has taken. His face and body reveal his fear when Suzuki questions him about the missing drugs. Iseya’s portrayal of Ryō may have a narcissistic dimension, but this is however perfectly in tune with the immature character he portrays. The title of Fish on Land is a clear reference to Seiji – a secretive person who does not talk much and seems out of place. He behaves like a fish out of water and only seems happy when playing with the little girl Ritsuko. The exquisite lighting of the shots in which he disembowels a boar in a nocturnal setting also contributes to the air of mystery that he exudes. Nishijima Hidetoshi’s nuanced body language makes this character’s sadness and loneliness perfectly tangible.
The central drama around Seiji is not revealed until the last third of the film, and the first two thirds give a succession of impressions from the everyday life of the people at the drive-in. Kakuto is structured in a more sophisticated way in which the different subplots converge. Shinji finds the Lucky Strike packet with the ecstasy that Ryō has dropped. Later, when Shinji is making a phone call, Suzuki forces him to leave the phone box, where he then finds the missing drugs. Despite its highly elaborate structure, Kakuto does not feel over-constructed. Instead, it has a smooth, playful rhythm, a fluidity close to human life, something that characterizes Fish on Land even more strongly. In both films, there are a-chronical shots and scenes that are not story-related, and Fish on Land in particular has many beautifully framed landscape shots as well as images of the empty drive-in, of insects, the sky, the moon, and water.
Fragmentation is also expressed by extreme close-ups. In other shots, the camera, which is very mobile in Kakuto, remains close to the human bodies, a technique that reinforces the aesthetic and emotional space of the films. It is also a means to limit the field of vision, and it creates an effect of fragmentation, as does the lighting. In Fish on Land, the contrast between light and shadow and between day and night contributes to the feeling of mystery and supports the film’s latent tension, emanating partly from the suppressed desire between Shōko and Seiji. In Kakuto, darkness sustains the idea of a nightmare into which Ryō is suddenly projected, but this does not mean that it creates an impression of bleakness. The night ends with moments of joy in which Ryō and his friends, now in possession of the missing drugs Suzuki found and has now given to them, can finally feast, drink, smoke and chat, quickly forgetting their previous worries. The hedonism of these young urbanites can also be understood as a normal part of adolescent life that will not necessarily prevent them from taking on the responsibilities of adulthood and accepting its conformism. Fish on Land does not simply end as a tragedy either. Ritsuko, whose forearm was severed when she was attacked by a serial murderer with an axe during that fatal summer, has recovered, and twenty years later she is a beautiful and self-confident young woman.
The awful night in Kakuto seems like a bad dream, but unlike the recurring dream he talks about in the opening sequence and from which he awakes with a cry, Ryō finds himself back in broad daylight and normal life. Iseya avoids any moral judgment of his characters, preferring instead to create vivid portrayals of young Japanese males, catching their moods and emotions marvellously. In Fish on Land, his subtle mise en scène allows the viewer to share the light-hearted moments of a summer trip as well as to sense the hidden desires and repressed memories lingering under the surface. If Kakuto is a mixture of adventure, fun and nightmare, Fish on Land has in addition a dreamlike quality that constantly challenges the idyll suggested by the beauty of nature. In both films, Iseya succeeds in revealing his characters’ feelings through cinematic devices, with the ordinary filmed in a way that takes into account the complexity of life in the 21st century. On the basis of this aspect of the two films in particular, I can only state that I would have liked to see more of Iseya behind the camera.

1 “The Rebirth Project” is a multi-faceted business inspired by the idea of sustainable development.
2 Claude R. Blouin, Au fil des métamorphoses : Journal de lecture, Montréal : Quota Bene. 2021, p. 101-102. [Author’s translation]
3 In the credits, the main protagonist is called Boku which means “I” or “me”. There are several words for “I” in Japanese, and they differ according to sex and/or age. “Boku” is mainly used by boys or young men.
4 Note that the character Iseya Yūsuke played by Iseya in Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s After Life talks about a similar recurring dream.

mifune ronin of the wildern

by Andrea Grunert

In the 1960s, the Japanese film studio system was in decline while television was becoming a strong rival. This situation also affected the career of Mifune Toshirō, who worked more and more for the new medium in the 1970s and 1980s. Mifune had founded his company Mifune Productions in 1963, and in the 1970s and 1980s, he started producing television series in which he also starred. This article deals with three of these series which transfer the jidai geki, to the small screen – Ronin of the Wilderness (Kōya no surōnin, 1971-1974, two seasons, 104 episodes, NET), Ronin in a Lawless Town (Ningyio-tei ibun: mūhogai no surōnin, 1976, 23 episodes, NET) and The Lowly Ronin (Surōnin makaritōru, 1981-1983, Fuji TV). Each episode in the first two series is 46 minutes long, and The Lowly Ronin consists of six films of 90 minutes each.

A hero for television
Ronin of the Wilderness and The Lowly Ronin are jidai geki (period drama) and are set in the early 19th century, whereas the setting for Ronin in a Lawless Town is the early years of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the rule of the samurai had been abolished and Japan had re-opened to the world. It is in a very strict sense not a jidai geki, which are defined as tales from the Tokugawa era (1600-1868). However, the hero in the series is a former samurai, and there are many references to this warrior caste that had dominated Japan since the late 12th century. Moreover, its main character and also the characters played by Mifune in the two other series are very much influenced by Kurosawa Akira’s groundbreaking film Yojimbo (Yōjinbō, 1961). Like Kurosawa’s yōjinbō, Toge Kujūrō in Ronin of the Wilderness and also the hero in The Lowly Ronin are rōnin, masterless samurai who are travelling around in Japan. The main protagonist in Ronin in a Lawless Town is the yōjinbō, the bodyguard in the “Mermaid Saloon” in Yokohama, a bar with an underwater ballet as its main attraction.
The characters Mifune plays in these series share a number of other characteristics with the hero of Kurosawa’s film. In Yojimbo, the rōnin invents a name for himself, telling people that he is Kuwabatake (mulberry field) Sanjurō (thirty years). The main protagonist in The Lowly Ronin calls himself Shunka Shūtō (written with the Japanese characters for spring, summer, autumn and winter). A direct link with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjurō, 1962) is established in the sixth film (The Lowly Ronin: Betrayal at Yatate Pass/Surōnin makaritōru: Yatatetōge ni uragiri o mita, 1983), in which the protagonist says that his name is Hinoki (cypress) Sanjurō. In Ronin in a Lawless Town, the yōjinbō is simply called Mr. Danna. “Danna” can be roughly translated as “the master of the house” or simply “Mister”.
A further feature of the two films by Kurosawa that recurs in the three series is the rōnin’s walk. Walking with swaying movements and his shoulders hunched was largely the creation of Mifune himself. In the television productions, this walk is used by the actor as an identification trait. Kurosawa’s protagonist and those in the series are superheroes and essentially loners who prefer action to words. In the series, they fulfil the viewers’ expectation, which is to see Mifune in films in which the character he plays triumphs over his adversaries. Toge Kujūrō, Shunka Shūtō and Mr. Danna successfully take a stand against crime and corruption, giving the actor numerous opportunities to demonstrate his fighting skills.
The dividing line between good and evil which is very much blurred in Yojimbo is quite clear in the series, where their heroes do not share the nihilism of Kurosawa’s rōnin but are far more conventional figures, fighting against injustice and protecting the weak. They act in accordance with Kujūrō’s maxim: “Whenever I see weak people, I feel I must help them.” Embodying the Confucian principle of benevolence, these heroes defend peasants exploited by corrupt samurai or merchants threatened by yakuza. They rescue women sold to brothels and thwart politicians’ plots. The values of altruism, tolerance and solidarity may have been outdated in 1970s and 1980s Japan, especially in the light of the economic boom as well as new uncertainties and social problems. However, these three series with Mifune offered escapism from everyday worries and from a comfortable but boring life in a consumer society with no opportunities for adventure or heroism.
The figure of a powerful but selfless hero revitalized the ideal of a samurai at a time when it was being more and more challenged. Ronin in a Lawless Town is set in the period of modernization shortly after the abolition of the old and hierarchical class system with the samurai at the top. Mr. Danna still wears a kimono, hakama (trousers which look like a wide, pleated skirt) and the two swords worn by a samurai but wears a union suit under his kimono and a neckerchief. His hairstyle is a combination of the samurai’s topknot and western fashion. This hybrid external appearance symbolizes the mixture of elements in modern Japan – a combination of Japanese traditions and western influence. Despite this rather old-fashioned appearance, Mr. Danna is depicted as an open-minded man who has been to America and is familiar with western civilization. He speaks English and also translates the love letters of Europeans and Americans into Japanese. His open-mindedness is also illustrated by his plea for religious freedom (episode 9). However, Mr. Danna does not fight alone. Another important character in this series is Chidori Gennoshin (Wakabayashi Gō), an agent of the new government who squats in the “Mermaid Saloon”. A dandy dressed in expensive western clothes, he carries and uses a firearm. The two men fight side by side, but it is usually Mr. Danna with his swords who is more effective than the man with the modern weapon from America.
Ronin in a Lawless Town does more than simply emphasize that the values of the fast-disappearing culture represented by Mr. Danna are vital for the country. The series also has a strong didactic dimension, portraying Japan at a moment of radical change, as shown in the frequent street scenes of the bustling harbour town of Yokohama with its Japanese, European, Americans and Chinese inhabitants and/or visitors. Each episode focuses on a different step on the way towards modernization – the introduction of the telegraph and the postal service using stagecoaches, the construction of a water supply system of pipes, and the manufacture of ice cream. At the end of each episode, there is a comment on the innovation by a voice-over narrator. For Mifune, giving such information about Japanese history was clearly important. It also matched the policy of the television station NET (Nihon kyōiku terebi/Nihon Educational Television), founded in 1958 as an educational channel but from the 1960s on also producing fictional series.

Character traits of the heroes
Tradition is highly valued in the three series, but no tradition is immutable, and Mifune was well aware that change is necessary if tradition is to be kept alive. This also applied to the heroes he played in the television series. Although they are undoubtedly archetypal and therefore simplified characters, they are not unidimensional. Mifune’s performance is a considerable contribution to the creation of characters who remain human and appealing. The Lowly Ronin (1981) includes references to the hero’s past, suggesting that he has left his clan because he could not marry the woman he loved. When he returns to his home region thirty years later, he discovers that she blinded herself when he suddenly disappeared. A general shot shows the rōnin staring at the woman from a distance. He cannot bring himself to reveal to her that he has returned, and his body and face express very clearly his inner torment. In The Lowly Ronin: The Teenage Orphan Girl (Surōnin makaritōru: namida ni kieta mikka gokuraku, 1983), the rōnin is at first annoyed by the adolescent girl who pretends she is his daughter. However, in the few scenes in which they are shown living together, Mifune’s performance reveals his character’s suppressed desire for a homelife and his longing for love as well as showing the happiness he experiences in the girl’s company. At such moments of joy and tenderness, which are more frequent in Ronin of the Wilderness and Ronin in a Lawless Town, the character Mifune plays is in harmony with himself, and this is especially the case when he acts alongside children. The warm-heartedness of such scenes with the rōnin seems so natural that the viewer could almost forget that Mifune is acting.
Another element that successfully challenges schematization is humour. Ronin in a Lawless Town in particular is marked by a number of comical situations which add to the series from the year 1976 an element of humour that is close to parody. Mr. Danna’s laid-back attitude is an allusion to Sanjuro, a film in which the protagonist is shown in a series of shots eating and sleeping while waiting for the next event. Sanjurō’s behaviour shocks the young, hot-headed samurai, who are eager to fight. It is certainly not the kind of behaviour expected of an ideal samurai, who leads a life of frugality and action. In Ronin in a Lawless Town, Mr. Danna is, like Chidori, a freeloader who spends most of his time idly drinking sake, smoking, reading or sleeping.
Humour gives Mifune an opportunity to explore a great variety of facial expressions and enrich the character of Mr. Danna with his tremendous ability to suddenly change the expression on his face and his whole attitude – a talent so much admired by Kurosawa. When the eccentric Mrs Kitakōji, the owner of the “Mermaid Saloon”, suggests making a ring for Mr. Danna with one of the precious stones in the golden crucifix she has acquired, he abruptly takes his hand away from the cross, his calm attitude transformed into an expression of horror. This very quick emotional change reveals Mifune’s brilliant sense of timing and his attention to detail (episode 9).
This scene also reveals another characteristic of the rōnin played by Mifune in the three series: his asexuality. The series all illustrate the samurai ethos of abstinence in an almost exaggerated manner, and here too are reminiscent of Kurosawa’s yōjinbō. In Ronin of the Wilderness (season 1, episode 11), Kujūrō refuses his employer’s offer that he can sleep with one of the prostitutes in his brothel. As he says bluntly: “I do not like women.” In other episodes belonging to the same series, the hero’s decency is exploited as a source of humour. In episode 8, Kujūrō stays at an inn and takes a bath in a hot spring, where he is joined by a young woman. His face and body become rigid, expressing his embarrassment, and when he talks to her, he stammers. The invincible hero is suddenly plunged into a situation beyond his control.
In the three series produced by his company, Mifune was able to cast himself as the “good guy”, the ideal superhero with a heart of gold, and the characters he played were certainly also influenced by his own personality – his warm-heartedness and open-mindedness. However, the comical moments make it clear that he did not take himself too seriously, and this aspect of the heroes he plays produces highly enjoyable moments in the films.