WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers!
Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (Goyokiba: Kamisori Hanzo Jigoku Zeme); Japan; 1973
Director – Masumura Yasuzo. Cast – Katsu Shintaro; Kurosawa Toshio.
Is it possible to hate a film but at the same time equally love the craft with which it is made? I find that it is.
When they cross my path, I am quite happy to give even the sleazier Japanese samurai action and sexploitation films from the 60s and 70s a viewing. It is a unique, slightly schizoid, experience. You can be watching a film and feeling yourself to be consumed with righteous wrath on behalf of the sisterhood because of all the rape scenes. But at the same time you can be distracted from this by the sheer beauty of the way a shot has been composed and lit. Or, if you are like me, you can be hating a character for being such a male chauvinist pig while, at the same time, admiring the actor who is playing him for carrying off such offensive guff with focus and élan.
I find the Hanzo the Razor films to be fairly objectionable. A grouchy jowly dude (played by Katsu Shintaro) with a big dick sexually tortures folk and we are expected to find this amusing and horny. I can’t. Women are shown being tortured and raped, initially screaming with pain as they are penetrated by Hanzo’s huge hard penis but then melting into moaning ecstasy because they have been penetrated by Hanzo’s huge hard penis. Porn disguised as rape. I hate it. Women are only able to achieve orgasm through a passive capitulation, and then only after being broken by pain and psychological domination. Utter crap and extremely misogynistic.
I have grit my teeth through two Hanzo films (I just can’t bear the idea of watching the third) in the interests of research. As with all Japanese jidaigeki – or “period dramas… most often set during the Edo period of Japanese history” – that I have seen made in this era, there is actually some good (if not great) filmmaking craft to be found. These films can boast lyrical cinematography, beautiful art direction, gripping performances and tight direction. Thus, it was at the end of Hanzo the Razor 2, while I was berating myself for having given away a couple of hours of my life to view such toxic nonsense, that I found my jaw dropping over the beauty of the very final fight scene.
In this scene Hanzo is unwillingly forced to fight a ronin (played by Kurosawa Toshio), whom he then kills. The choreography of this scene features the familiar rhythmic device found in samurai movie sword fights of slowly executed preparatory stances followed by a swift blur of action. The fight then reverts to held positions or slowly executed arcs of movement as the defeated fighter slowly dies while watched by the victor.
This rhythmic device allows a build-up of tension during the preparatory stances. This is necessary in a film like Hanzo, as pondering on the outcome of the fight cannot bring any feelings of tension or excitement to a viewer who has just watched a whole film dedicated to building up the image of Hanzo as an unbeatable tough guy who ALWAYS wins. The director therefore needs another strategy for giving his viewers a shot of adrenaline at this late stage of the movie. The tension built up by the preparatory stances teases us by making us wonder when the fighting will begin and what the actual attack will look like as opposed to what the outcome will be. The rapid fire movements in combat gives us a moment of climax, and the release of life of the defeated fighter mirrors a slow release of tension in the viewer.
This kind of rhythmic construct, with its generous amounts of slow movement and stillness, also allows us to focus on the dramatic performances of the actors playing the fighters during the fight scene. Good screen fighting requires performative as well as physical skill. The actors must use their faces, eyes and bodies to manifest a certain focus and intent. They need to embody a life and death moment that will make the audience hold their breath for a minute. In this scene the actors are able to communicate plenty in the few lines of dialogue and minimally elegant stances of choreography given to them. Hanzo is unwilling, even disgusted, at being cornered into having to fight for his honour and be the cause of the death of a man against whom he has no personal grudge. The ronin’s repetition in the lines ”Draw. Just draw. Just draw.” makes for a moment of exquisite tension. The choreography of the fight and the performances of the actors have to be captured by great cinematography and served by appropriate editing. The shots in the fight scene at the end of Hanzo 2 are beautifully framed and composed, and call to mind the composition of the manga images on which the films from the Hanzo the Razor series are based*.
Most of all, I love the art direction in this fight scene. It is set on a wooden bridge being traversed by people dressed in traditional historic Japanese clothing as worn by the peasant and mercantile class of the time. Shades of blue and light browns predominate. It is like looking at an ukiyo-e come to life.
At the beginning of the fight scene the bridge is deserted except for Hanzo, the ronin, and Hanzo’s two cringing cronies in the background. This gives the fight scene a quiet drama and sense of intimacy between the characters. At the end of the fight the crowds rush onto the bridge to stare at the ronin’s corpse and perhaps, I feel, to just get on with their day now that the dangerous men have finished their business with their swords. This sense of the world and life just going on, as anonymous people bustle past the ronin’s lifeless body, somehow gives a sense of poignancy to his death. The authoritative handling of this scene by cast and crew provides an unexpectedly dignified and even poetic end to a relentlessly prurient film.
To return to my original question: Is it possible to hate a film but at the same time equally love the craft with which it is made? The sexual violence in the Hanzo films, and its contextualisation as eroticised entertainment, makes my blood curdle and my teeth grind. But scenes, such as the fight scene discussed in this blog, cut through my feminist rage with a welcome reminder that there is some great filmmaking craft to be enjoyed.
*”The story is based on the manga Goyōkiba (御用牙) by Kazuo Koike, whose Lone Wolf and Cub manga was also adapted as a film series by Katsu, this time starring his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. “ Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanzo_the_Razor