Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Samurai at the Roxy

In 1971, a festival called Films of Japan opened at the Roxy Theatre in Toronto. For some reason I don't remember, I attended the first film, got hooked, and then attended all of the subsequent showings until the series was cancelled, halfway through the thirty-odd films.

One of the first films I saw was Samurai Rebellion. A black and white film made in 1967 by the director Masaki Kobayashi, it concerns a Samurai family slowly drawn into a confrontation with their lord. I was fascinated by the medieval dress, the interior simplicity of the dwellings of rich or poor, the elaborate protocol and intricate social systems, the highly ordered and stylized culture. The slowly mounting tension of the story finally explodes with incredibly fury. In the climax two Samurai friends who find themselves on opposite sides calmly duel to the death under dark clouds near a field of long grass undulating in a fierce wind. It was certainly one of the most powerful scenes I had ever seen in cinema at that point.

In 1971 Japan, although still notorious for it's aggression in World War Two, was just another little Asian country, known for cheap plastic toys. The first few cars from Japan had just started to trickle in with awkward names like Datsun, Toyoto and Mazda. The sole perception of quality was in Canon and Nikon cameras. There were only two or three Japanese restaurants in Toronto. But if Japan seemed quaint and irrelevant to those around me, it was no longer so for me.

Thus the beginnings of my Japanophilia. I was soon investigating the nation of islands any way I could. I encountered the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshige and bought reproductions for my walls. I listened to Koto music. I experimented with a Japanese lunch item made by rolling up cold rice and various other ingredients in a sheet of dried seaweed and slicing the resulting log into sections. I visited the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center and naively bought a “Learn Japanese” manual. I read novels, poetry, biographies and travelogues. I got the first hints that all is not cherry blossoms and immaculate gardens in the Japanese psyche, that underneath lie some incredibly twisted and bizarre impulses and practices. I saw more films. My first car was made in Hiroshima. I planned to visit Japan.

These days, in my part of town, its easier to get sushi than a hamburger. The bin at the video store for the films of the modern director Takashi Miike is larger than those for Bergman and Fellini combined. Japan is no longer seen as quaint and irrelevant. But my interest persists. So yesterday I was pleased to find that I still possessed the poster for that film festival at the Roxy many years ago.

And notwithstanding my respect for Japan's most famous director, Akira Kurosawa, my three favourite films are still Samurai Rebellion, Harikiri and Kwaidan, all by Masaki Kobayashi.