Kazuo Koike was born in 1936 and rose to prominence in Japan in the early 1970s as a writer of manga. This coincided with the major Japanese studios increasingly moving into exploitation filmmaking, as a means of combating falling audience numbers due to the ever-growing presence of televisions in Japanese homes. Many of Koike’s manga were big hits with the Japanese public and the name value they provided along with their mixture of sex and violence proved to popular with film producers seeking to entice the public out of their living rooms and into cinemas. Many even allowed Koike to provide the screenplays for screen adaptations of his work himself. In preparation for Satori Screen presenting one of his creations, Lady Snowblood, on the big screen at QUAD On March 14th as part of a special Meiko Kaji double bill, Peter Munford takes a look at some of the Koike works that have made the leap to the big screen.
Working alongside artist Kazuo Kamimura, Koike created Lady Snowblood in 1972 with a film adaptation directed by Toshiya Fujita arriving in 1973. Lady Snowblood is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of a young woman on a mission of vengeance. Before she was born, Snowblood’s mother was raped and her father killed. Her mother stabbed and killed one of the perpetrators and was jailed as a result. Snowblood is born in prison and is raised with the sole purpose of gaining revenge on the rest of the gang. The film adaptation follows this quest, taking in some extremely effective action sequences making much use of the contrast between red and white implied by the title. I shall save discussion of the star of Lady Snowblood, Meiko Kaji, for my introduction on the 14th but suffice to say she makes for an excellent leading lady, providing our heroine with an icy glare that would chill absolutely anyone to the bone. She reprised the role a year later in Lady Snowblood: Love Song Of Vengeance, again directed by Fujita, but sadly, lightning did not strike twice. The plot of the sequel follows Snowblood as she is tasked to infiltrate an anarchist organisation and, despite one or two bright moments, it is a bit of a trudge through thick narrative sludge. The first film remains a classic though, and the character has become something of a cult figure in recent years, no doubt helped by Quentin Tarantino speaking of her as a key influence on his Kill Bill films. He also acknowledged the debt by including the theme song of the first film (sung by Kaji) on the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 1.
LONE WOLF AND CUB
Ogami Itto is a warrior of exceptional skill and strength. In his role as the Shogun’s executioner he assists when a samurai is required to commit suicide. When he finds his wife murdered and his household destroyed he and his recently born son Daigoro are forced to go on the run, encountering many adventures as they seek a way to gain their vengeance. Created by Koike with artist Goseki Kojima in 1970 Lone Wolf And Cub stands as one of the all time classics of manga with a cultural reach that has extended all over the globe. I discovered the manga in my late teens and quickly became a fan of Koike’s technique of finding a small nugget of Japanese social history and building a story around it. Of course, the spectacular fight sequences and Kojima’s wonderful artwork didn’t hurt either. The stories were first adapted for the cinema in a series of 6 films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, released in 1972 and 1973. Not surprisingly, the films concentrate on the (extremely gory) action, and the social history aspect of the manga gets short shrift. They remain excellent examples of their genre though, with Wakayama ably embodying Itto’s incredibly gruff manner that clearly masks a great paternal love for Daigoro. In 1980 sections of the first two films were dubbed, re-edited and combined by American producers to create Shogun Assassin, which has a long standing cult following of its own. And whilst that film is fun (the synth drenched soundtrack is a treat) the films deserve to be seen in their original form. Other adaptations of the manga have included two television series, video games and a film in 1992, and in 2002 Max Allan Collins published the graphic novel Road To Perdition, taking the basic premise of a father and a son on a quest for revenge against their former master and moving it into a depression era gangster tale. This was then adapted for the screen by Sam Mendes in 2002, with Tom Hanks in the lead role.
HANZO THE RAZOR
And so we come to the worrying one. Hanzo The Razor is an Edo period guardsman who is unshakeable in his belief in what is right. Consequently, he often finds himself coming up against corrupt officials and it is these conflicts that provide the plots for the films featuring the character. What marks the Hanzo The Razor series (made up of Sword Of Justice, The Snare and Who’s Got The Gold?) out is the sheer level of sexual violence the films contain. Often, and shockingly to twenty first century eyes, Hanzo will extract information from female witnesses by raping them (this perhaps explains why no English translation of the manga exists and I have been unable to find any artwork to illustrate this section.) In addition to this, Hanzo considers his (apparently enormous) penis such a useful tool, the films regularly feature scenes of him flagellating it to improve its strength. This tacit approval of rape would be shocking enough in a micro budget indie film, but when you consider that the films starred and were produced by Shintaro Katsu, who was a huge star in Japan after his long run of films as the blind swordmaster Zatoichi, and that the films were released by the major studio Toho, the mind boggles beyond all comprehension. Imagine Sean Connery quitting James Bond in the early 70s and immediately starring in a series of films as a rapist for 20th Century Fox to get a sense of how big a star Katsu was, and how established his star persona as Zatoichi was. I’m certainly not qualified to analyse Japanese culture of the 70s to explain how something that is so completely beyond the bounds of acceptability in this day and age was considered mainstream entertainment. All I can say is this: that is certainly some messed up stuff. Having said that, if you are able to put aside any moral concerns about the films (I certainly understand if you can not) then there is enjoyable stuff to be found within them. One of the Hanzo series’ trademarks are the elaborate traps that the hero constructs within his house to take out invaders. These give the filmmakers an excuse to put their gory imaginations to work in some very effective ways. Another thing you won’t forget in a hurry is the shot from point of view of a penis during a sex scene in the first film, Sword Of Justice. But still, there’s no two ways about it, you are not going to feel particularly proud of yourself after watching a Hanzo The Razor movie.
Koike continued creating manga long after the 1970s Japanese cinematic exploitation boom was over and it is Crying Freeman, illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami, that is probably his most famous 1980s and 90s work. It is a sprawling crime drama, set in the modern day, about a Japanese assassin, working for the Chinese mafia, who sheds a single tear whenever he takes a life. Crying Freeman continues Koike’s technique of employing sex and violence to capture an audience’s attention, but somehow it does not seem to grab me in the same way as Lady Snowblood or Lone Wolf and Cub. I suspect this may well be that it is the historical content of those works which kept me coming back for more. I love a bit of gratuitous sex and violence as much as the next person, but it seems that when at the same time I am also learning about some obscure aspect of past Japanese society that I am truly enthralled. Crying Freeman is still worth checking out though. As are the animated versions and the 1995 live action adaptation by Christophe Gans which stars Mark Dacascos as the titular hero. As low budget mid-90s action movies go this is actually a pretty good time-waster. The action sequences are many and well staged and more attention is paid to the narrative than most films of this ilk bother with, even if it does depart from the manga a fair amount. There also reportedly a couple of 90s Hong Kong films heavily inspired by the series, named Dragon From Russia and Killer’s Romance, but this writer has yet to track down copies of those.
Koike is still writing manga (an English language release for his sequel series to Lone Wolf And Cub due to be released in June by Dark Horse comics) so there remains the possibility that we will see more of his particularly brand of sex and violence make it to the big screen at some point. In the meantime you can see one of his very best, Lady Snowblood, alongside the equally fantastic Blind Woman’s Curse when Satori Screen shows them at QUAD on March 14th!