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June 28, 2012

The Great Killing

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Dai satsujin
Eiichi Kudo - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The second film by Eiichi Kudo to get an official U.S. DVD release is mostly known for the use of hand held cinematography. If The Great Killing is any indication, Kudo should also be acknowledged as a great formal stylist. The hand held camera work is tremendous, especially when one considers that these were 35 mm cameras that weighed over one-hundred pounds, and required a two man team for operation. The final battle begins with a stampede of horses that disrupts the procession of a lord, the heir apparent to the shogunate. The footage often looks like newsreel footage, perhaps deliberately so, as Kudo also used sound recorded at student protests for his soundtrack. There is a real sense of immediacy that works so much better here than what might be found in the shaky cam footage of the current crop of "found footage" movies.

Kudo also shows that he is as good as any of the acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema, or world cinema, for that matter, in his use of compositions. The placement of characters in the wide screen, and the emphasis of depth of field, are both remarkable. In the scenes where the characters have to sit according to protocol, Kudo places his characters in such a way that the viewer is forced to observe both the width of the frame and the presentation of depth within that frame. A typical setup would have two vassals on each side of the frame, a ranking official approximately midway in the field of vision, and the high ranking official in the back, all in focus. Kudo also plays with sense of scale in his placement of characters in some shots.

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The basic story is to some extent a variation on the same narrative setup for Kudo's 13 Assassins. A small group of disenchanted samurai plot to disrupt the plans of a high official, Lord Sakai, whose high taxation has caused financial ruin for many farmers, and who hopes to act as the power behind the throne for the young heir designated to be the next shogun. The original group of rebel samurai have been hunted and killed. Sakai's men track down one of the rebels to the home of Jimbo. Arrested due to his protection of a rebel, Jimbo's wife is killed by Sakai's men. Jimbo seeks to avenge the death of his wife, but instead of acting alone, is urged to join with several others by the mysterious Lady Miya.

Even though Jimbo is the main protagonist of the film, following his evolution from unintentional observer to determined participant, it is Lady Miya who is the more interesting character. Miya is both pragmatic and idealistic, and her beauty is both her strength and weakness. What also interests me is that she is one of the rare females in what was at the time still a very male dominated genre, not a subordinate character like a wife or romantic interest, nor as someone to be protected or rescued. If Lady Miya is not the fiercely independent woman personified by actresses Junko Fuji and Meiko Kaji, it may not be totally coincidental that such a character would be in a film from the same studio, Toei, just a few years prior to these better known actresses who became that studio's stars. There is very little information on Nami Munakata, the actress who played Lady Miya, other than that her career was very brief, from 1964 to 1967.

Definitely The Great Killing should be seen by those who may not necessarily be interested in the samurai film, or think that the only artist who worked in the genre was Akira Kurosawa. Aside from the mix of visual styles, there are individual shots of impressive quality, such as the stampeding horses running towards the camera, or long shot of a lone samurai walking in a field in the rain, with its variety of gray zones. An extra bonus is AnimEigo's colored subtitles, making it easy to follow multiple voices in conversation.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 28, 2012 08:52 AM