#465: Shura

The world is a sea of blood in this noir-influenced jidaigeki horror

Initial release: 1971
Director: Toshio Matsumodo

A while back I discovered the existence of zankoku jidai-geki, or “cruel period drama.” Developed in the 1960s amidst violent student protests, right-wing terrorism, and an exploding economy as Japan re-industrialized, zankoku jidai-geki was a response to the revival of heroic samurai films of the 1950s. Beginning with films like Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo, this subgenre was defined by its insistence on black and white (at a time when more straightforward films were transitioning to color) and a darker, more nihilistic tone, being comparable to film noir, or perhaps the bleak American pre-Code proto-noir of the 1930s. Its protagonists are self-destructive, its violence realistic, its portrayal of bushido code deeply critical.

Zankoku jidai-geki can be seen in its purest form in what’s likely the last film of this particular era, Toshio Matsumodo’s Shura (修羅, meaning, roughly, ‘scene of carnage’ but also a reference to the Asuras of Buddhism; the film is also known in some markets as Demons, Pandemonium, or Bloodshed, none of which are terribly informative of what kind of film you’re getting yourself into.) Matsumodo had already made a name for himself with Funeral Parade of Roses, a dreamlike experimental film about gay and transgender culture in 1960s Japan; while Shura is a little more straightforward, don’t get it twisted: this is deeply subversive and personal, a ferocious assault on the notion of heroic samurai.

Most of the time in my reviews I’m fairly free with laying out the basic outline of the plot, with no spoiler warnings; but here I’m just going to say this: Shura is a film best seen raw, ideally late at night, with no preconceptions going in. But it’s impossible to discuss the film without going into depths with regards to its plot, so if you want to watch this film — and you can on Youtube — then take my advice and do so before reading further.

All good? Let’s begin.

Shura is sometimes subtitled The 48th Ronin, which firmly establishes it as a sort of dark companion piece to the Chushingura legend. The film opens with a full-color shot of the sun, pale against orange in an inversion of the Japanese flag, slowly sinking into darkness; the film then switches to black and white and stays there*, thrusting us into a dark world in which Gengobe, a down-on-his-luck samurai who’s had to sell all his possessions to pay rent, wakes up from a nightmare — but his eyes are already open. Dissolute and desperate, he’s been kicked out of his clan and must gather 100 ryo (which generally amounts to several hundred thousand modern yen, actual values depending on time period) in order to buy his way back into their good graces so he can join their revenge plot. Keeping him company is his girlfriend, the courtesan Koman; Gengobe doesn’t mind that she’s a courtesan, but his faithful retainer, Hachiemon, certainly does, showing up late one night with the requisite 100 ryo, gathered together by Gengobe’s friends and retainers, and insisting that Gengobe go take his place with his clan. Gengobe initially intends to, until Koman’s brother appears to inform him that Koman is about to be sold off to another samurai, and the asking price: 100 ryo.

*A few of the murder scenes are in color for the trailer, but Matsumoto wisely chose to remain consistent in the film itself, leaving these scenes in black and white.

Ultimately, Gengobe decides to forfeit his place in the clan for love, paying the ransom; at this point, her brother reveals that all was a scam, that he is actually Koman’s husband Sangoro, and that the whole thing was a plot to bilk Gengobe out of his money. (Given how little he had to begin with, with the 100 ryo being something of a surprise, one wonders what their initial intentions were.) At this point, Gengobe, who had already shown signs of being a little unhinged, goes off the deep end, slaughtering everyone connected to the scam, including Koman and Sangoro’s infant child… only to discover that the money he had been bilked out of had gone to help Sangoro get back in his father’s good graces, his father needing the money to help a down-on-his-luck samurai, who just so happens to be Gengobe, whose real name is Soemon.

Discovering that his murderous rampage — and letting Hachiemon sacrifice himself to the police — was all meaningless, Gengobe/Soemon is left completely shattered, saying he no longer has the right or desire to rejoin his clan. The film ends with white text on a black background, explaining that a few months later the 47 ronin staged their assault, and Soemon was not among them. The end.

It’s a bleak, bleak, bleak film, reminiscent of — among other things — Boris Ingster’s cerebral 1940 thriller Stranger on the Third Floor, with Gengobe’s frequent fantasies and dreams getting increasingly darker, and which the film makes no attempt to distinguish from the actual things that happen. Scenes will play out and end violently, only for them to rewind and play out again, this time happening a different way.

Shura’s defining feature, aside from the sometimes surreal editing (such as the multiple takes of Gengobe turning around to face his strange, faceless pursuers, who appear only as a group of dangling lanterns) is just how dark the film is. Claustrophobia is the order of the day for every single scene. There is no sense of a wider world, every scene seemingly suspended in dusk. Sparsely and strategically lit, anything outside the immediate scene is merely a dark void; even the rare exterior shots feel suffocatingly claustrophobic, swallowed up in darkness. Given the film’s roots in kabuki theater, this is likely intentional, but Matsumodo has taken it to its logical conclusion here. In spite of its closeness, there’s no sense that it was all done in a sound studio, save for one particular scene that stands out as being obviously staged, fake-feeling, but is then revealed that it is intentionally so, a staged scene for Gengobe, not the audience — all part of the scam. Stark and minimalist, the film remarkably is almost entirely devoid of establishing shots, offering no context or comfort, with the passage of time being barely marked by occasional intertitles. Even the violence is stylized, artful yet bloody and agonizing, a monument to rage and humiliation in the dark world in which these characters dwell. There’s an almost total lack of music, as well, the only music being the diagetic, slow, boom of a heavy, thick bell by a monk.

If the Chushingura legend is a story about loyalty, duty and honor, Shura is a story about madness and self-destruction, of how the struggle between duty to self and duty to one’s clan or country can tear a person apart, about how life in a repressive world like Edo-period Japan leads to alienation, and alienation inevitably leads to destruction, of the self, of others. (Hmm… makes one wonder about the self-destructive nature of American society today.)

Shura is criminally underrated, a lost classic rarely seen outside of Japan, and yet to have an official release in the West as far as I can tell. But it’s a shame, for this is a blood-soaked work of pitch-black genius that invites viewers to take a glimpse into one man’s hell of his own making. It might be my favorite samurai film.

-june❤

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