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  • Benjamin May

Shura (1971) Review

It is sometime during the Edo period, and Soemon is a Ronin living under the assumed name of Gengobe in Fukugawa, Tokyo. Indebted and unable to acquire the necessary funds to join the 47 Ronin in their quest of vengeance, he spends his days drinking sake and his nights with geishas. One geisha in particular: Koman, who pledges her eternal love for him. This love proves to be fickle, for Koman is a married woman. After his servant Hachiemon acquires 100 Ryo for Soemon to join the Ronin, he is quickly swindled by Koman and her husband Sangorô. Left penniless once more, Soemon descends into a bloody spiral of insanity and violence from which he may never return. Written and directed by Toshio Matsumoto- and based on the Kabuki play 'Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu' by Nanboku Tsuruya and Shûji Ishizawa- 'Shura' is a strikingly photographed tale of revenge and madness that plays like a samurai film noir. Containing hard-hitting violence, a cynical anti-hero and a duplicitous femme fatale, the film bears many of the hallmarks that informed the noir movement of the 40's and 50's. Told in a non-linear fashion, the narrative incorporates flashbacks, alternative scenarios and repetition, challenging and confusing the viewer. The story is a gritty, dark one, maintaining a bleak and fatalistic tone, which is only heightened by the striking cinematography from Tatsuo Suzuki.

Shot in black and white, Suzuki makes excellent, evocative use of light and shadows, creating a startling contrast that adds a sinister sense of despair and claustrophobia to proceedings. His usage of dissolves, super-impositions, angled shots and zooms heightens the narrative tension, whilst also lending the film a surreal, eerie quality that strengthens the narrative impact. Suzuki also utilises the minimalist sets- a nod to the film's origins in Kabuki theatre- masterfully, making the most of the limited spaces in an artful and imaginative way.

A frequent collaborator of Matsumoto's- working on at least three of his films, including the acclaimed 'Funeral Parade of Roses'- Suzuki was at the forefront of Japanese experimental cinema. Working alongside a variety of independent directors, Suzuki made a name for himself as an innovator in terms of cinematography and its capabilities. His avant-garde work could very well be seen as influential on, or as a forerunner to, the work of Shinya Tsukamoto, or even David Lynch. Here, he leaves the audience wide-eyed in wonder at the eerie, noiresque imagery- be it of apparent floating lamps chasing our central character or the beautiful visage of a geisha, highlighting the torment in her eyes. Throughout 'Shura,' Suzuki's efforts don't just bolster the narrative and its tone- they leave you spellbound.

As do the intense performances from the cast, most notably Katsuo Nakamura as Soemon. A former Kabuki actor, Nakamura displays his character's complex emotions and inner turmoil fantastically, utilizing expressive gestures, movements and facial expressions. He interacts with the rest of the cast convincingly, painting a compelling portrait of a man driven to madness and violence by the actions of others. Alongside him, Yasuko Sanjo delivers a masterclass in understatement as the geisha Koman. She brings much grace and elegance to the role, perhaps accrued from her years as a dancer, leaving an indelible impression on the viewer. Masao Imafuku also does fine work as the servant Hachiemon, the only real honorable one in the film; stealing every scene he's in. Although those who shy away from violent films might not appreciate the amount of gore in 'Shura', anyone who enjoys Samurai movies, or a good revenge story, will likely be most pleased by the film. Beautifully shot by Tatsuo Suzuki and featuring commendable performances from all in the cast, there's a lot going for it. A strong narrative, deft direction- 'Shura' may be one of the best Samurai film noirs you'll ever see.


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