Welcome back to The Deuce Notebook, a collaboration between MUBI's Notebook and The Deuce Film Series, our monthly event at Nitehawk Williamsburg that excavates the facts and fantasies of cinema's most infamous block in the world: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. For each screening, my co-hosts and I pick a title that we think embodies the era of 24-hour theater hopping, and present the venue at which it premiered...
Since we began in 2012, we’ve had the extreme pleasure of inviting the occasional guest curator to take over for the night with a title of their choosing… Our friend Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock fame has been an annual visitor, and this month Chris has contributed to our column with a fabulous piece about Japanese samurai films and their entry into the US mainstream.
Chris is an authority on genre films and theatrical distribution history, and we’re excited to announce his upcoming book, co-written by another honorary Deuce Jockey, Grady Hendrix, entitled These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World—to be published this September. We’ll let you know when it’s out!!
Finally… enter to win our "famous" raffle—the grand prize of which is "Maestro" Jeff Cashvan’s original poster seen above. Email us and say "Konnichi wa!": firstname.lastname@example.org
—The Deuce Jockeys
On November 21, 1980, when New World Pictures delivered Shogun Assassin to 60 theaters in the New York area (including the Lyric on 42nd Street, with Humanoids from the Deep as the second feature), the opening day newspaper ads boasted a pull-quote that hyped the film as “The first new thing in the exploitation field since Halloween.” The words “new” or “all new” in this type of movie advertising usually means they've wrapped up something old in new packaging, though in the case of Shogun Assassin, even the tag line—“Meet the greatest team in the history of mass slaughter!”—had been peeled from an earlier film (Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive). True to form, the basic visual content of this 1980 release had been filmed eight years earlier, but what producer David Weisman and writer-director Robert Houston did with it made all the difference: Shogun Assassin is the first two movies in the Lone Wolf with Child/Sword of Vengeance series cut together with script revisions to make the story more accessible to western audiences, dialogue written to match lip movements, narration by the otherwise silent child to move things along and fill plot gaps, editing and sound effects to accentuate the swordplay and arterial spray, and a slick synthesizer score in place of Hideaki Sakurai's vibrant but very '70s-sounding main theme. All of this was done in the hopes of introducing mainstream moviegoers to samurai cinema as a bloody alternative to the then-popular slasher films. Also, having “shogun” in the title a couple of months after more than 28 million people watched a network TV mini-series called Shogun probably didn't hurt either.
Yet in all of the coverage that Shogun Assassin received during its 1980-1981 theatrical run, there wasn’t a single acknowledgment of the failed attempt six years earlier to sell Lone Wolf with Child/Sword of Vengeance and two other Japanese swordplay films to North American audiences. Even the detailed interviews Weisman and Houston granted Martial Arts Movies and Fighting Stars magazines neglected to mention the existence of a Columbia Pictures release called Lightning Swords of Death, which was still showing at drive-ins and urban theaters during that time. It even played 42nd Street barely a month before the arrival of Shogun Assassin, on a triple bill with Shaolin Death Squad and Golden Leopard's Brutal Revenge at the Empire Theater.
However, before I get to the “samurai cinema slaughter of '74,” I think we should go back a couple of decades earlier and start from the beginning. This will take a few minutes, so you might want to get comfortable, pour yourself a drink, maybe Google a couple of words and names if you don't know them: Toho, chanbara, jidaigeki... All ready? Good, here we go.
The year: 1951. The setting: A cocktail party in New York or Los Angeles.
One of the guests is a visitor from Japan, Seishi Soga, who is introduced as the managing director of the Daiei Film Company. At some point during the party, an American woman engages Mr. Soga in conversation and admits to him that she didn’t know Japan even had a film industry. He puts on a pleasant face as he informs her that Daiei and other Japanese studios produced over 200 feature films in 1950, while inside, his blood boils. The United States still occupies Japan, and Hollywood movies alone make up 70% of the market there. Lately, Italian imports like Bicycle Thieves, Paisan, and Rome, Open City are doing well enough to cut another wedge out of the pie. Mr. Soga is beginning to wonder: if Japanese moviegoers are more interested in films from other countries, maybe the rest of the world will be similarly receptive to the films of Japan?
Shortly after his return home, he is contacted by an organizer from the Venice Film Festival who is asking to see a recent Daiei release, Rashomon, which has been recommended to them by Giuliana Stramigioli, a Tokyo-based distributor of Italian films in Japan through her own company, Italifilm. Mr. Soga doesn't think much of Rashomon, but if one Italian film enthusiast likes it then maybe others will find some worth in it as well, so he packs up a print and sends it to Venice. Within the span of a few months, Rashomon will go on to win the Golden Lion, become the first Japanese film distributed in the U.S. by a major studio, win an Academy Award, and prove to the rest of the world that there is indeed a Japanese film industry.
All that, and it has a samurai as one of its main characters.
The next two Oscar winners from Japan also feature samurai: Jigokumon, which means “Gate of Jigoku” but was known here as Gate of Hell, and Miyamoto Musashi, which was actually retitled Samurai when released in the U.S. (with added narration by William Holden) in 1954. The next year, while on tour in Japan with his newest film, Picnic, director Joshua Logan caught a showing of an extremely popular epic adventure by Akira Kurosawa, the maker of Rashomon. When he emerged from the theater three and a half hours later, Logan made a beeline for… well, probably the restroom, but after that he went straight to the nearest phone and made a long-distance call to Columbia Pictures—not about his own film, which they were distributing, but to rave about Seven Samurai and insist the studio buy the U.S. rights immediately. They did, and released the film in 1956 as The Magnificent Seven, a few months after another massive production from Toho, Gojiro, had stomped into U.S. theaters under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Toho, now an international film force to be reckoned with, already had offices in other countries and by 1960 owned two theaters outside of Japan, the Toho La Brea in Los Angeles and a Toho Cinema in São Paulo, Brazil. Next they bought the D.W. Griffith Theater in New York City and transformed it into their third Toho Cinema, which opened its doors on January 22, 1963 with the U.S. premiere of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well. The film’s star, Toshiro Mifune, was flown in for the gala event, which attracted such attendees as Spyros P. Skouras, Arlene Francis, Leonard Bernstein, and Jane Fonda. By the time a fourth Toho theater opened in Honolulu in 1964, three of Kurosawa’s movies had been remade as westerns: The Magnificent Seven with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit in The Outrage (based on Rashomon), and an Italian Yojimbo knockoff titled A Fistful of Dollars that earned a lawsuit from Toho, launched the worldwide ‘spaghetti western’ craze, and helped turn a TV actor named Clint Eastwood into a movie star.
Thanks to American International Pictures, many young people in the States were introduced to Japanese swordplay films on TV during the late '60s and early '70s. Samurai Pirate, a fantasy-adventure starring Toshiro Mifune that had grandly opened the new Toho Theatre in Honolulu in July 1964, was picked up by AIP for wide theatrical release the following spring. Dubbed into English and retitled The Lost World of Sinbad, it was paired for double bills with the Italian sword-and-sandal fantasy-horror film War of the Zombies and then sold to TV a few years later. AIP's television packages also included three English-dubbed samurai period kaiju (giant monster) movies that played TV from the late '60s straight through the '70s and into the mid '80s: the excellent Toei-produced ninjas-meet-monsters epic Magic Serpent and the first two Daimajin movies from Daiei, retitled Majin, The Monster of Terror and Return of Giant Majin.
Japanese theaters in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco ran not only samurai adventures but also ninjitsu movies and ninkyo and matatabi eiga, period Yakuza pictures featuring honorable, kimono-clad heroes and heroines and lots of bloody sword and tanto attacks. Interest in these films spread to other parts of the U.S. thanks to traveling programs like the “Films of Japan” series that passed through Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities in 1971 and included Chushingura, Sword of Doom, Samurai Rebellion, Kill!, Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy, and several Kurosawa classics. A year later a new Manhattan-based distributor called Roninfilm toured the country with a handful of the same movies, plus Onibaba and Harakiri, under the name “The Samurai.” The Toho Cinema in New York was long gone by this time, but the theater was back to its original name (the Bijou) and still running Japanese movies, including samurai double features and the occasional yakuza pic like Hideo Gosha's The Wolves and Toei's Fury of Karate Monk (a.k.a. Blind Yakuza Monk and Whipmaster), starring Bunta Sugawara.
Speaking of karate, martial arts movies from Japan like Sanshiro Sugata, Judo Showdown and especially Judo vs. Karate had inspired Shaw Brothers star Jimmy Wang/Wong Yu to make the trailblazing kung fu vs. karate classic The Chinese Boxer in 1970. Three years earlier, he had starred in Shaw's groundbreaking smash The One-Armed Swordsman, which had been influenced by the popularity of Daiei's blind swordsman Zatoichi movies in Hong Kong. The outrageously violent Shaw actioners had found great success in U.S. Chinatown theaters beginning in 1968 and were soon making their way into some of the art theaters that showed the Japanese sword films. That changed when Warner Bros unleashed Shaw's King Boxer on an unsuspecting public in March of 1973, in an English-dubbed version retitled Five Fingers of Death—sparking a movie-going craze similar to the one for Italian westerns that Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name" trilogy had kicked off in 1967.
It was yet another remix in the continuing exchange of film styles, themes, and ideas between the U.S., Japan, Italy, and now Hong Kong. American westerns inspired Japanese samurai films and Italian westerns, which then borrowed from each other while also being absorbed by American and Chinese filmmakers. When director Hideo Gosha and Lone Wolf with Child/Sword of Vengeance star Tomisaburo Wakayama tried to get the remake rights to Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence and learned Clint Eastwood had beaten them to it, they didn't let that stop them from borrowing the idea of a voiceless lone wolf for their own TV series, Mute Samurai (a decade after A Fistful of Dollars "borrowed" from Yojimbo).
In the fall of 1973, someone at Columbia Pictures must've been weighing the box-office returns on kung fu versus the attendance numbers for swordplay films at the nearby Toho La Brea, because the studio suddenly announced they were adding one of the Lone Wolf with Child/Sword of Vengeance films, Baby Cart to Hades, to their 1974 release schedule (Columbia’s press release incorrectly ID'd it as the second film in the series—it's actually the third—which caused some confusion six years later when the real second movie was released as Shogun Assassin). Under the title Lightning Swords of Death, the film charged into New York swinging on March 6, 1974 with a tagline that clearly revealed Columbia's target and target audience: “Raise a Kung-fu fist against Ogami… and he'll chop it off!”
Before they made it to theaters, however, Lone Wolf and Child had to run a gauntlet of New York film critics including:
Ann Guarino, Daily News: “a samurai blood bath… possibly may find an audience, but I doubt it.”
Judith Ripp, Parents’ Magazine & Better Homemaking: “The current craze for Kung Fu is probably the reason this bloody Japanese samurai film has been imported for mass consumption.”
Boxoffice: “Devotees of kung fu flicks can be counted on to support some of the samurai epics, which ironically could replace the k.f. releases. This will be a picture to watch for a new trend.”
Variety: “Goodbye kung-fu, welcome home, samurai.”
...while in the UK, Tony Rayns of The Monthly Film Bulletin was the only critic anywhere to observe that both genres “flaunt the influence of the Italian Western,” comparing Wakayama's Ogami Itto to Tatsuya Nakadai’s samurai character in Tonino Cervi's Today We Kill…Tomorrow We Die and pointing out that “when Ogami enters the ‘gate of hell’ at the climax, and his modest wooden cart turns out not only to be armor-plated but also to conceal an arsenal of unlikely weapons, the specter of Leone looms very large indeed.” Back in the States, Iron Fist and The X-Men author Chris Claremont wrote pages and pages on the film for The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.
Meanwhile, the cover of the most recent issue of Film Comment featured a shirtless and tattooed Ken Takakura—“Japan's number one yakuza star”—in a fighting stance and wielding a katana. Inside was a 10-page article on yakuza movies by Paul Schrader, “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer,” in which he defined the genre as Japanese gangster movies but explained how they achieve a nobility that is lacking in their American and European counterparts, and therefore more closely resemble Westerns by “choosing timelessness over relevance, myth over realism” and seeking “not social commentary, but moral truth.” He also traced the genre's roots back to the early '60s and the supposed decline in popularity of chanbara or period swordplay films in Japan, stressed the rise in popularity of ninkyo eiga yakuza pics, and even slipped in a plug for the upcoming Warner Bros. production The Yakuza, while failing to mention that he was one of the writers of The Yakuza and that the screenplay had triggered a competitive interstudio bidding war a year earlier, resulting in its sale to Warner for $300,000 plus 30% of net profits—the highest amount paid for an original screenplay up to that time. Lack of full disclosure aside, “Yakuza Eiga: A Primer” remains a brilliant and important piece of film writing to this day.
A month after Lightning Swords of Death hit New York, the legendary 10-week-long “Cinema East” film series began at the Regency Theatre on Broadway and 67th Street. The ads, designed by comic book artists Larry Hama and Ralph Reese, promised “over 50 films from Japan featuring the samurai, classic, contemporary, and the first showing of the yakuza,” the last claim blatantly untrue, since several Yakuza films had played New York in the previous three years—but who was going to argue when Pale Flower, The Wolves, a double bill of Red Peony Gambler/Lady Yakuza and The Tattooed Swordswoman, and Tai Katô's nearly three-hour-long Theatre of Life were on the program? Not comic book writers Mary Skrenes and John Warner, who reviewed all of them for Marvel's The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine.
In addition to premiering Zatoichi's Conspiracy during the first week of “Cinema East,” organizers Roninfilm and Rising Sun Enterprises announced their plan to release an English-dubbed version of the decade-old Zatoichi kenka-tabi to the action circuit under the title Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. The fifth in the long-running series of chanbara films about the blind masseur and expert swordsman, Zatoichi kenka-tabi was the first Zatoichi movie Daiei had sold to exhibitors outside of their usual network of theaters. Simply titled Zatoichi, it played first in Hong Kong in June 1965, where a critic for the South China Morning Post called it “a surprisingly enjoyable film” with “not much of a story, but well told with a minimum of fuss” and “far and away superior to almost everything else currently screening.”
When it reached the 55th Street Playhouse in Manhattan three years later, Howard Thompson of the New York Times dismissed it as “rambling and static” and “only so-so.” The critic also singled out a moment in which Zatoichi throws a persimmon to a Yakuza boss and slices it in midair with his sword, adding “If only the movie were that swift and succinct.” It didn't matter—the character was a hit with audiences, and this first English-subtitled breakout film (which had played in Honolulu as both Masseur Ichi's Challenging Journey and Zatoichi on the Road) was screened a good number of times in “Films of Japan” and other samurai film series around the U.S. prior to the booking of its dubbed version at the 42nd Street New Amsterdam and 33 other “samurai showcase theaters” in the New York area on May 15, 1974.
As with Zatoichi, the third and final chanbara of ’74 was PG-rated, English-dubbed and several years old by the time it reached mainstream U.S. audiences, but what happened to Hideo Gosha’s snowy stunner Goyokin is the saddest story of all. After a successful five-week engagement at the Toho Theatre in Honolulu in the summer of 1969, the decidedly anti-feudal film landed at the Toho La Brea in L.A. that September, where Variety referred to it as “extraordinarily beautiful” and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it “a film of stunning beauty and power.” However, its New York premiere two years later as part of the “Films of Japan IV” series at the Bijou was marred by Vincent Canby’s cranky review for the Times. With Goyokin, “an elaborate but undistinguished Japanese samurai movie with a bleeding, liberal heart… a perfectly respectable 19th-century adventure genre has been updated, if not corrupted, by 20th-century liberalism of the sort that is so anachronistic in some of our own Westerns.” Canby also dismissed the film’s ronin protagonist, played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai, as “an enlightened Oriental equivalent to Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name.”
The next stop for Goyokin was San Francisco in early ’72, where Jeanne Miller of the Examiner praised it as “powerful and arresting….an absorbing and visually gorgeous morality tale with a distinctly contemporary flavor.” The film continued to play festivals and generate buzz until it attracted the kind of attention that buys up theatrical distribution and remake rights, and the version prepared for the action circuit opened at the New Amsterdam on September 18, 1974 as The Steel Edge of Revenge, co-billed with the George Foreman vs. Ken Norton fight from six months earlier. A news item in Variety and consistent reports of an 86 minute running time indicate that this version was shorn of nearly 40 minutes, certainly a possibility considering its stateside distributor was Kelly-Jordan Enterprises, the same party responsible for re-cutting Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess and sending it off to die on the exploitation circuit under two different titles, Blood Couple and Double Possession. As for the remake rights, those were bought by Tom Laughlin of Billy Jack, whose Master Gunfighter keeps the story in the 1830s but moves it from Japan to California.
A month later, Paul Schrader was at the Museum of Modern Art curating a one-day festival of his favorite Toei-produced ninkyo Yakuza films: The Cherry Blossom Fire Gang of Kanto, Presidential Gambling (a.k.a. Big Time Gambling Boss), and The Hanafuda Game (third in the Red Peony Gambler/Lady Yakuza series). When The Yakuza was released by Warner Bros the following March, it bombed magnificently. The trio of Japanese sword movies weren’t successful enough to kick off a craze—all three failed to make Variety’s “Big Rental Films of 1974” list, which means they earned less than $1 million for their distributors—but they weren’t costly major studio productions either. “The Yakuza? Unplayable, totally unplayable,” said a film booker for a Boston-based theater chain in a Film Comment article later that year. “You should’ve seen some of the grosses on that: $20, $22. That’s a whole day in first run situations. It got some fairly good reviews, too. It’s just that when you put ‘Yakuza’ up, the audience just doesn’t know.” So did any of the films in this sword-swinging bunch make any money? Yes—Tom Laughlin’s Master Gunfighter, the scene-for-scene Goyokin remake that doesn’t even credit Goyokin.
A few weeks after Schrader’s MoMA appearance, New Line Cinema unveiled a Toei karate movie in Atlanta that was so violent it had gotten slapped with an X rating by the MPAA. Exit the swordplay, enter The Street Fighter—except that, six years later, those two enterprising guys named Weisman and Houston put together Shogun Assassin and tried again to make swords and samurai a thing. If you take the New York City opening week box-office number for Lightning Swords of Death ($275,000), adjust it for 1980 inflation against Shogun Assassin’s opening week number in New York on 12 fewer screens ($450,000), you’ll probably find that the two films made about the same amount of money: not enough. Besides, the day Shogun Assassin opened at the Lyric, Challenge of the Ninja was beginning its second week across the street at the Cine 42, so Lone Wolf Ogami’s formidable foes were already moving in for the box-office kill.
Exit the samurai... enter the ninja!
—Text by Chris Poggiali
Sources cited in this essay
- Boxoffice. “Toho Opens NY House; Has 10-15 Imports.” Boxoffice, 28 Jan 1963, p.E-4.
- Boxoffice. Review of Lightning Swords of Death, directed by Kenji Misumi. Boxoffice, 18 March 1974, p. A7.
- Canby, Vincent. “Film: A Liberal Samurai.” Review of Goyokin, directed by Hideo Gosha. New York Times, 20 October 1971, p. 52.
- Denberg, Jeffrey. “NBA Stars Out for Laughs.” Newsday, 20 January 1970, p. 26.
- Guarino, Ann. “’Lightning Sword’ Samurai Bloodbath.” Review of Lightning Swords of Death, directed by Kenji Misumi. Daily News, 7 March 1974, p. 82.
- Maslin, Janet. “Splitting Jaws with the Happy Booker: A Talk with a Circuit Buyer.” Film Comment, July/August 1975, pp. 57-62, 64.
- Miller, Jeanne. “Something Different in Samurai Drama.” Review of Goyokin, directed by Hideo Gosha. San Francisco Examiner, 21 February 1972, p. 24.
- Our Film Critic. “The Fastest Sword in the East.” Review of Zatoichi, directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda. South China Morning Post, 8 June 1965, p. 4.
- Rayns, Tony. Review of Kozure Ohkami (Lightning Swords of Death), directed by Kenji Misumi. The Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1974, p. 276-277.
- Ripp, Judith. Review of Lightning Swords of Death, directed by Kenji Misumi. Parents’ Magazine & Better Homemaking, April 1974, p. 20.
- Robe. Review of Lightning Swords of Death, directed by Kenji Misumi. Variety, 6 March 1974, p. 20.
- Schrader, Paul. “Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer.” Film Comment, January/February 1974, pp. 8-17.
- Staff Correspondent. “Toho Cinema Opens Doors.” The Christian Science Monitor, 24 January 1963, p. 10.
- Strauss, Harold. “My Affair with Japanese Movies.” Harper’s Magazine, 1 July 1955, pp. 54-59.
- Thomas, Kevin. “’Goyokin’ at Toho Attacks Feudal Code.” Review of Goyokin, directed by Hideo Gosha. Los Angeles Times, 1 September 1969, part IV p. 20.
- Thompson, Howard. “Blade Flashing in Old Japan.” Review of Zatoichi, directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda. New York Times, 28 June 1968, p. 37.
- Tone. Review of Goyokin, directed by Hideo Gosha. Variety, 3 September 1969, p. 19.
- Variety. Review of The Steel Edge of Revenge, directed by Hideo Gosha. Variety, 18 September 1974, p. 19.