Every so often, you get to watch a movie that is so original that it breaks every rule of cinema and still works perfectly. You will never see better use of light and shade than director Matsumoto Toshio manages in this 1970 rarity.
It’s complex, slow paced and terrifying. The forms of Kabuki and Noh are completely reinvented, but respected with a masterly love. Violence is stylised and graphic in equal measures.
It’s part of the brilliant British Film Institute series Shinjuku Diaries, featuring films from the Art Theatre Guild of Japan. “Shura” is an epic treat.
I first learned about Kabuki from an old episode of Patrick McGoohan’s series “Danger Man”. Popular culture and television can lead to great knowledge. I was fascinated by the different conventions of Kabuki and started a life-long love of the form.
What Toshio achieves here is nothing short of miraculous. The twisting story is worthy of ancient Greek tragedies and completely involves you, from the first frame.
It’s based on a Kabuki play, but rewritten to subvert the traditional meanings of heroism and loyalty, to great effect.
Gengobe is a Ronin, a Samurai for hire who has become despised. In this role, Nakamura Katsuo does more with his eyebrows than most actors do with their whole bodies.
He is in love with Koman, a Geisha, played by Sanjo Yasuko with enormous flirtation, pathos and warmth. That love leads to a set of tragic and ironic events.
It’s seems almost a shame to single out the two leads for a mention, since the whole ensemble is terrific.
Much of the film is shot through different shades of darkness, which leads to the viewer feeling that events are being glimpsed through a small hole in a wall.
This is Toshio’s second feature. His first, “Funeral Parade of Roses” was a modern tale of homosexuality in Tokyo’s criminal demi-world. As in “Shura”, you see the events from the individual’s point of view, then again from the outside.
Anyone who loves camera work has to see “Shura”. It’s a 135-minute master class in using very formal period and historic backgrounds to create an utterly modern tragedy.
You start with a colourful sun, but everything else is in black and white. You don’t need to know anything about Japanese cinema to enjoy this.
Don’t expect a happy ending. Kabuki and Noh can be very brutal, but reward the viewer deeply.
I was lucky enough to see the film introduced by the BFI’s Julian Ross who gave the audience great political and cinematic background on the personal cost to Toshio of his innovations.
“Shura” actually means “carnage” or “battle scene” in Japanese.
It’s on again at the BFI on Wednesday, August 31st at 6PM. Do whatever you have to do to get a ticket. See as many of the wonderful movies in this series as you possibly can. “Shura” is around so rarely that finding a trailer for it has completed eluded me, despite hours of research.