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Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Wo yao shang xue (written on the left) = I want to go to school. Wow an educational caption!

Director: Fang Gangliang
Writers: Zhao Dongling
Date: 2004

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Description: School, children, education, working student

Cast: Wu Xu, Ai Liya, Yang Shulin, Zhao Xue, Hu Zhixiao, Ren Huan, Guo Haowei

Crew of note:

Runtime: 91 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on a true story

Wang Yan is a little girl in a little town in western China. Her school has just raised tuition from 20 yuan to 24 yuan and 80 cents, and unfortunately her family might not be able to afford to send her to school next semester. She figures that if she can earn it herself, she should be able to continue attending school. The little businesswoman works her way from eggs, to a pen, to a small lamb, to picking berries, all to earn enough money to go to school.

Like most, I hated school when I was a kid. Homework, boring classes, evil teachers, waking up early… aside from PE and lunch time (actually, basketball time), was there ever anything fun about school? Only the nerds ever wanted to go, and they were picked on relentlessly. Except during exams, then they were everyone’s best friends. I suppose when you live someplace where education is a basic and provided right, you end up taking it for granted. And maybe that’s why movies like Shang xue lu shang are alien enough to be unique and interesting at first glance, but also have the ability to feel familiar in its themes.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

PE is awesome is one of those universal themes

That’s how movies like this become successful: it is set in a foreign land, in a strange culture, in a world we’ve never been to before, and yet the story, characters and themes are able to resonate deep within us. They make sense, sort of, even though the film is as foreign as the language they speak. Luckily, cinema seems to work in a language that we all understand, and Fang uses it well. He works many long and wide shots of the the terrain to frame Wang Yan’s struggle, but remembers to keep us close for dear moments. The music punctuates key scenes, but never feels pandering or manipulative.

The cast of characters that surround the main character also add to the film’s great charm. Dagua and Erguo are adorable, like most little brothers are; the groom-to-be is a hilariously thrifty businessman; the teacher is supportive but has problems of his own; and her mother, though she does not approve of her plans at first, eventually gives in. Wang Yan and the people around her are richly drawn and real.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

A kid selling a blind man a lamb. Yes.

This is “Little Kid Overcoming Adversity” done right, and Wang Yan is the perfect protagonist for a movie like this. She is the best thing about the film, and even though the adversity she faces may not be especially severe or insurmountable, her positive attitude and hopefulness is welcome in a genre usually filled with tears. Unlike other movies that use sadsack children for quick sympathy and bathe their stories in that misguided “Depressing is Deep” mantra, Shang xue lu shang’s protagonist is optimistic and feisty while her story is lighthearted and a joy to watch. Her quest to earn that 24 and 80 is one part underdog story, one part meaningful, one part comedy, and 10 parts enjoyable. Okay maybe my math (and English) have gone down the drain, but you’ve never wanted to see a kid go to school more in your life.

Okay so I probably can’t make a better conclusion than what I wrote in that last paragraph so I’m just gonna stop here and tell you to just read it again and go look for this movie. k?

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Donald Trump with a cap instead of a toupe

things to take note of
Wang Yan’s optimism
Lack of melodrama and predictable life drama

best moment
Dagua, Ergua and Wang Yan running around
Making moneys

why you should watch this
Best child-wants-to-go-to-school movie evar

rating: 8.2

Plot: A
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Not One Less? But that one sucks

Daisatsujin orochi / The Betrayal

Daisatsujin orochi / The Betrayal (1966)

Raizo looks pissed, which is never good news for bad guys

Director: Tanaka Tokuzo
Writers: Hoshikawa Seiji
Date: 1966

Genre: Jidaigeki, Chambara
Description: Samurai life sucks, corrupt officials, traitors and backstabbers, a hard life

Cast: Ichikawa Raizo, Yuchigusa Kaoru, Fujimura Shiho, Nakaya Ichiro, Naito Taketoshi

Crew of note: Music by Ifukube Akira

Runtime: 88 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: This is a remake of Futagawa Buntaro’s “Orochi” originally starring Bando Tsumasaburo back in 1925.

A samurai enters the Minazuki clan’s school of Issaka Yaichiro to challenge the master to a fight, but he is currently away. Kobuse Takuma (Raizo) receives him, and the samurai, from the Iwashiro Clan, calls him into a duel. Kobuse refuses, and the samurai leaves. On his way home, however, he is followed by two members of the Minazuki clan and is slayed from behind.* His clan discovers his murder, and calls for the perpetrator to be arrested and punished, whoever he may be. A Minazuki clan official, Kobuse’s soon to be father-in-law, proposes a solution/cover-up: Kobuse should take the blame and disappear for a year while he tries to iron things out. Obviously, this doesn’t work out.

Dude, being a samurai sucks balls. I think there have been enough movies to prove this point. For some reason, movies about how samurai life was terrible seem to be of higher quality, of greater interest, indeed, are usually better than movies about cool and badass samurai. I’m looking at you Ogami Itto (you’re still cool though).

Daisatsujin orochi is a remake of one of the original movies with that premise, the similarly named Orochi** from 1925. The stories are pretty similar (though not exactly the same especially the ending), but seeing both is by no means redundant. In fact, seeing the two versions is probably more enjoyable than seeing just one.

So see it. Daisatsujin orochi isn’t a very famous film, and that’s unfortunate. It has a good story, great acting, beautiful black and white cinematography (using a lot of somewhat unconventional shots, maybe you’ll notice), and music by Ifukube (which means it’ll be great, you know). A good movie, until about an hour or so. I’m just too lazy to explain. Then BAM! Raizo draws his sword and the inevitable final showdown begins. And, it’s pretty amazing.

The climax of the film is one of the most detailed, well planned and well executed ones I have ever seen. The integration of a variety of props (a water well and bucket, ladders, wooden boards, carts, ropes, different kinds of weapons), the use of superb still shots (the one where Raizo moves under a wooden railing, watch for it), Raizo’s swordfighting worthy of Bantsuma’s legendary status, etc are all pretty awesome. Long drawn-out fights usually tend to become redundant after a while, especially when the hero seems to never tire, but here, after wave upon wave of assailants, Raizo deteriorates, starting on his feet and eventually rolling around in the dirt. He becomes thirsty, his hair disheveled, his hand tense and uncooperative, his body exhausted and his face in agony. It’s not only a fight, it is a transformation, an epiphany for Kobuse.

Warrior vs Snake painting

My computer refuses to make screencaps or I'm just very very lazy

A majority of chambara fans (especially those who love samurai for their “exoticism”) probably just watch for the slicing-and-dicing, and really don’t care about the nuances of culture and history. This is a film that can be appreciated by that lot, and also by those who have a more serious, more academic interest in samurai life on film. How this isn’t as famous as some other chambara from the 60s is beyond me, because this is clearly one of the best. Maybe even Raizo’s best performance.

things to take note of
Amazing climax
Similarities with Orochi (1925)
The realism and detail of the climax, and Raizo’s acting
The importance of pride (Denshichiro’s resolution)
Some amazing shots in there too
Ifukube’s subtle but brilliant score

best moment
The climactic super-fight obviously

why you should watch this
A great remake of a classic chambara
I lost count of how many people Raizo ends up killing
These “samurai life sucks dude” movies are always interesting

rating: 8.7

Plot: B
Cast: B+
Cinematography: A
Music: B+
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Orochi (1925), obviously.
Other “samurai life sucks dude” movies such as Harakiri, Joi-uchi: Hairyo tsuma shimatsu, etc.

* It is deemed cowardly to attack a samurai from behind or without his knowledge. This is pretty much the reason why in most one-vs-many battles the assailants behind the lone samurai are simply standing around. Without properly engaging and acknowledging each other in combat, it’s considered plain murder and not a duel or a legitimate fight. So, you know, they aren’t standing around coz they’re idiots. They’re actually following bushido.

** Since I’m unlikely to write a whole review for Orochi (it’s included in a feature about classic chambara though), I’ll squeeze in a little trivia here. The title sort of doesn’t make sense (orochi means snake or serpent) without an explanation. Originally, the title of the film was supposed to be something like “Outlaw” or “Rebel”, but Japanese censors refused to allow an anti-government, anti-establishment outlaw to be considered a hero. Futagawa decided to give the film its name to describe how Bantsuma moves (slithering and sliding) like a snake, and how even in death a serpent still looks pretty menacing. This is according to renowned film historian Sato Tadao, so I’m not pulling this outta my ass. Also, I’m the one who added this trivia on imdb.

Abare Goemon / Rise Against the Sword!

Abare Goemon / Rise Against the Sword! (1966)

Nope not a samurai movie

Director: Inagaki Hiroshi
Writers: Ide Masato, Inagaki Hiroshi
Date: 1966

Genre: Jidaigeki
Description: Farmer uprising, samurai are assholes, one man leads a revolution

Cast: Mifune Toshiro, Otawa Nobuko, Sato Makoto, Ryo Tamura, Hoshi Yuriko, Nishimura Ko, Kato Daisuke, Hirata Akihiko

Crew of note:

Runtime: 101 mins
Color: Black and White
Trivia: Nope, Goemon is not a real person

Goemon is the leader of the Shinobu clan (more like village), a village of farmers and peasants. They are at odds with the Asakura Clan of samurai, who impose heavy taxes and treat the villages like dirt. In response, all the local tribes have formed an alliance to defend themselves from the abusive samurai. The Asakura Clan, in an attempt to quell their rebellion and gain control of the entire region, tries to enlist the aid of the villages to defeat the neighboring Enjoji, who are also samurai that no one seems to like.

Despite the fact that I consider Inagaki incredibly inconsistent and his grand epics sometimes sappy or hollow, I still find myself quite drawn to watching his movies. This is an Inagaki film after all so you all know what to expect. At the very least there’ll be battles right?

Well, Abare Goemon gets it right. Which is funny, because while “Inagaki Hiroshi” and “samurai jidaigeki” usually go hand-in-hand, this one’s actually about farmers, and the samurai are the bad guys. Normal people rise up and wage war against an oppressive ruling war clan. Who doesn’t love an underdog story?

One of the main strong points of the film is Goemon himself. He’s a pretty wacky character. He’s rough, vulgar, violent, ill-tempered, ill-mannered, and insensitive. Yet he’s also intelligent, an great strategic and tactical mind, an inspiring leader, and a great comedian too. There are times when he’s obstinate and stubborn, but there are moments when he is understanding and humble, often making jokes at his own expense. He can be quite a brute, yes, and for much of the film he’s actually pretty hate-able especially with the way he treats his brothers. But he’s also a great hero, and this mixed bag of traits makes him very human, indeed, very likable at the close analysis.

Mifune in Abare Goemon


It is also interesting to see the similarities between samurai culture and that of the Shinobu farmers. It’s obvious that there are more differences, but there are also some things that apparently never change. Discrimination, double standards, greed, oppression.. it seems that as long as people are different in some way, these things will persist. But the farmers are a kinder people compared to the samurai apparently, and unlike the rigid customs and traditions of bushido, change is possible in their culture. Actually, maybe that’s just Goemon who, for all his hatred of the samurai, is actually rather similar to them.

Except that he kicks their butts.

Mifune in Abare Goemon

Wacky! part 2

I liked this a lot. Even though Inagaki uses the same tricks he’d been using decades, for some reason it just worked a whole lot better in the context of farmers. With a hero like Goemon, who is, by far, one of Inagaki’s most interesting and memorable characters, it is impossible not to rally to the side of the farmers and cheer for the ruin of the Asakura clan. Funny, action packed and with a great Mifune performance, this film has all the best elements of Inagaki’s war epics and few of the shortcomings.

things to take note of
Goemon’s conflicts and contradictions
The double standards
Differences and similarities between militant famers and samurai

best moment
Mifune raids a castle, and looks like a character from Dynasty Warriors / Samurai Warriors (the games) while doing so.

Mifune in Abare Goemon

Reminds me of Ma Chao from Dynasty Warriors actually

why you should watch this
Mifune’s Goemon is a pretty interesting character
Great battle sequences as usual
Farmers vs Samurai

rating: 8.3

Plot: B
Cast: B
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Other Inagaki epics, I guess!

Samurai Revolution Trilogy:
Juusan-nin no shikaku / The Thirteen Assassins
Dai satsujin / The Great Duel
Ju-ichinin no samurai / Eleven Samurai

Kudo Eiichi - Samurai Revolution Trilogy (1963 - 1966)

Obviously, there will be tons of people with swords

Director: Kudo Eiichi
Writers: Ikegami Kaneo, Kunihiro Takeo, Suzuki Norifumi, Matsudaira Norimichi
Date: 1963, 1964, 1966

Genre: Chambara, Jidaigeki
Description: Dudes go assassinating, evil politicians, cruel lords, justice beyond the law, revenge

– Kataoka Chiezo, Nishimura Ko, Uchida Ryohei, Arashi Kanjuro, Satomi Kotaro, cameo by Tamba Tetsuro, Natsuyagi Isao, etc.
– Satomi Kotaro, Kawarasaki Choichiro, Hira Mikijiro, Inaba Yoshio, Yamamoto Rinichi, Munakata Nami, Ohki Minoru, Osaka Shiro, Abe Toru, Otomo Ryutaro, Kato Go, Kataoka Chiezo
– Natsuyagi Isao, Satomi Kotaro, Nambara Koji, Sato Kei, Suga Kantaro, Nishimura Ko, Otomo Ryutaro, etc.

Crew of note: Music by Ifukube Akira.

Runtime: 125 mins + 119 mins + 95 mins = 339 mins or 5 hours and 39 minutes.
Color: Black and White

Three different assholes, three different assassinations. Though the three films are similar in their main premise (be a jerk official and there’ll be some assassinatin’), there are variations on the theme.

In Juusan-nin no shikaku, the Shogun’s younger brother, Lord of the Akashi clan, rapes a woman and kills her and her husband over the affair. It becomes quite clear in the first 5 minutes that the lord is rotten and foul, and to save Japan from his rule, 13 samurai take it upon themselves to rid the world of this menace.

In the next film, Lord Yutanokami Sakai is pretty much your average politician, and by that I mean he was trying to set up a puppet shogunate with himself as ultimate mastermind, a.k.a. the “regent”, by influencing the choice of the shogun’s successor to some obscure relative whom he had sway over. Of course, this pisses off a bunch of “rightful” samurai, who swear to stop the plot.

Finally, in the last film, we get a straight-up revenge story. Lord Noriatsu is an asshole (I think it’s clear all the villains here are), who trespasses on Oishi territory killing a wandering peasant while on a deer hunt. Lord Abe of Oishi spots the madman and scolds him, warning him to go back to his own land before things get messy. Being the asshole that he is, Noriatsu sends an arrow into Abe’s head, striking him dead. Obviously, his vassals want revenge.

Natsuyagi Isao

Natsuyagi Isao. I assume this is the third film. I.. honestly don't remember anymore?

Kudo Eiichi sadly didn’t have much sway over the studios, unlike his more famous contemporaries. Aside from TV work, he was pretty much stuck with doing studio-assigned jobs with about as much freedom as an Economy class airplane seat. Which is, really, very unfortunate because the three films now remembered as his “Samurai Revolution Trilogy” are some of the most beautifully shot chambara out there.

Of course, you’re probably more interested in the action, and oh boy, this one really satisfies your bloodlust, although a majority of the goodness is crammed in the ends. Most of the films follow a similar outline, and make it necessary that we understand, somehow, what the assassination is about and how they’re going to do it. The planning process is half the battle, and the movie dedicates as much time in following the assassins on their preparations for the epic showdowns. It’s a cruel, cruel world, and Kudo’s heroes are equally subject to man’s faults and weaknesses. In fact, despite on a quest for justice, many of the protagonists might as well be as bad as their intended victims. The second movie is the darkest, bleakest of the three portraying the good guys as.. well, not very good at all. This surprisingly makes the story even more interesting, and the conclusion even more satisfying.

Ju-ichinin no samurai / Eleven Samurai (1966)

Did I mention there were bamboo cannons?

All three films finish with three of the most drawn out (in a good way?), complicated, messy and gruesome battles from 60’s chambara. These guys aren’t Mifunes or Nakadais that can dispatch foes with one clean strike; they stumble, make mistakes and often miss their target. That isn’t to say that they flunked kendo class, but killing’s never as pretty as many Golden Age movies make them look, and the zankoku* jidaigeki of the 60’s (such as the previously reviewed Bakumatsu zankoku monogatari) are as refreshing as a Bloody Mary before lunch. Which is to say: very much so!

There is also quite a bit of a history behind these films (do some research, dudes), and it’s interesting how Kudo tries to create his plausible historical epics. Many of the officials and lords in the film are real people, and Kudo’s suggestion of “what may have happened” can actually make sense. Though unlikely, they are about as historically probable as fiction gets.

Not that it matters, as long as people get chopped up to bits, right?

I don't remember where this is from?

Or, possible, people blown to bits

Sure, the three movies are a little too samey in their plots and timelines (official does evil stuff – plan the job – get in some trouble – execute the plan – finale), but they are all great action movies with interesting twists and explosive swordplay. Their respective final scenes are reasons enough to watch these films, as they try to match Shichinin no samurai’s ambition in creating a huge climax, only with a much more gruesome, merciless taste. You might not remember the story long after watching (I had a tough time making those shitty summaries 馃槮 ), and you probably won’t remember any of the characters (except ones of famous actors), but you’ll definitely remember the action, the bloodshed, the excitement of sword ripping flesh and the satisfaction of an assassination done successfully. Well, sort of.

Samurai Revolution Trilogy

This is a metaphor for how I always seem lost and rambling while writing reviews. 馃槮

things to take note of
The history behind each movie
The differences between each film (because they are kinda the same?)

best moment
Their respective final showdowns

why you should watch this
Contains some of the best action sequences in chambara which are meticulously planned and excellently shot
Great example of this zankoku jidaigeki thing

rating: 8.4

Plot: B
Cast: C+
Cinematography: B+
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
I already gave you three and you still want more?
Samurai / Samurai Assassin directed by Okamoto Kihachi, which is also integrated into history quite interestingly

*Zankoku pretty much means “cruel”, therefore, “cruel period film” characterized by realistic bloodshed, dark characters and.. well, cruelty I guess

Jirocho Fuji

Jirocho Fuji (1959)

The naked man is Katsu Shintaro. I think.

Director: Mori Kazuo
Writers: Yahiro Fuji
Date: 1959

Genre: Jidaigeki, Yakuza
Description: Yakuza doing good, yakuza is a samurai, doing the right thing, fighting the bad guys, a great man and his men

Cast: Hasegawa Kazuo, Katsu Shintaro, Ichikawa Raizo, Kyo Machiko, Wakao Ayako, Hongo Kojiro, Funakoshi Eiji, Negami Jun, Takizawa Osamu

Crew of note:

Runtime: 106 mins.
Color: Color

Jirocho Fuji (Shimizu no Jirocho, 19th century folk hero) is a local yakuza boss, who, unlike his more ruthless neighboring bosses, enjoys doing good and hates harming the innocent, instead of, like, cutting off pinky fingers and extorting people in gambling dens. Obviously, this is pissing off some of the other yakuza bosses, so they set out to find a way to get rid of him.

Actually, I don’t really have anything to say about this movie. But scanning through the googleplex I saw that there was not a single review for this film (just a lot of dead links), which is unfortunate because this is a great movie somewhere in between jidaigeki and nikyo-eiga.*

The story of Jirocho Fuji or Shimizu no Jirocho isn’t very well known outside of Japan, even though he has to be one of the most famous Yakuza ever, and has about 50+ movies bearing his name. In case you’re interested about his background and history, here is an excerpt from “Yakuza: Japan’s criminal underworld” by David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro (from google books):

Page 01
Page 02 **

Sounds like an interesting guy right? Well, this film is supposed to be the Jirocho “mega movie”, with a big budget, an all star cast, and a veteran director. The movie combines action, comedy, and a little drama, and feels far removed from the bloody, dark and brooding ninkyo-eiga of the 70’s (example: Yami no karyudo / Hunter in the Darkness, a chambara ninkyo-eiga). It’s a delightful blend that never takes itself too seriously, and aims primarily to entertain. The film also covers quite a lot of events despite its short running time, packing as much excitement, intrigue, laughs and swordfights as it can in its length. The film culminates in a final battle along the Fujigawa river, and though not quite as epic as some other swordfight climaxes, is still very enjoyable.

Portrait of Shimizu no Jirocho

He.. didn't look very nice?

I seriously had nothing to say, yet I felt compelled to help this film get some recognition from google (and hopefully also people). Isn’t that enough to make you want to see it? Ok I’m done now.

Shimizu no Jirocho and Ishimatsu

Review Writing Lesson #97: Nothing to say? Spam funny pictures.

Seeing Hasegawa, Katsu, Ichikawa and other Japanese film regulars all in one movie is always fun. The movie is also solid and simple, with no flaws and no distractions. It’s enjoyable and well done, a fantastic genre film, as long as you don’t expect much in terms of epiphanies and insights into the human condition. Kurotakagi even calls it a Daiei genre masterpiece. It probably is, and it’s a fine introduction to Shimizu no Jirocho’s folk hero story.

things to take note of
I’m not actually sure

best moment
Whenever Katsu does something funny/stupid
The fights, I guess?

why you should watch this
Katsu Shintaro in one of his funniest performances, by far
Great intro to this folk hero
The first 7 names in the cast should be pretty recognizable to Japanese film fans

rating: 8

Plot: B
Cast: B
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
O-Edo shichininshu / Seven from Edo

* Ninkyo-eiga = “chivalry movie” about honorable Yakuza
** Since these two pages are available over at google books, I assume I’m allowed to put them on my corner of the interweb as long as a cite the book correctly, so no one sue me please?



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