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November 11, 2006

Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves

The first Japanese film I ever saw was Rashomon and since that momentous evening I have been hooked on samurai films (and Japanese film in general). This was about 20 years ago, at a time when it was still difficult to find Japanese films. The situation improved after I moved again to Japan in the late eighties - although the DVD did not exist yet, at least I could rent videos. I also used to scour the TV guide for occasional showings of samurai films on Japanese TV. Then the Laser Disc came and with it lots of chambara films, as the Zatoichi and Nemuri Kyoshiro series. In the late nineties, finally, the DVD took the world by storm and with it came the relatively large flow of films we now can choose from.

Compared to the past, we now live in heaven for the samurai film fan! I gradually grew into this field of swashbuckling Ronin and stern Bushido (and there were such useful guides as Alain Silver's The Samurai Film and the book by Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa), but if you are new to it, some more help may come in handy. It is here that Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, The Samurai Film Handbook by Patrick Galloway proves its worth, although even as an "old hand" I greatly enjoyed it.

Galloway is an ardent fan of samurai flicks and his enthusiasm is quite infectious. He discusses 50 films (all available to would-be viewers, most of them even relatively easy) and also provides profiles for 10 directors and actors. In the introduction he gives the necessary cultural background about the samurai and the films that were made about them. His definition of the samurai film neglects Japanese intricacies such as the difference between jidaigeki (historical films) and chambara (sword fight films). In Galloway's definition all films that have samurai and sword fights in it and that are set in the historical period until the start of the Meiji period (1868), are samurai films. A very practical definition with which I fully agree!

Galloway not only discusses classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, but also delves into popular series as Zatoichi, Nemuri Kyoshiro, Miyamoto Musashi and Lone Wolf and Cub. Lady Snowblood is present as well. Sometimes he seeks the boundaries of the genre, as in Kwaidan (rather a horror film) or (on a different level) Daimajin, an old monster film about a giant samurai statue that comes to life. But he also discusses art films as Harakiri and gives a sympathetic account of Twilight Samurai.

Galloway writes in a light and humorous style that is a breeze to read. The book has been beautifully edited and illustrated and is fully up to the high standard we have gotten used to from Stone Bridge Press.

Also read my post on Best Samurai Films.