Shura (Toshio Matsumoto, 1971)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Shura.

Experimental filmmaker and critic Toshio Matsumoto followed up his queer opus, Funeral Parade of Roses, with a “mere” samurai film, yet underneath its seemingly traditional surface lurks just as many subversions. In Shura, a samurai poised to join the famous 47 ronin and avenge the death of his master becomes distracted from his duties by his love for a lowly geisha, who in turn betrays him. Driven mad by his desire for vengeance, the samurai embarks on a bloody path of revenge marked by riveting intensity, a nightmarishly black aesthetic, and an uncertain blurring of fantasy and reality. A Borgesian satire in the guise of samurai horror, this nocturnal masterpiece is one of the darkest films of its era, both visually and politically.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns
  • Security Treaty, a 1959 short film by Toshio Matsumoto
  • For My Crushed Right Eye, a 1969 installation piece by Matsumoto
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays on the film by Matsumoto and Nagisa Oshima, director’s notes, and an essay by Japanese film scholar Hirofumi Sakamoto

WARNING: MMC! is usually unconcerned about spoiling a nearly 50 year old film, however I suspect that Toshio Matsumoto’s Shura is little seen outside of Japan and I know from experience that the film is best seen with fresh eyes. And as Shura is a difficult film to discuss in any depth without revealing its plot and as I hope to do some justice to Matsumoto’s fascinating film with this post, this is fair warning: spoilers abound below. If you haven’t seen Shura, do yourself a 135-minute favour and watch it below!

A late example of the cruel jidai-geki, Toshio Matsumoto’s Shura (1971) may be its darkest entry, taking the subgenre’s violently critical stance against samurai heroism and thoroughly painting it black. Based on the Kabuki play Kami Kakete Sango Taisetsu (Lovers’ Pledge), penned by Tsuruya Nanboku (best known for Yotsuya Ghost Story) and also known as Koman Gengobei (Koman and Gengobei), the film operates as a sidequel to Chushingura, the famed account of the 47 18th-century ronin who avenged the death of their master and the dissolution of their Akō domain after two years of patient, anxious planning. Shura‘s main character is Gengobe (Katsuo Nakamura), a potential 48th ronin to the Chushingura story, who must repay a 100 ryo debt before being able to rejoin his brethren and participate in their honourable vengeance. Gengobe, like many of the 47, has taken on the appearance of having fallen into hard times – selling his personal goods, drinking, and taking up with a geisha named Koman (Yasuko Sanjo) – although his case may be less of a charade than other’s. When Gengobe’s loyal vassal Hachiemon (Masao Imafuku) returns to their home with 100 ryo raised by farmers and poor merchants to reinstate the samurai, Gengobe is torn between dutifully pursuing his clan’s vengeance or selfishly using the funds to redeem Koman and take her for his wife. The dilemma is made all the more timely by Koman’s “lover’s pledge’ tattooed to her arm and by the news that her contract will be bought out that night by a client intent on making her his mistress. After much agonized conflict, Gengobe does redeem Koman but it is then revealed that her messenger is in fact her husband, Sangoro (Juro Kara), and that Koman’s affections have been a ploy to exploit the samurai and free Koman to return to her marriage, reunite with her lost child, and restore themselves into the good graces of Sangoro’s father. Betrayal and heartbreak drive Gengobe mad and the remainder of Shura traces the ronin’s brutal and merciless vengeance against Koman, Sangoro, and all those connected to the scheme.

Matsumoto establishes in its opening sequences an aesthetic and narrative approach particular to Shura. The film begins with a large, pale sun setting, turning an orange sky red until eventually descending into darkness fully. The image resembles a kind of hellish inversion of the Japanese flag and marks the film’s only moment of colour. In its place is a disquieting world of perpetual darkness, described by Noël Burch as one where “much of the architecture is simply slabs of darkness.” Gengobe is pursued by police lanterns and Matsumoto intensifies the samurai’s perspective by repeating shots of him looking backward in overdetermined panic. He pounds on the main gate of a residence and calls for Oboshi (leader of the 47 ronin) but receives no reply. He then arrives home and calls for Koman without answer. Breaking down the door, he discovers a massacre – dead bodies, pools of blood, a slain Koman, and Gengobe himself hanging dead from a noose. He suddenly wakes to find a cheerful Koman who questions him about his dream and presciently remarks that “dreams are the mirror of the true heart!” Inadvertently, Koman declares the authority of the earlier sequence, nodding not just to the foreshadowed violence still to come but also giving authority to Shura‘s frequent detours through Gengobe’s subjective reveries, as when the film presents his imagined interventions into Koman’s meeting with her client and his later fantasies of poisoning Koman and Sangoro. Burch declares that these disruptions “create a permanent threat to the linearity and unity to the diegesis” and provide Matsumoto with room to explore anomalous narrative techniques like slow pans between characters that unexpectedly describe shot reverse shot exchanges and dreamy slow-motion that stands as an ambivalent marker between imagination and reality. For Burch, the imperceptible movement between these levels of reality (objective and subjective) and the ostentatious talent of Matsumoto’s filmmaking makes Shura “one of the most important and beautiful films made in Japan since Kurosawa’s prime.”

The decision to adapt a Kabuki piece at this point in Matsumoto’s film career is a curious one. By 1971, Matsumoto was a well-established film critic and theorist. He had cut his teeth with avant-garde documentaries like The Weavers of Nishijin (1962) and The Song of Stone (1963) and his queer masterpiece Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). His films reflected the media-conscious activism of Japan’s “season of politics” and he had already commenced his shift to technology-forward experiments like Metastasis (1971), Mona Lisa (1973), and Atman (1975). Even adapting Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex into Funeral, Matsumoto remained consistently contemporary and political in his resultant work, however Shura remains locked in its period setting and generally lacks the reflexive awareness of the mediated image (eizō) consistent not only with his other work, but also with those of contemporaries like Nagisa Oshima, Koji Wakamatsu, and Masao Adachi. Oshima, initially a peer and later a rival to Matsumoto, was critical of the film’s absent politics which failed in the basic task of distinguishing between oppressors and oppressed. In response, Matsumoto replied in the boldly titled essay “Is Oshima Blind?” that Oshima’s binaries deny the potential for good and evil or victim and victimizer in an individual. By defending himself in this way, Matsumoto reveals his approach in Shura as emphasizing the personal over the polemical.

Shura was released with the subtitle The 48th Ronin and was translated for English release under the titles DemonPandemonium, and Bloodshed. “Shura” generally describes a disastrous situation with no way of turning back and alludes to asura, a Buddhist name for demons that guard an inescapable and excruciating level of Hell typified by constant conflict. Matsumoto’s program notes read like an exhausted end-point in his activism, stating:

When I look back, it seems that I have lived in an inferno for the last twenty years. I have been angry so many times, and involved in well-nigh bloody clashes with others. I still remember how misunderstanding bred misunderstanding, till I found the given situation irremediable. … That kind of experience is what prompted me to make Pandemonium. This world is indeed pandemonium. … Living with the burden of its plight has put me constantly in direct contact with this question: “Can a human being be saved?” By weaving many painful phases of my youth into this film, I tried to make of it a requiem.

In Nanboku’s play, Matsumoto found something “about cruelty and madness suffered by the major characters, as they are betrayed by others—and even by themselves—in love, politics, and all aspects of life.” It would be easy to read these statements and take Shura as the semi-autobiographical, heavily re-imagined work of a filmmaker frustrated at factional infighting, a lack of influence over key political issues like the 1970 Japan-US Security Treaty, and the increasing monumentalization of experimental art and film forms, however Matsumoto’s deep interiority reflects not just his own resentment but also the filmmaker’s keenly theorized psychoanalytical views on capitalist power. Mixing Freud, Marx, and Sartre, Matsumoto held that capitalism’s repressive force alienated its subjects, inspiring morbid anxiety and feelings of the uncanny. Accordingly, Shura explores Gengobe’s psychic torment struggling between giri, the ronin’s honourable duties to his clan and to society that will end with his demise, and ninjo, his personal desires that inspire feelings of guilt and shame. Matsumoto explains that these unsatisfactory options form Gengobe’s increasing and insatiable obsession with revenge, stating:

The so-called enkon [vengeance] involves feelings of humiliation and hurt moving inward. Constantly allying themselves with melancholy and frustration, these feelings are turned into a limitless desire for revenge on those who have humiliated and persecuted the victim. Accordingly, in order to show the extent of his revenge, I need to keep digging into his sense of humiliation, melancholy and unquenched, almost mad, masochistic desire to kill.

Shura‘s bitterest pill is an ironic twist revealed halfway through, when Sangoro and Koman pay their debt to Sangoro’s father and it is revealed that the money will be used to help a samurai named Soemon who needs the funds to join the 47 ronin’s vengeance. Soemon is, of course, Gengobe but the truth of his identity and the reality that his 100 ryo would always end up supporting his Akō cause are only revealed to Shura‘s characters at the film’s concluding scene and after Gengobe has murdered Koman, her child, and Sangoro’s compatriots. Gengobe/Soemon is dispirited and broken by the discovery that his personal betrayal and violent grudge are meaningless; he remarks, “I no longer have the right or desire to be one of the faithful retainers.” Sangoro’s epiphany that his deceit has proven entirely fruitless leads to an even more despondent realization – “I have lived a useless life” – and his final act of suicide is depicted in repeating shots that recall the film’s opening and Gengobe’s fevered flight. Duty, honour, and tragedy are revealed to be an unending monster eating its own tail and individuals like Gengobe, who cannot live by its demands and its injustices, are doomed. This is the moral of Shura, that the world, Gengobe’s and ours, is ultimately “a sea of blood.”

The Criterion Collection does love its samurai cinema, and with Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses already released by Cinelicious Pics and Masters of Cinema and with only bootleg editions of Shura seeming to circulating on hard media, a release of Shura by Criterion would bring a significant work of the Japanese avant-garde and J-horror to English-speaking audiences and potentially open the Collection to other filmmakers like Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu and other works produced by the Art Theatre Guild. In its way, Shura stands as an early marker of the Japanese avant-garde’s turn away from image politics and urban settings and toward rural contexts and period portraits, anticipating later works of the experimental vanguard like Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976). For a cover treatment, MMC! suggests Canadian illustrator Peter Diamond of Mondo poster fame. Diamond’s intricate and highly detailed compositions make for fascinating pieces and his recent poster for Fritz Lang’s M reveals him as being adept with “slabs of darkness.”

Credits: Our cover summary is adapted from Jason Sanders’ synopsis for BAMPFA. This proposal owes great debts to Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema and Keiko McDonald’s Japanese Classical Theatre in Films, as well as the review at Weird Wild Realm Film Reviews. While she approaches Shura to only a limited extent, we must give a shout-out to Yuriko Furuhata and her book, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics, a fascinating analysis of the Japanese New Wave and avant-garde, eizō, the influence of journalistic media, landscape theory, and the monumentalization of the avant-garde. Sincere thanks to Professor Furuhata’s for her responses to our inquiries on Shura and Toshio Matsumoto.

3 thoughts on “Shura (Toshio Matsumoto, 1971)

  1. Fabian Stummer April 17, 2019 / 8:05 pm

    I sure as hell wish that Criterion actually do this one. It is my favourite by Matsumoto and probably one of my favourite pieces of japanese cinema in total. Would be a definite buy for me!

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