I recently rewatched a Japanese film, Ginji the Slasher, which is a film I like very much. It made me think about what constitutes a martial arts film, as opposed to a film that belongs to another genre and which just has a bit of martial arts in it. It tells the story of Ginji, both as a young man (played by Riki Takeuchi) who is a member of a kamikaze unit during the end of World War 2, and also as an old man (played by Natsuyagi Isao) who has been newly released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for mass murder. The story is a sombre one, and this is reflected in the muted colours of its art direction. The themes of the film are heavy, and deal with guilt, courage, the plight of the homeless, racism, and political corruption. One one hand, the film could easily be seen as a human drama come slow burning mystery that is leavened by a few fight scenes. Director Miyasaka Takashi seems to be content to tell his story at a slow and measured pace, allowing us time to absorb and muse on the film’s themes and satisfyingly complex characters. However, I feel that the film also can be seen as a bone fide martial arts film for reasons I will discuss in this blog.
There are only 2 elements in this well-made film that jar on me. The first is Riki Takeuchi’s performance as the young Ginji. It’s dreadful. I don’t think I have ever seen such uninhibited scenery chewing in my life. Takeuchi’s crass gurning stands in direct contrast to Natsuyagi’s beautifully controlled and quietly authoritative performance as the older Ginji. The second aspect that I am unsure of is the title, which I initially found off putting and which lead me to expect a different, and more superficial, movie. Having watched the movie I now understand a little better why the film is known by this title: it is the nickname of the titular character, and refers to the crime committed by Ginji which altered the course of his life by earning him a 50 year prison sentence.
This crime takes place soon after the end of World War 2. Ginji uncovers corruption in his workplace and, spurred by moral outrage, massacres those involved in an ultimately failed attempt to assassinate the ringleaders, whom he re-encounters after he leaves prison as an old man. When we see the older Ginji after his release from prison, we see a character who is burdened by many emotions. These include perhaps a sense of guilt or even horror at the massacre he committed as a young man; perhaps a sense of a life wasted in prison and now empty of potential and meaning. He is haunted by images and memories of a beloved sister he last saw as a teenager during the war. Ginji is also haunted by death – the deaths of the criminals he massacred, the deaths of his beloved family and comrades during the war, and, most importantly, his own impending death. The possibility of suicide dogs Ginji throughout the film – we see him contemplate it in prison, attempt it as an old man in his rooming house after prison, and be interrupted in the act of committing seppuku as a young man.
It is not only the seriousness of the crime and the length of the prison sentence that are important influences in Ginji’s life, but the way in which Ginji carried out his crime. Ginji is an expert swordsman, and he uses his martial arts skills to lethal effect in the bloodbath that he instigates and which earns him the soubriquet of ‘slasher’.
This film has many more scenes of dialogue than action, and yet I feel that it qualifies as being as much of a martial arts film as it is a human drama. The action scenes are vital components to the narrative and constitute watershed moments for Ginji and other characters. Structurally and tonally, they are also important to the film, providing some lifts in pace and dynamic in what is otherwise a very subdued and serious (albeit engaging) movie.
The quality of the action and violence shown is telling in different scenes of the film. Ginji’s swordplay (nicely choreographed, shot and edited) demonstrates that he is adept. The goriness of the massacre scene doesn’t steer away from just how appalling the level of violence inflicted by young Ginji and his sword is. In the first 2 times we see the older Ginji use his martial arts skills he does so with a length of wood and a pipe respectively, and in these brief fights he is fighting to defend and ends up administering a beating to some thugs – it looks brutal but not lethal. The lack of gore, and the fact that the consequences for those on the receiving end of the blows are not so serious, allows us to focus on the spectacle of Ginji using his technique rather than the spectacle of fountains of blood. We can notice the elegance and stylishness of Ginji’s forms and the efficiency with which he moves. I have Facebook friends who are serious fans of Japanese martial arts movies, and they assure me that Natsuyagi is a veteran of the genre with performances in many seminal films to his name. His experience as a screen fighter serves Ginji the Slasher well – he sells his action scenes with an assured physicality that conveys the character’s state of mind and quality of focus.
Structurally, the movie seems to reference martial arts films in that it features some action set pieces, including right at the beginning and end (a fairly common structural trope in martial arts movie narratives). Young Ginji’s massacre scene is a major action set piece that is shown in flashback during several instances in the course of the film. Towards the end of the film we have another major set piece during which the older Ginji, recalling his younger self, storms the headquarters of the corrupt and dispatches the film’s villains.
Although the film focuses on Yakuza activity and contemporary style action, another kind of martial arts film – the fantasy swordplay film – seems to be briefly referenced during one scene where one of Ginji’s opponents floats in the air, descending to confound and wound him before ascending. My reading of this scene is that the emotionally disorientated Ginji is hallucinating (there are other instances in the film of this) and has projected onto this character an almost supernatural level of threat. This one instance of wire assisted action neatly ties Ginji the Slasher, with its clear focus on social justice issues and contemporary urban setting, in with traditional martial arts films of yore.
Apart from the scenes featuring Ginji in action, we are shown brief scenes of violence being perpetrated by other (less trained) fighters – some yakuza thugs beat up a young homeless Korean boy, a large group of down at heel men trash a squatters camp. There is nothing stylish or elegant about the violence shown here – it is as clumsy as it is brutal, and it proves an effective contrast to the fighting style of the technically expert and more morally developed (even if he doesn’t know it) Ginji. Martial arts films often use contrasting fighting styles and movement dynamics to define character. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters Leon Hunt refers to the “martial arts tradition, which frequently makes economical, accessible and instructive use of characters with contrasting fighting styles.” (p. 178). The contrast between Ginji’s fighting style with that of other characters signifies a lot about Ginji – like his swordplay, he is a product of discipline and a code. He is a creature of intent, focus, and considered and controlled action.
The ugliness of violence is presented to us in a starkly real fashion in 2 scenes showing characters committing seppuku. The first shows the young Ginji at the cessation of the war (his second flees in horror and his superior – Kuroda – prevents him from completing it). A later scene shows Kuroda committing seppuku before being beheaded by his second, who happens to be the older Ginji. In both these scenes we are shown close ups of the faces of Ginji and Kuroda and we are left in no doubt as to how agonisingly painful seppuku is – they are shown as sweating , grimacing and grunting in agony. Ginji’s participation in both scenes – first as a potential suicide and then as a skilled second entrusted (or, the plot suggests, manipulated and burdened)with the responsibility of beheading Kuroda – links him unequivocally with the Samurai tradition. As a swordsman Ginji is not just a technician or skilled athlete. Despite being saddled with the moniker of ‘Slasher’ he is not a psychotic, blood thirsty monster either. His swordsmanship is the manifestation of Ginji’s adherence to a code of morality and way of living.
The approach to handling the action in Ginji the Slasher and the detailed and considered attention given to how this action is rendered in terms of plot structure, performative technique, cinematography and editing is a hallmark of Asian (especially Japanese and Hong Kong) cinema. Asian film makers have developed sophisticated techniques that allow them to use action to add layers of meaning to character, narrative, aesthetic appeal and theme.
The reason why the action in Ginji the Slasher, despite it occupying far less screen time than non-action scenes, cannot be dismissed as just something that gives us a break from all of the talking is that the character of Ginji is central to the film, and Ginji’s martial artistry is a central component of this character. The action in the film is designed to manifest this central component, which makes martial artistry a primary binding force for the themes and narrative of this movie. It could be argued that one of the main themes of this film, something that is explored through Ginji’s character, is what it means to be a martial artist.
Ginji is blessed with great skill as a swordsman, but this blessing is shown to be (forgive me for the weak joke) double edged. Alongside his great ability, Ginji is burdened with responsibility and other people’s expectations of him as a swordsman, and he is shown to be struggling with this during the film. Being a warrior, Ginji is asked to choose between honouring traditional codes of behaviour and honour and moderating human feeling. An example of this is his conflict between leaving his beloved sister behind when he goes to serve as a kamikaze pilot during the war. When he uncovers hypocrisy and corruption in his post war workplace, he takes it upon himself to act the vigilante even though this results in the death of many and puts his own life at risk and, in fact, is the cause of him spending most of his life in prison. After leaving prison he is haunted by memories and wishes to put his past (and his notoriety) behind him, but he then chooses to use his skills to defend a young friend from being beaten. This brings him to the attention of a Yakuza leader, who, being aware of his ‘accomplishment’ in singlehandedly killing so many men 50 years before, offers Ginji respect and patronage that Ginji absolutely doesn’t want. Finally, Ginji finds himself powerless to prevent himself from being entangled in a plot to assassinate Kuroda, and then in Kuroda’s own plot to kill himself.
Known as the Slasher, Ginji has to deal with the expectations and manoeuvring of others. He is addressed with respect by the Yakuza on one hand, but dealt with expediently on the other: he is seen as a killer, a man who has proved himself with a sword. He is someone who can be manipulated to kill others – he has the technical skills and, as someone who already has a lot of blood on his hands, the stomach for the job. Whether or not he desires to kill, or whether or not he will be able to cope with the consequences of his killing again, do not factor into the reasoning of Yakuza Omuta or Kuroda. To them Ginji is the Slasher, nothing more or less. In actual fact, Ginji struggles with the moral complexities of being a martial artist – his skill with a sword and his developed focus have afforded him the ability to impose change on a situation. He can defend the weak and vanquish bullies, he can kill the corrupt. However the consequences of doing this come at a terrible personal cost. His training in martial arts and the opportunity this has afforded him to elevate both his physical skill and quality of focus has also brought him an intimacy with death and loss, and there is a sense that the old Ginji has been almost completely overwhelmed by this.
By positioning the character of a martial artist as the titular protagonist in this movie, and through the adept use of action alongside the presence of other well executed components of film making, the makers of Ginji the Slasher have been able to tackle some very complex themes in a movie that can lay equal claim to being a human drama as well as a martial arts movie. I am currently working on blogs about some of the movies that Jet Li made in the United States such as Romeo Must Die, The One, Cradle to the Grave and Rogue Assassin. Despite the presence of Li performing the choreography of the renowned Corey Yuen Kuei, I can never shake the sense that these films are not martial arts films at all. The action stops short at being a whiz bang diversion from the dialogue, although an honourable mention goes to The One for making a brave attempt to move beyond this by using martial arts styles to define the 2 characters Jet Li plays in the film. The American film makers do not seem to understand how to assimilate action set pieces and martial arts dynamics into their concerns of character definition and / or narrative structure and / or thematic content. When watching a film like Ginji the Slasher I am reminded that martial arts film making goes deeper than just featuring mere physical jerks.
The cast and crew of Ginji the Slasher can be found here.