Production Company: Shochiku, Feature Film Enterprise III, Kihachi Productions
Release: 12 August 1995
Length: 124 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Okamoto Kihachi
Supervising Producer: Okuyama Kazuyoshi
Executive Producers: Okamoto Mineko, Nakagawa Yoshihisa
Producer: Simon Tse
Screenplay: Okamoto Kihachi
Music: Sato Masaru
Art Director: Nishioka Yoshinobu
Editor: Kawashima Akimasa
Kamijo Kenkichi: Sanada Hiroyuki
Tamejiro: Takenaka Naoto
Nantai: Angelique Roehm
Sam: Scott Bachicha
Hardy: Jay Kerr
Gus Taylor: Chip Mayer
Red Hair: David Midthunder
Hatch: Richard Nason
John Mantaro: Kishibe Ittoku
Kimura: Takahashi Etsushi
Katsu Rintaro: Nakadai Tatsuya
When the East Fails to Meet the West
Japanese film fans and filmmakers alike have shared a long-standing fascination with the American western, perhaps because of its affinities with one of Japan’s own home-grown genres, the samurai movie, which in many cases also sports a lone hero dueling with villains to restore order to a lawless situation.
Such similarities have made it easy to export samurai “easterns,” with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, for instance, both being remade abroad as westerns: The Magnificent Seven and Fistful of Dollars, respectively.
But Japan’s love-affair with the western has not stopped at fan appreciation: filmmakers too have long tried their hand at makingeastern westerns. In some cases this has meant mimicry, resulting in the absurd but often enjoyable revisionist spectacles of Rider With a Guitar on the Plains (“Daisogen no wataridori,” 1960), in which a singing cowboy (Kobayashi Akira) saves the innocent “Indians” (the Ainu) from conniving land-grabbers in wild Hokkaido, or The Quick Draw Kid (“Hayauchi yaro,” 1961), where Joe the Ace (Shishido Jo) out-duels baddies in a Japanese “Wild East” town the likes of which could only have existed in a Japanese studio.
Influences of the western on Japanese cinema, however, have often been less obvious, a fact that is evident in the career of one of the masters of Japanese action movies, Okamoto Kihachi. A big fan of John Ford, Okamoto has inserted elements of the Western into both his samurai films (Warring Clans (“Sengoku yaro,” 1963), Samurai Assassin (“Samurai,” 1965), etc.) and his now-classic war movies (Desperado Outpost (“Dokuritsu gurentai,” 1959), Westward Desperado (“Dokuritsu gurentai nishi e,” 1960), etc.). The plot structure of the “Desperado” series is in fact straight out of an American western–a lone army troop on patrol is hounded by guerrilla attacks by the warring enemy–except the situation is WWII, the Indians are the Chinese, John Wayne is Kayama Yuzo, and the cavalry is played by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Only in his latest film, East Meets West, has Okamoto gotten the chance to play Cowboys and Indians for real. Beyond being billed as a “samurai western,” East Meets West represents multiple efforts to join the opposite ends of the map–the Japanese director, his staff and cast combined with an American cast and crew to film largely on location in the United States the tale of the first Japanese mission to the United States in 1860, just at the time the Pony Express was joining the West Coast with the East.
An interpreter working for the mission, the samurai Kamijo Kenkichi (Sanada Hiroyuki), finds himself trekking across the Wild West in pursuit of a gang of robbers when they steal the mission’s gold in San Francisco. He is soon joined in his quest by a blond youngster, Sam (Scott Bachicha), whose father was killed by the gang-leader Gus Taylor (Chip Mayer); an inept ninja from the mission, Tamejiro (Takenaka Naoto) and his flower child lover, the Crow Indian Nantai (Angelique Roehm); and an ornery but honorable teacher named Hardy (Jay Kerr) who leads his once-delinquent charges in a quest for law and order. This rag-tag posse of Occidentals and Orientals makes its way to New Mexico to wreck revenge on the evil Gus, get back the gold, and clean up the town of Unicorn in the process.
Along the way, the story pursues various possibilities of Japan meeting the West. As the American posse members all have certain curiously Japanese traits, with Hardy using Japanese school tricks to punish his pupils and Sam showing an unbelievable aptitude towards the Japanese sword, the largely de-sexed Kamijo, with his nickname Joe, is transformed in the film into a Shane-like, “white” hero who becomes a father figure to Sam. In contrast, the sexually obsessed Tamejiro, called Tommy, soon finds in the Indians not only an easy-to-bed partner in Nantai, but shared words and songs, an identity that turns him away from his desire to become a samurai and transforms him in clothing and behavior into an American Indian. The liberation of the two from the constraints of Japanese identity within the wide-open spaces the West, where one’s identity is defined solely upon honor and skill, may in fact hint at one the reasons Japanese have felt such an attraction to the American Western: the fantasy of erasing one’s pre-given social identity and starting again on an equal plain in another space using only individual ability.
When fantasy met reality in the making of East Meets West, however, it is clear how big the ocean is between the two shores. The story, especially in its latter sections, is a woefully slapdash amalgamation of cowboy cliches and set pieces from western classics (like Shane, High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, etc.) and shows none of the imagination revealed in other non-American attempts to fashion horse operas, such as the Italian spaghetti westerns. In combining the samurai film with the Western, it seems as if Okamoto has made little effort, other than an ineffectual comparison between the gun and the sword, to explore the myriad of similarities and differences between the genres. The result is an often embarrassingly stale film. Even Okamoto’s patented, rhythmically paced action is largely absent from the crucial final showdown and only weakly evident in the opening bank robber scene. The American characters are particularly one-dimensional and the portrayal of Indians is stereotypical if not offensive: Angelique Roehm’s Nantai can only seem like a kitchy Japanese fantasy of an Indian maiden condensed through years of watching bad B-movie Westerns.
A look at the solely Japanese sections, however, suggests that much of the film’s problems lay in the production process. The rapport between Sanada and Takenaka is occasionally compelling, Takenaka’s slapstick performances are humorous if still excessive and vulgar, and the cameo scenes with Nakadai Tatsuya and Kishibe Ittoku give us a taste of their immense talent. Such moments stand in stark contrast to the scenes solely in English: forgetting Sanada’s strained English, even the American actors’ delivery is stilted and seemingly amateurish. One can suspect the problem lies in a Japanese staff trying direct dialogue in another language when they clearly don’t grasp its inherent tones and rhythms. In spite of Shochiku’s pathetic attempt to sell this film by boasting in the trailer of the American crew of 200 (as if Japanese audiences will not see a Japanese movie unless it is made by Hollywood personnel!), it is all too evident that East failed to meet West in the production of East Meets West, and that we will have to wait for some time before seeing Joe the Ace feel at home in Monument Valley.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 8 August 1995, p. 16.
Copyright 1995: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow