Luke Spooner/Carrion House knocked it out of the park again! This cover illustrates the creepy pirate tale “Moss” by Will Bernardara, Jr.
Luke Spooner/Carrion House knocked it out of the park again! This cover illustrates the creepy pirate tale “Moss” by Will Bernardara, Jr.
YOJIMBO, a 1961 jidai geki by Akira Kurosawa, in many ways defines the itinerant swordsman for me. Sanjuro, the titular yojimbo, or bodyguard, as played by Toshiro Mifune, is a scruffy, dirty ronin on his way to nowhere in particular. He is so adrift in the world, that he lets which way a stick falls determine which path he takes.
His arbitrary decision leads him to a town under siege from two separate gangs. He decides to make it his mission to clean the town up, playing one side against the other to defeat both. Why? The motivation of the ronin, who gives his name was Sanjuro, is never made explicit, though he implies that he views it as an easy way to make some money. That said, greed is not Sanjuro’s sole motivator. Otherwise, why would he go out of his way to help a young couple, the wife being held captive by one of the gangs as payment for her husband’s gambling debts? In fact, his rescuing the wife is the single act of mercy that drives much of the plot, and causes the greatest amount of consternation to the protagonist.
The character of Sanjuro is one that can be found often in fantasy and science-fiction literature, and there is a definite appeal to the lone wanderer coming into a seedy location and clearing up the corruption. The danger of course, is that doing so can clearly lead to the hero getting in over his head, as is seen when Sanjuro is captured and beaten to within an inch of his life. Even more telling is when Sanjuro leaves the town at the end of the film, both gangs having been slaughtered and very little left of the town intact.
YOJIMBO would also have a sequel in 1962’s SANJURO which would reunite Mifune and Kurosawa, but in a much more light-hearted movie, and Sanjuro would face off against the blind swordsman ZATOICHI in the aptly named ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO.
The lasting appeal of YOJIMBO can be clearly seen in the number of other movies that have used it as a template. The most famous is probably A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first of the Man With No Name trilogy by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood. It was again remade in 1996 with Bruce Willis as LAST MAN STANDING. YOJIMBO takes its inspiration from Dashiell Hammet’s novel RED HARVEST. All the variations show how easy it is to take a basic plot, and reskin it for different audiences, as has been numerous times both for dramatic and comedic effect.
Calling Into the Badlands pulp may be pushing the boundaries of pulp too far for some people. I’ll even admit that it’s at the edge for me, but comic books are in many ways the inheritors of pulp, and Into the Badlands is nothing if not a visual comic book. Costuming, color schemes, sets, and camera points-of-view are all clearly inspired by the works of comic writers and artists like Frank Miller, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis. In fact, the show was created by veteran writer/developers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the producers of Smallville, another visual comic book. They were also the writers of the genre-bending film Shanghai Noon. Even a casual viewer will see some echoes of both of those products here in Into the Badlands.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future that mixes feudal barons, a strict caste system, and martial arts wuxia, the show follows a samurai/knight named Sunny who learns about a mythical place of peace and prosperity while protecting a young man who has become a pawn in the conflict between barons. Although the main character is a highly trained killer, he develops a sort of honor code and begins to rebel against the strict order of the feudal system, prompted in part both by discovering his girlfriend is illegally pregnant and also by his growing disillusionment with murdering people to line the pockets of his opium-growing baron.
I don’t think the show is anything spectacular or in any way great literature, but it is a fun romp filled with action and some kick-ass martial arts. It’s a story you’ve no doubt read or watched before, and it doesn’t do anything new or exciting to push the boundaries, but that’s not really the point, is it? Any fan of the Shaw Brothers movies or Jackie Chan knows that the plot is merely there to string together gorgeous fight scenes, and that’s also the case here. Into the Badlands plows some well-worn tropes and hits all the standard story beats, but it’s never boring. And maybe that’s why the critical ratings are justifiably right in the middle range.
Like I said, it’s not Earth-shatteringly good and you won’t come away with a changed outlook on life, but if you’re looking for the next action adventure show to watch on Netflix now that you’ve finished binge-watching Marvel’s Defenders, you could do a lot worse than Into the Badlands.
If I had to pick one movie that captures the concept of Weird Western, that movie is the 1973 Clint Eastwood vehicle HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. The plot is enigmatic enough, a stranger without a name rides into the town of Lago. He kills, he rapes, he turns the town on its head… and all seemingly without any motive.
Except the town folk were complicit in the murder of a federal marshal, having hired outlaws to beat him to death when he threatened to shut down the town’s primary source of income, a mine on federal land. The town folk than turned on the outlaws that murdered the marshal, and are now in fear of what will happen now that the outlaws are out of jail. And the three gunmen the stranger kills when he enters the town? Yeah, they were there to protect against the outlaws.
This movie also has one of the most iconic climaxes in movie history. The town is painted red, a sign declaring it Hell, the townsfolk cowering in the face of the outlaws they betrayed… and all for it to be set on fire at the end.
In many ways, this movie is one of the great vigilante movies. The Stranger acts as a force of divine retribution, sparing the few people he comes across who have nothing to do with the murder of the marshal (the Native American and his family, the Mexican laborers tasked with tearing down the barn to build Picnic tables, Mordecai), unflinching with his violence. The Stranger has no trouble extorting, killing, and raping the people of Lago.
The nature of the Stranger also lends credence to the idea that some questions are best left to the reader or viewer. Who is the Stranger? Is he the dead marshal’s brother? Is he a revenant? Or is he Death himself coming to Lago to deliver a final reckoning? Regardless of the answer, it’s definitely a worthwhile film to acquaint yourself with when it comes to the concept of the Weird Western.
 Yes, this does get referenced in Sandman Slim where zombies are frequently referred to as High Plains Drifters, or simply Drifters.
Drunken Angel is one of my favorite films by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who is mainly known in the west for his samurai films, particularly Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Drunken Angel is an earlier film, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, probably one of the most widely known Japanese actors outside his home country. He went on to star in 15 other Kurosawa films, including both the classic Seven Samurai and Rashomon, the latter frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.
Drunken Angel is the story of the broken-down, curmudgeonly Doctor Sanada, played by perennial Kurosawa compatriot Takashi Shimura, and his ministrations to the poor in the slums of post-WWII Tokyo. The film’s plot begins with Toshiro Mifune, a low-ranking yakuza gangster named Matsunaga, seeking out the doctor to treat a gunshot wound. In the process, Sanada diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis. There’s a physical confrontation as the hot-blooded gangster doesn’t want to hear about his problems, but it’s clear to the viewer that it’s mostly bluster.
The Tokyo portrayed in this film is a noir city through and through. The movie is set in a slum swimming with filth. In fact, the opening shot is of a literal toxic cesspool at the center of the neighborhood. This pool of filth is returned to several times throughout the film, which is anything but an understated metaphor. Around this cesspool shopkeepers and residents live their lives while preyed upon by the petty gangsters who exist on the margins of the slum. Doctor Sanada spends significant amounts of time chasing kids away from the edges of the cesspool, desperately trying to save them despite knowing they’ll just keep coming back.
Through the course of the movie, Sanada attempts to steer Matsunaga onto the straight and narrow, away from cigarettes, womanizing, and booze, and for a time Matsunaga complies, mostly because the doctor seems to be as angry and belligerent as the gangster himself. There’s one iconic moment where the two of them are drinking, and the doctor says, “I’m not afraid of you. I’ve killed more people than you have.”
I won’t spoil any more of the details, but, as in all good noir, the plot thickens with betrayals and backslides, stolen loves and stolen time. It’s not ultra-heavy on the action (though it is listed as PG-13, mostly because of a particularly memorable knife battle at the climax), but it’s definitely pulp noir of the stripe read in Detective Fiction Weekly or Black Mask.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be streaming on any of the major services, but it was repackaged in the Criterion Collection. The film was followed up the next year by Stray Dog, another noir film exploring the decadence of post-war Tokyo from the point of view of a rookie police officer, but that’s a “Pulp Appeal” for another day.
 I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite, but I’d probably go with Ikiru. I couldn’t swear to that under oath as I love almost every movie he made. The only exception I can think of is Kagemusha, and even that just drops from “love” to “really like.”
 I agree. As much as I like Drunken Angel, from a critical standpoint Rashomon is probably Kurosawa’s best film.
 Shimura is also one of the main stars of Gojira (Godzilla), and was a mainstay of Japanese film for decades. IMDb has 263 listings for him over a 50 year career.
 I would call this maybe a bit heavy-handed by modern standards, but then I think about crapfests like James Cameron’s Avatar and its “unobtanium” and I realize Drunken Angel is positively subtle by comparison.
L.A. Confidential is a 1997 film based on a novel by James Ellroy, set in the 1950s but filmed in a very ’90s style. It is a master class in adaptation, taking what many people thought was an unfilmable book and boil it down to its essential elements. In many ways it also acts as a spiritual successor to that other great Los Angles noir film, Chinatown.
At first blush, the story is that of two competing story lines. Gangsters are being killed or run out of town in the wake of Mickey Cohen’s imprisonment, as evidently someone is consolidating power in his absence. There’s also been a massacre at a local diner, evidently an armed robbery gone wrong. Three very different types of policeman get wrapped up in the investigations, eventually learning that they are more interconnected than you would think. There’s Bud White, played by Russel Crowe, a policeman more valued for his propensity toward violence than his detective work. There’s Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, an ambitious up-and-comer who seems willing to play at politics to get ahead. And there’s the charmer, Jack Vincennes, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey, a burned-out detective more interested in making his way into entertainment and feeding tidbits to a sleazy tabloid run by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) than in actual police work.
The plot is intricate and demands that attention be paid to it, otherwise it is easy to lose track of what characters are tied to what threads, but the payoff at the end is immensely satisfying and a credit to the writing and directing to put it all together. This is a movie to take notes on if you want to see how a simple plot (a murder) can snowball into a full blow conspiracy.
The intricacy of the plot aside, one of the best things about this movie for me is how none of the characters are as two-dimensional as they might appear at first blush. Bud White, while violent, is capable of first rate investigative work. Ed, while ambitious, possesses a moral center that sees him through to the end, as well as a clarity of vision and a hidden capability of violence. Jack, while full of self-loathing at what he’s become, remembers why he joined the police in the first place and seeks his redemption by picking up a case no one else cares about.
On top of the leads, Kim Basinger turns in a terrific performance as Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who passes herself off as a Veronica Lake look-alike, and James Cromwell is perfect as Chief Dudley Smith, complete with over the top brogue.
So if you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, this is definitely a movie to give a viewing to.
True Detective was a short-lived HBO anthology series, with each season covering a different plot, sort of like American Horror Story on FX. That’s where the comparisons with the longer-lived show end. True Detective combines multiple sub-genres within pulp, including noir, saucy sex, and supernatural horror, and uses a framing device of police interviews to weave together a complex non-linear narrative into a coherent whole, in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have done with Pulp Fiction and Memento, respectively. This sort of device shows up frequently in literature and film, including pulp, though it becomes far more widespread after Citizen Kane and Rashomon.
The two main characters are Louisiana detectives investigating the possible resurgence of a dormant serial killer. The show is set against the backdrop of a dilapidated and decaying urban infrastructure filled with corruption, decadence, and possible devil worship, all of which were worsened by the one-two combo of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Toss in equal parts crazy Matthew McConaughey and relatively sane Woody Harrelson as the beaten-down police officers and you get the sleeper hit that was the first season of True Detective. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a detective who slips into nihilism after his early experience tracking down the killer. It is Cohle’s obsession with the case that drives most of the plot. Harrelson’s Marty Hart is a flawed philandering husband whose dedication to his job is apparently unmatched by any officer other than Cohle. The interpersonal conflict between the two, besides Cohle’s reputation as a nutty maverick, is almost entirely because of Hart’s belief in Christianity and Cohle’s utter contempt for organized religion. You could look at the mismatched detective partners as cliché since it really has been so codified that alternatives are hard to conjure up, but it isn’t played for laughs here as it is in, say, 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon or even HBO’s own The Wire.
That covers the noir and sidesteps the saucy sex, but what about the supernatural horror? If you are familiar with Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, then you’ll be pleased to find direct references to the work sprinkled about the series. The collection itself is pretty good read if you haven’t had the chance, and is a direct influence on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. I won’t go much more into that as that could reach into spoiler territory, and unlike Pulp Appeal articles that tend to reference works from almost 100 years ago, this one’s still fresh enough to warrant some spoiler protection.
As I was getting ready to publish this, I found out that it may be coming back for a third season, starring Mahershala Ali, fresh off some very successful work including the Academy Award winning Moonlight and the hit Netflix show Luke Cage.
It’s a shame they went and completely botched the second season, abandoning almost everything that made season 1 great. It’s like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. We’ll see if Season 3 manages to recover from the misstep.