Category Archives: movies

20 Random Facts About Samurai

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Originally ran Feb. 17 in GeekMom.

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Satsuma samurai from the Boshin War period (circa 1868). Image: Public Domain

From sainthood to swords, video games to cartoon series, the Japanese military nobility known as samurai are still making news in both history and pop culture.

For those that love the mystique and the myths surrounding these warriors, here are 20 random, fun facts about samurai:

1. According to a respected American translator named William Scott Wilson, the word “Samurai,” meaning “to wait upon or accompany,” appears as early as 905 AD in the imperial anthology of poems Kokin Wakashū. The collection was conceived by Emperor Uda and later published by his son, Emperor Diago.

2. To celebrate the release of Ubisoft’s action fighting game, For Honor, which allows players to choose Samurai, Knights, or Vikings, Death Wish Coffee came out with limited edition packaging depicting each of these warriors. The game was, ironically, released worldwide this year on Valentine’s Day.

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Death Wish Coffee offers limited edition packaging in celebration of the new fighting game, For Honor. Image: Lisa Tate

3. Many historians say the last Samurai battle was during the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877. However, the social class known as the Shizoku, who merged with the Samurai, continued to be recognized as late as the World War II era.

4. The first warrior to attain the samurai position, and establish the first samurai-controlled government, was the military leader Taira no Kiyomori during what is known as the Heian period in Japanese history (794 to 1185).

5. Yes, there was a type of female Samurai, the Onna-bugeisha. They were part of the bushi class in feudal Japan, and were trained to use weaponry to protect their household, family, and honor. They sometimes did take part in active battle, often alongside their samurai husbands.

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Katana may wield a weapon of a samurai, but there were real women samurai, Onna-bugeisha. Image: Lisa Tate.

6. On February 7, the Catholic Church beatified its first Samurai on the road to Sainthood. Justo Takayama Ukon abandoned his status to devote himself to his faith and lived his remaining years in exile in Manila. When sainted, he would likely stand for persecuted Christians and Japanese immigrants.

7. This is common knowledge to many Star Wars fans, but George Lucas is said to have adapted the name “Jedi,” from the Japanese word Jidaigeki, referring the genre of Japanese film devoted to period dramas, often about samurai. Toymaker Bandai came out with its “Movie Realization” line of Star Wars figures, making members of the Empire, including Royal Guards, Stormtroopers, a ronin Boba Fett, and Darth Vader, into and ancient line of samurai warriors.

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Bandai’s “Movie Realization” line of Star Wars figures gave the Empire a samurai makeover. Image: Lisa Tate.

8. Akira Kurosawa, the creative mind behind the film classic the Seven Samurai (on which the classic western The Magnificent Seven was based), is regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. He received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1990. He died in 1998, and was named “Asian of the Century,” in the Arts, Literature and Culture category.

9. There are countless movies and books (as well as a minichip action game) with the name The Last Samurai, including:

  • The 2000 Helen DeWitt novel that centers on a child prodigy whose male role models are the Seven Samurai.
  • The 2003 fictional movie about a retired 19th century U.S. Cavalryman who travels to Japan and becomes absorbed in the culture Dances With Wolves-style.
  • The 2011 Japanese World War II drama based on the true story of the Captain Sakae Ōba (The Fox of Saipan) and the last organized Japanese resistance of the war. Also called Codename: Fox, the movie is based on a novel by Don Jones.

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    Samurai have always been a popular topic for books, movies, and games, especially the mystique of a “last samurai.”

10. Samurai were often very literate and well educated. When a more western style of armed forces was being created in Japan, many took up prominent roles as educators, writers, government representatives, and businessmen.

11. John Belushi’s Samurai Delicatessen was part of the very first season of Saturday Night Live. The character was modeled after a character in Akiwa Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and Beliushi’s samurai held down a variety of unlikely occupations from 1975 to 1979, including and optometrist, stockbroker, and dry cleaner.

12. The multiple Eisner Award-winning Stan Sakai comic series Usagi Yojimbo, featuring the rabbit ronin (Samurai without a master) Miyamoto Usagi, has been ranked in the top 100 of IGN’s list of comic book heroes, as well as being named in the top 50 non-superhero graphic novels in a Rolling Stone magazine ranking. Sakai also illustrated the Dark Horse graphic novel 47 Ronin with writer Mike Richardson in 2013, based on the legend of the a group of ronins’ mission to avenge their wronged master.

13. The classic French comic Samurai, by Jean-Francois Di Giorgio and Frédéric Genêt, previously published by Marvel and Soleil, was picked up again in a collected edition in 2015 from Titan Comics. Titan released an all-new series beginning in 2016, which sometimes included Japanese brush-style variant covers by David Mack.

14. DC Comics’ Katana, who made her big screen debut in Suicide Squad in 2016, was trained as a child by a samurai named Tadashi in one storyline from Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Tadashi was killed by an evil samurai Takeo, which in her original story is the name of the brother (and killer) of her late husband. Her famous “soultaker” sword was once said to have been forged by the legendary 14th century swordsmith, Muramasa.

15. The 2016 stop-motion film Kubo and The Two Strings  features a young boy, Kubo, with a magical talent for storytelling and origami who tells the story of a samurai warrior named Hanzo (his father). The film is nominated for two 2017 Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects, among several other accolades from other film and animation groups.

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There are plenty of samurai comic heroes and villains from Usagi Yojimbo to the Silver Samurai.

16. There are plenty of samurai heroes, but one of the biggest samurai villains in comic books is the Silver Samurai (Kenuichio Harada), who debuted in Daredevil #111 in 1974. Harada appeared in the 2013 film The Wolverine as just a bodyguard, with his Silver Samurai being depicted as a giant robot suit worn by another character. One of the more tragic heroes in samurai-related comics, however, is Ogami Ittō in the renowned Manga Lone Wolf and Cub. The character, on a quest to avenge the death of his wife, had served as a Kogi Kaishakunin (the Shogun’s executioner). These men were tasked with assisting with the death of samurai and other nobility forced to commit the honor suicide of seppuki.

17. Iwasaki Yatarō, the great-grandson of a samurai who had to sell his family’s samurai status to settle debts, went on to become the founder of the successful multinational group for companies, Mitsubishi. The companies “three-diamond” logo may be partially influenced by the Iwasaki family crest.

18. LEGO fans got a peek at what looks like Lord Garmadon’s Samurai Mech, his robot transport in the latest Lego-based picture, The LEGO Ninjago Movie. The movie is set to come out Sept. 22 of this year. Will the mysterious Samurai X makes an appearance?

19. The latest edition of the Lucite-encased collectible known as the Mini Museum includes specimen of a circa 14th century Samurai sword, as well as other specimens from items like space gems, a rotor from the WWII Enigma, and Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. The blade from which the sword specimens were acquired came from a respected sword dealer. He deemed the damaged blade unsuitable as a collectible due to several micro-fractures, so there should be no guilt in owning a little slice of it.

20. The Award-winning Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, created by Genndy Tartakovsky, began its limited-run, and slightly darker, fifth season earlier this year on Adult Swim, more than 10 years after the original series ended. A movie version was being planned, but creators decided to end the story via a series instead.

Want to learn a little more about Samurai?  Check out this educational Prezi created by high school teacher Rick Tate.

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Battle of the Jungle Books

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Originally ran in GeekMom Jan. 13, 2016.

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Image: ©Walt Disney Studios, 2016.

Rudyard Kipling’s beloved short story collection, The Jungle Book, was written in the 1890s, but is still the inspiration for big screen interpretations today. Currently, there are two notable versions coming in the next two years, including the much-anticipated Disney production this month.

The new Disney project is actually the second live action Jungle Book film Walt Disney Studios has done in recent years. Brandon Lee starred in the 1994 live action version, but the best known is still the original 1967 animated masterpiece. The 2003 animated sequel Jungle Book 2, was pretty forgettable.

This latest Disney version comes out April 15, keeping with their trend of large-scale live-action reimaginings and reboots of their own animated classics, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

Following in October of 2017 is the Warner Bros. film Jungle Book: Origins, which also promises to be a larger-than-life effort, judging from the cast list.

As far as the story, which is really the important part when taking on the work of Kipling, the Disney version will remain true to its own earlier adaptation, based loosely on The Jungle Book chapter known as “Mowgli’s Brothers.” Although there has been no official announcement on the story’s plot, the Warner Bros. looks to follow a similar story.

Here are some interesting things that should make both of these versions worth seeing on the big screen:

John Favreau and Andy Serkis. Images: ©Disney (left), and Gage Skidmore.

The Directors. This pair of directors is enough to make any movie fan want to see both of these versions. Actor and director Jon Favreau helms the latest Disney film, as well as serves as a producer. He already has some experience under his belt as not only the director of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, but for portraying Happy Hogan in all three Iron Man films.

Jungle Book: Origins serves as Serkis’s directorial debut, but he will also voice and perform as fan favorite bear Baloo, who will be portrayed in the Disney version by fan favorite actor Bill Murray.

Who has the edge: Favreau. Serkis has proven himself an incredible actor and comedian, and  was able to handle secondary directing duties in The Hobbit trilogy, but it’s his first time in the main director chair. Favreau has some great successes to draw from.

There is one element that Serkis has over Favreau. Not only is Serkis himself master of performance capture work, as demonstrated with his portrayals as Gollum (Lord of the Rings), Caesar (Planet of the Apes) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), but The Imaginarium, Europe’s leading Performance Capture studio co-founded by Serkis, will partner with Warner Bros. on their film.

The Female Kaas. In the original Kipling book, Kaa is a male 100-year-old python, but even more interesting Kaa is one of Mowgli’s friends and mentors. In the original animated Disney film Kaa is a manipulative side-villain voiced by Disney regular Sterling Holloway (Winnie The Pooh, Cheshire Cat).

Both new Jungle Book projects will feature a female-voiced Kaa. Disney’s will be portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Warner Bros.’s will feature Cate Blanchett.

Based on Disney’s trailer and description of the new film, Kaa is “a python whose seductive voice and gazes hypnotizes the man-cub,” but is one of the creatures who don’t “have his best interests at heart.” It looks like Kaa will still be a bit of an antagonist in the new Disney version. No news on how Kaa will be portrayed in the 2017 story.

Who has the edge: Blanchett. As popular as Johansson is right now, and as sultry as her voice can be, Blanchett will add a touch of sophistication to this character that will go far beyond just a femme fatale.

A fantastically-cast Shere Khan. The story’s primary villain, the large, man-fearing tiger, Shere Khan, will be voiced by two of Great Britain’s most formidable voices: Idris Elba for Disney and Benedict Cumberbatch for Warner Bros. Elba and Cumberbatch are responsible for two of the BBC’s most popular detectives, Luther (Elba) and Sherlock (Cumberbatch).

In addition, both Elba and Cumberbatch share the honors of portraying major villains in the new Star Trek movie series, with Elba in the role of Krall in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond and Cumberbatch as, well, Khan, in Star Trek: Into The Darkness.

Who has the edge: This one is a draw, as both these actors have incredible, deep and imposing tones perfect for the intimidating tiger villain. Please, oh, please don’t make us choose.

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Lupita Nyong’o and Naomi Harris. Images: ©Disney (left), and ShareAlike.

An equally wonderfully cast for Mother Wolf. Mother Wolf has always been an important, yet underrated character in the Jungle Book movies, although she is the primary reason Mowgli survived past his infancy in the jungle. In the Disney version, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o will play the Mother Wolf, known as “Raksha.” This character in the Warner Bros. version will go by the name “Nisha,” with James Bond’s current Moneypenny, Naomi Harris, as her voice.

Who has the edge: Nyong’o. Naomi Harris a great actress, and is no stranger to Disney fans (Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean series), but if Nyong’o’s voice work in The Force Awakens is any indication, her Mother Wolf will be simply outstanding.

Other voice notables will be Sir Ben Kingsley as Bagheera in the Disney version, and Christian Bale in the Warner Bros. version, and Christopher Walken should be a hilarious King Louie. King Louie is a Disney creation, which was not part of Kipling’s original tale, so there will be no King Louie in the Warner Bros. version.

Young actors Neel Sethi and Rohan Chand, both natives of a different “jungle,” New York City, will portray Mowgli in the Disney and Warner Bros. films respectively.

The big question is, which version will do better with fans and in the box office? Disney is certainly on a roll with their new live action storybook tales, but the Serkis production stands to properly capture the sensibilities of fans of the India-born British favorite Kipling.

No matter what the box office ultimately decides, as long as they both stay true to the exotic lure of adventure Kipling always envisioned, there should easily be reason to return to the jungle more than once in the near future.

Find That Prop!: Terry Gilliam’s Outré Animation

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In honor of April Fools Day and National Humor Month, here’s a look series that I originally ran in 2014 on the “props” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

tgartmainTerry Gilliam’s Oddball Animation:

Even the boys of Python should appreciate the irony the weirdest member of the troupe that defines British-style comedy is American. Terry Gilliam was born in Minnesota, but became an ex-pat in the 1960s like many of the counter-culture teens and young adults.

Once there, he fell into a rather silly crowd, worked as a strip cartoonist for magazines (including one photo strip featuring John Cleese), and did some animation for a children’s program called “Do Not Adjust Your Set” featuring his soon-to-be Python pals Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

Gilliam is often known today by many film buffs as the director of several cult classic films including what he called his 1990s “Trilogy of Americana” that included “The Fisher King,” “12 Monkeys” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but his eye for the surreal and the off-beat that was so prevalent in his animation, remains true to his work today.

He liked to mix his own original art (the giant foot, and 16-ton-weight, for example) with movable cutouts, often taking advantage of the seriousness of Victorian era antique photos and illustrations, or even well-known fine art images, to create the unexpected, madcap and sometimes just freaky weird style that Monty Python’s Flying Circus just wouldn’t be the same without.

Where to Find It:

The bottom line on finding original artwork, especially work signed by Gilliam himself is, well “Good Luck.” His work is not easy to find.

Any “cels” or images used in the Monty Python movies or series are even more elusive. There are atgbooks few signed pieces from time to time on sites like Comic Art Fans, and even eBay, but these will fetch well over $500 for a simple line drawing. Not unreasonable for original work, but out of range for the standard Python fan.

Don’t let this be discouraging, because it isn’t hard for find concentrated examples of Gilliam’s work. A&E has released a series of “Personal Best” DVDs for each member of the Python clan, and the Terry Gilliam version features 45 of his best ‘toons. These retail for $19.95, but can be found on Amazon for $10.95, and Barnes & Noble for $14.86.

Gilliam also wrote sort of how-to book called Animations of Mortality in 1978, later turned in to a CD-Rom edition in 1996. The book features words and sketches that give a glimpse of what goes on inside the head of an animator. The hardcover edition isn’t cheap (about $97 on Amazon), but paperback versions will run around $31.

In 1999, author Bob McCabe released Dark Knights and Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam: from Before Python to Beyond Fear and Loathing. If you can get past the overwhelmingly long title, the book is a good look at the evolution of Gilliam’s work. This book ranges in price from around $3 to $6 for used hardback and paperback versions, to about $17.99 for new paperback versions and $73.99 for new hardbacks.

Later this year, Gilliam will have his own say with a new autobiography Gilliamesque, a Pre-posthumous Memoir. Pre-orders are currently being taken on Amazon and other book sites.

A great online source for Gilliam’s animation and other work has been compiled by someone who knows the man best, his daughter, Holly.

The site, Discovering Dad, hasn’t been updated since 2013, but still has plenty of Gilliam facts, art and wonderful personal memories from Holly Gilliam. She also maintains a Twitter feed that is more current.

Now for something, completely different…Make Your Own Art:

dancingbeibThe beauty of Gilliam’s work lies in its simplicity. He manages to take a simple, portrait or drawing and turn it into a crazy storyline, just by adding a few extreme movements or features.

There are plenty of vintage images and illustrations to play with on the Internet. The easiest method is to take a portrait and make it “talk.” Cut out the image along the mouth and down both sides of the chin, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

processAttach the cutout “mouth” to a thin piece of paper, and tape it slightly at the top (see image above).  This will make a nice little handle for a picture puppet. Add a couple of googly eyes or other painted or glued on features to make them even sillier. This is the type of animation popular sites like the eCard business, JibJab have mimicked.

Gilliam and the Pythons also did their share of poking fun at current events and celebrities. Go through old catalogs or magazines for full-body images of over-publicized persons — singers, politicians, actors, reality stars, over-memed cats — who you feel might be in need of some humbling.

manly-menNow you have our permission to cut them up….NO! not the actual people, that’s horrible, but go crazy on their images. Cut them off at the neck, shoulder, groin, knee and elbow, ankles and wrists.

Now they can be assembled on paper like your your own personal marionettes. Take a series of pictures of them in different poses for a photo animated strip like Gilliam liked to do in his early years.

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“The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea,” he said. “The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use. That’s why I use cut-out. It’s the easiest form of animation I know.”grumpydragon

 

Find That Prop!: The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

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Find That Prop!: The Classic “Silly Walks” Bowler Hat

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In honor of April Fools Day and National Humor Month, here’s a look series that I originally ran in 2014 on the “props” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.