By Dan Persons
[Photo: “Yaji + Kita: Midnight Pilgrims,” Media Blasters, 2006]
“You know,” editor Alison Willmore said to me when I told her about “Yaji + Kita: Midnight Pilgrims,” the self-proclaimed “gay samurai biker” film that had a nanosecond-long release in New York and is now available for your pleasure and befuddlement on DVD, “that’s actually based on a classic Edo-era story.”
No, actually, I didn’t know that, but keen as I am on Japanese culture, my knowledge of source materials is spotty particularly if that material doesn’t somewhere incorporate a teenage girl in a tight uniform. No surprise, then, that “Tokaidochu Hizakurige,” the actual inspiration for director Kankuro Kudo’s manically comic adaptation, was way beneath my radar.
The original novel, written in the early 1800s, follows the comic adventures of two rogues avoiding their wives, debts and responsibility by taking off for a trip down the main road between Edo and Tokyo. Kudo grabbed author Jippensha Ikku’s ball and pushed toward the end zone, turning the travelers into gay lovers; plunking them on a motorcycle; peppering the proceedings with song and dance numbers; throwing in references to video games, dinner theater, and cocktail lounges; and breaking the fourth, fifth, and sixth walls in his narrative (at one point, one of the characters winds up in a screening room complaining about the very story he’s participating in).
At 124 minutes, it’s almost too much weirdness, but Kudo’s zeal in breaking past the constraints of his inspiration is infectious. Faithfulness may be fine for human relations, but it’s generally murder for films there’s no point in adapting a work if the adapter can’t bring his/her own insights, skills and outright quirks to the proceedings. People steadfastly attached to a book have the book, after all why shouldn’t they get out of the way of those who might turn the material into something bigger than the original and better suited for the screen? (Here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling.)
A filmmaker boldly following his/her muse can be a good or a bad thing, but it at least makes for lively conversation as the closing credits roll. Consider:
“Forbidden Planet” (1956): Well, if you’re going to do “The Tempest,” why not recast Miranda with Anne Francis (she talks to animals!), get your Caliban courtesy of Walt Disney, and turn Ariel into the coolest damn robot what ever clumped across the silver screen? Turns out the Bard cozies up quite comfortably with 1950s spaceships and ray guns, even if the ending speaks more about Cold War anxieties than Elizbethan fantasy.
“Zatoichi” (2003): Original actor Shintaro Katsu turned the adventures of a blind, yet quite lethal, Edo-era traveling masseur into a franchise as dependable (and predictable) as a Big Mac. When Takeshi Kitano took over both acting and directing chores, it was to turn the project into a tightrope act that salted a standard, Ichi-cleans-house scenario with transvestite geishas, a half-naked samurai wannabe, and liberal doses of Three Stooges mayhem. Hang in for the last half hour, when Kitano completely throws caution to the wind, unraveling a key element of the Ichi mythology, intercutting the final defenestrations with a way-anachronous tap-dance number, and orchestrating a final pratfall for the noble warrior.
“The Legend of Bagger Vance” (2000): Hard to tell whether director Robert Redford was being too respectful to the original novel by Steven Pressfield, or just wanted to forget that the tale of a depression-era Southern golfer counseled by a mystical, black caddie was actually based on Hindu text the “Bhagavad Gita” (the DVD’s supplemental material, which consistently references a generic mythology, suggests the latter). But if Redford had engaged one-tenth the wit that Pressfield did in naming his protagonist Rannulph Junah (R. Junah get it?), this film might have risen above its crushing sentimentality to become the golfing movie that even non-golfers could groove on and meditate over.
“The Company of Wolves” (1984): It isn’t as if director/co-writer Neil Jordan and writer Angela Carter were the first to discover the psycho-sexual aspects of “Little Red Riding Hood” (you think Tex Avery and Friz Freleng kept dipping into that well because kids would like it?), they just dared to lay it all out in its nocturnal, bestial glory. Setting a fairy tale within a werewolf myth within a fever dream, Jordan just keeps pushing the unhinged imagery (a wizard shows up in a Rolls Royce; bird eggs crack open to reveal tiny, weeping, stone fetuses) until it all seems as wild and instinctual as the adolescent urges the film seeking to portray.
“Yojimbo” (1961) Kurosawa always claimed that his story of a canny samurai pitting two crime clans against each other to deadly results was based on the film version of Dashell Hammett’s “The Glass Key.” You can’t convince me (and many others), that he wasn’t also lifting liberally from Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” which tells almost the same story with a private detective as its protagonist and rum-runners as his targets. Kurosawa was the master of throwing source material into medieval contexts, showing how everything from Shakespearian treachery to hard-boiled violence could easily balance upon a katana blade. There’s not a motorcycle or cocktail lounge in sight, but in the cross-fertilization of periods and ideas, the director managed, as do all those who successfully dare to reach beyond the bonds of their inspirations, to show how universal and pertinent a story can become.