Tag: japan

Movie Review: The Wolverine

You would think that a prospect like The Wolverine would not be considered risky. Wolverine is, after all, a well-established character in the Marvel universe, a member of so many teams that he risks overexposure. Yet it is that exposure that threatened this project from the outset. X-Men: The Last Stand is considered by many to be a failure, and Wolverine’s first solo film, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine not only suffered from colon cancer but from a solid concept taken horribly off the rails by incompetent writers. I think it’s safe to say that I, and many other X-fans, approached The Wolverine with trepidation… and breathed a large, collective sigh of relief when it didn’t suck.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Logan is wandering the earth following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, haunted by memories and visions of the woman he loved that is now dead. His past does catch up to him, but not how he expects. A young Japanese woman taps him to return with her to Tokyo. A dying media magnate lives there, a man saved by Logan from the devastation of Nagasaki during World War II. The mogul, Yashida, offers Logan a gift: mortality. Before Logan can make up his mind properly, he is caught up in the machinations of Yashida’s son Shingen, the plight of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, and before he knows it, his healing powers have been stolen and he’s on the run from the Yakuza. He’s never been this vulnerable… or this dangerous.

Even at his weakest, Wolverine is a guy you don’t want to mess with, and Hugh Jackman, for his part, has definitely still “got it” as far as Logan is concerned. He doesn’t so much walk as stalk from place to place. Even at his most civilized, there is something bestial about him, an animal quality that Jackman conveys perfectly. He’s quick with sarcasm and deadpan lines that are delivered with ace timing, and his fight scenes look visceral and brutal. From the stunt work to the facial expressions to his furious cries, I cannot see any other actor bringing Logan to life the way Jackman does, and it’s a huge part of The Wolverine‘s overall success.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If you run, he’s just gonna chase you.

Wolverine is familiar, though. To American audiences, the Canadian berserker anti-hero is a staple of comic book fantasy. Japan, on the other hand, is a world barely scratched by most American media. Thankfully, at no point does the setting feel caricaturized, satirized, or downplayed. Indeed, from Tokyo to the distant Yashida castle, Japan feels almost alien in its culture, customs, and populace. It’s subtle and understated, rather than shoved at the screen as if to say “Look how weird this place is!” and this tasteful representation of another culture is another plus in the movie’s favor. So much could have gone wrong in bringing Japan to this screen in this way, but the filmmakers nailed it.

This juxtaposition of the savage and familiar Wolverine with the civilized and alien Japan is a chemical mixture that explodes with character, potential, and wonder. Through the lens of Logan’s experiences, we see all sorts of things in new ways, from the character himself to the world he inhabits. That world feels dangerous, again, as well as lived-in. This was a sense conveyed in the original Wolverine comic mini-series by legendary writer Chris Claremont, and it is here as well. While the film doesn’t short the audience in terms of action, the story points and character moments are so good that it doesn’t feel action-heavy. It balances very well and strikes all the right chords from start to finish.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
He cleans up nice.

The Wolverine does have some flaws, in that the story is light in terms of intellectual investment. It’s not as complex as it might seem, and while the reveal at the end does color the events differently, the execution felt like more like a shell game or common wool-over-the-eyes trick than any sort of filmmaking magic. There’s also the fact that, rated PG-13 as it is, Wolverine’s fights are relatively bloodless, which is surprising considering how he goes to town on people with his claws. Still, there’s reportedly an unrated Blu-ray in the works, and you better believe I’ll be buying it.

Stuff I Liked: The fights are well done for the most part (see below). The final showdown is pretty interesting. Viper’s an interesting character. I like that Logan still doesn’t like to fly. The cameos of Famke Janssen were a nice touch. It feels like the X-Men films, including this one, are drawing closer and closer to the Marvel universe seen in The Avengers, and that’s a good thing.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I’m not a fan of bone claws. There’s some shakey-cam in a few of the fights. The ‘big mystery’ feels like a bit of a let-down at the end, more like information was being deliberately withheld from the audience to create false suspense.
Stuff I Loved: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The Yashida cast and Yukio. The portrayal of Japanese culture. The fact that character moments felt just as interesting and involving as any of the fights. STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS – there’s a scene at the end that’s well worth the price of admission.

Bottom Line: This is the movie X-fans have been waiting for. The Wolverine delivers on every possible level without going completely over the top. A few minor quibbles hold it back from being entirely excellent, but it’s a far, far cry from what we had before. I’m even more excited now for Days of Future Past than I was before, thanks to The Wolverine.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Last Samurai

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[No audio this week; RIP old headset. 🙁 ]

I had originally planned this for no other reason than the sake of novelty. I am, after all, not the only small-time Internet movie critic consistently cranking out reviews for the benefits of whomever takes the time to read my words. I have a Canadian counterpart (no, not my wife), who goes by the handle ‘Marter’ and can be found reviewing movies as often as he can at Box Office Boredom. Since we both toil in the somewhat dank Internet basement clubhouse that is the Escapist user forums, I thought it might be keen to collaborate on a review. He agreed, and for our work I selected Edward Zwick’s 2003 historical epic The Last Samurai.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1877. While the United States continues to recover from its civil war, the nation of Japan is undergoing sweeping social change. Resisting this change are the samurai, the warrior caste whose ancient traditions are threatened by the onset of a modern age. To assist in bringing these men and women to heel, Japan conscripts Captain Nathan Algren, a so-called expert at dealing with and relating to native cultures. In this case, it meant helping a tribe of Native Americans let their guard down long enough for his superior officer to ride in with their cavalry unit and kill everybody. Bitter, nihilistic and half in a bottle, Algren takes the job just for something to do, and ends up captured and isolated by the rebellion’s leader, Katsumoto, a learned man of both word and sword who may well be the last true samurai left in Japan.

So much for the synopsis. Our review of this film has been broken into five sections: Plot, Characters, Cinematography/Mise-en-scène, Actors and Fun Factor. Let’s get started with Marter’s take on…

Plot

The plot of The Last Samurai worked well for me, even if it might have meandered a bit too long watching Tom Cruise sitting there and observing the samurai culture. It also takes a while to get going, with Cruise’s character’s alcoholism kind of coming and going whenever it was convenient. After the first day in the samurai culture, it disappears after he’s denied his saki. That’s fine, but after being released, he’s offered whiskey from the businessmen. He refuses, presumably because he kicked the habit. He even claimed that he’s finally been able to sleep peacefully. But only about 5 or 10 minutes later, he’s saying “I need a drink.” Why?

Oh, and let’s not forget the random ninja attack. It was like director Edward Zwick thought “Hey, they might be getting boring. Let’s have a random action scene!” Sure, it was explained, but not very well, and then it’s never brought up again. I mean, it serves a function and it brings some of the characters together, but making it have some sort of relevance would have been much nicer.

The beginning scene also didn’t quite work for me. It showed us how far this soldier had fallen, but if he was willing to fall that far, more or less giving up hope in human life, why would he accept a lot of work just for some money. Opening this way shows his character doesn’t care too much about his life, or the money he can get, and makes me question why he’d take the $500 a month to teach people how to kill other people.

Most of the plot worked well, though. Despite the film lasting over 150 minutes long, I had no problem sitting through it because there was a lot to take in, and there was always something new happening. I wasn’t bored, and even if there wasn’t a random ninja attack, I don’t think I would have had a problem going over an hour without a real action scene. Watching the life of the samurai, like what I assume happened with Cruise’s character, was interesting to me. I was fine sitting there and simply observing.

Personally, it struck me a bit as Dances with Wolves in Japan. When I first saw the film it felt like a win/win. Dances with Wolves was a deeply affecting piece and I’m a sucker for the history, culture and fables of a land like Japan. However, in retrospect I can’t help but feel there’s been a little glossing over and touching up of some things in places when it comes to an actual portrayal of life during the Meiji era.

I feel what’s missing is the atmosphere of uncertainty. For the most part, Katsumoto (Watanabe) is absolutely sure his rebellion will ultimately serve the Emperor and strengthen his country, while his enemies are absolutely sure their modern way of life will prevail over the ‘barbarians’ who were once universally revered, respected and feared. In a time when nobody was sure what the future would hold, seeing things painted so starkly in black and white dilutes the emotional impact of the experience.

Still, Katsumoto’s desire to resist change for the good of his people’s heritage rings true and is enough to drive the plot outside of Algren’s growth as a human being. The time dilation that occurs can be a bit off-putting, as Marter mentioned, but the scope of the film and the way Zwick shoots it (more on that later) ensures we as the audience are aware of how sweeping the tale is in its scope. It makes a worthy attempt at being an affecting historical tragedy but never reaches the lofty heights of the Greeks or Shakespeare. The lack of moral ambiguity is probably the biggest Achilles heel this movie has plot wise, but it’s not enough to cripple it.

Courtesy Warner Bros
Honestly, I think the beard works for Cruise.

Characters

I’ve sort of touched upon this already, but I felt like Cruise’s character was inconsistent, mostly acting however the plot dictated. Is he an alcoholic for the entire time, or does the samurai life clear him of that? Does he hate all humans, or does he just hate himself? Is he suicidal, or is he not? None of these things are made especially clear, regardless of what the storyline tells us.

He develops though, mostly just as he switches sides from the government to being a samurai. So at least there’s that. Watanabe’s character doesn’t really develop at all. He’s the same at the beginning as he is at the end, with the only difference being that he finished his poem. Wow, that’s a lot of character development there. None of the secondary characters got either depth or development, although that didn’t bother me too much, as we didn’t need to make the film more cumbersome than it already is.

While Katsumoto doesn’t really have an arc the way Algren does, that doesn’t necessarily mean the character’s dull. Is an old tiger dull just because it’s old? We see Katsumoto knowing what he does may end his life at any time, and his willingness to face death, at least his own. The deaths of others, however, have more of an effect on him. One of the film’s best scenes comes when his carefully-crafted mask of tranquility is shattered by someone getting fatally wounded. I won’t say who or when, but trust me that it’s an example of a great deal of emotion and depth being conveyed without a single word.

The one-dimensionality of the other characters does indeed keep burdens to a minimum as the story progresses and ties in to that lack of moral ambiguity I mentioned. There are no real surprises when it comes to the allegiances or motivations of people, making the overall story feel like a duet between Algren and Katsumoto with everybody else playing instruments in the backing band. But at least those two are decent characters, even if Algren seems a bit inconsistent at times. He also, thank the Maker, never becomes a “magical white person”, solving all of the problems of his poor minority friends simply by being there or making a speech. During the final battle he does play a role but never becomes a major factor, and in the aftermath maintains his place as an observer and narrator rather than a firebrand or symbol. He drives home the point of Katsumoto’s rebellion, but in the end seems somewhat superfluous to the actual historical events. To be honest, I like that.

Better that than him rallying Japan to remember its traditions the way a white person is sometimes shown as making a black person a better football player or being responsible for a civil rights movement.

Cinematography/Mise-en-scène

I felt like I was in Japan in the 1800’s. Nothing made it seem more modern, which is always a good thing. If the film felt more modern — even if it was done in certain times for the government to highlight how they’re more technologically advanced — I think it would have broken the immersion tha the film tries to bring to the table. But there wasn’t anything distracting like that, and as a result, I didn’t have any problem with the way the film was built on a staging level.

The battle scenes, unfortunately, might have been the low points of the film. It’s not that they’re not well-made, because I think they were, but because they just didn’t particularly fit with the rest of the film, which is a slow-paced drama. The first scene, where the military is slaughtered, is not particularly interesting because we’ve yet to have enough time to care about anyone involved, especially in regards to the enemy. But luckily, it’s short and then it takes a while for another battle to be fought.

I must again respectfully disagree, with regards to the first battle. While we really don’t care much about anybody outside of Algren, and even so only in passing at that point, the sight of the samurai in full armor riding hard out of the mist gives them an eerieness that works very well, in my opinion. It’s obvious to me why the newly-crafted Japanese army breaks at the sight of them. As is explained to Algren, most of those men grew up hearing tales of the samurai and being in awe of their power and honor. And then, like specters of the past, they’re coming directly at you, screaming like banshees and carrying deadly weapons. It’s a psychological tactic that works beautifully and speaks to Katsumoto’s craftiness in battle strategy, not to mention making for a great shot.

Going back to a previous point, though, the ninja attack is probably the “low point” of the film for me. With the exception of two moments I can think of, nothing particularly interesting happens either story-wise or in terms of shot composition. As Marter mentioned, it’s pretty much just Zwick saying, “Have some ninjas, guys!” Sure, sending assassins after Katsumoto makes sense, but what is this, G.I. Joe?

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Pretty much any scene with these two in it is a good one.

Actors

Cruise and Watanabe are the two more prominently featured actors here. I’ve never actually had a problem with Cruise — offset problems aside — and I think he made a convincing war veteran. Watanabe was more the star though, and I would have liked to see more from him. He clearly understood exactly what was needed from his role, and as a result, he seemed to be fully immersed in his character. Supporting and thankless roles go to Tony Goldwyn, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall and Koyuki.

I agree completely. Tom Cruise all but disappears into his role and it makes the rest of the film better. There are a couple moments early on when he might be overdoing it a bit with the way his character is ‘tortured’, but looking past that we find a performance that conveys Algren’s arc in an earnest, very human manner. He truly brought his A game, which is a good thing because Watanabe shows he is fully capable of blowing less talented actors completely out of the water. The aforementioned death of another character is all but perfect in its presentation and Watanabe absolutely nails it. As I said, this really comes down to a duet between these two characters, and the way the actors play it makes their conversations the highlights of the film.

Fun Factor

Did I enjoy The Last Samurai? Even if it didn’t always seem like a consistent effort that made complete sense, I did. Like I said when talking about the plot, I was rarely, if ever, bored, and I was captivated for most of the time it was playing. Learning the culture of the samurai, even if not completely accurate, was very involving for me, and when the film concluded, I felt like I had learned something even if I hadn’t. It’s an immersive experience that definitely held my interest. While I didn’t always feel as if the battle scenes fit, on their own, they worked well and were exciting. You might not think that a gun vs. sword battle would be entertaining, but you would be wrong in that assumption. I simply had fun with this film. Enough fun, in fact, to forgive some of the things that I didn’t think worked quite right.

In spite of its historical inconsistencies and a few moments that push the melodrama almost to the point of absurdity, The Last Samurai never feels less than sincere in its sentiments and presentation. It may not always work as intended and you may have trouble shaking the feeling that Zwick is trying really hard to remake Glory, but historical war stories are his bailiwick and this one isn’t bad at all. Between the lush cinematography, the interesting historical aspects of the story and the powerful performances of the two leads, it’s safe to say both Marter and I recommend The Last Samurai.

However, when you look up what actually happened in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, from the actual number of samurai to the way the Japanese were using their Western ‘experts’, you may get a little bit angry at the aforementioned inconsistencies. I don’t think this necessarily detracts from the performances or cinematography, but nevertheless, consider yourselves warned.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Ringu

Original Text:

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Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

This is Darth Vader. Right-hand man of the evil Emperor Palpatine, Lord of the Sith, and lately the poster child for the outcry of “They changed it, now it sucks.” While in that case we’re talking about a man somewhat bloated by his own ego ham-handedly forcing things into what were perfectly servicable scenes, the argument in general comes from the fans of an exercise in entertainment adapted into another medium or by another creative mind. The trepidation with which an established fanbase can approach a new adaptation is the reason why the various iterations of the movie called The Ring have meet with disparate degrees of success. Since the original novel Ring was Japanese, it was the Japanese version of the movie I watched.

Four teenage school kids, returning from a resort cabin they shared, all have stories of a weird videotape they watched, and the phone call that followed telling them all they would die in one week. It was a great story and good for a laugh… until all four of them dropped dead. One of them is the neice of a reporter, and when she finds and watches the tape herself, she too gets a phone call. Unwilling to leave her small son alone in the world, she enlists her ex-husband for help, trying to find the way to break the videotape’s curse and discover its origins with the days she has left.

There are a few things of note in Ring once it begins. While the budget for the film sounds laughable by the standards of many modern Hollywood productions – only 1.2 million US dollars in 1998 – there’s nothing that feels cheap or chincy about it. I know there will be nay-sayers who say it lacks action or high energy moments or blood spatter or something like that. But this movie is proof positive that you don’t need those things for an effective horror story. What we have here is storytelling that is two things: very taut, and very intimate.

The tension in the story comes from amorphous things in production and direction. It’s cut in such a way and paced deliberately to highten the sliding scale of oddness in given situations during this week of hellacious mental torment, from slightly unnerving to full-on batshit. The musical score is subtle, for the most part, and sounds are geared to creep into your perceptions rather than overwhelm them. It’s like being serenaded during dinner with the soft sounds of a string quartet as opposed said quartet being interrupted by a roving mariachi band.

As for intimacy, here’s where some fans of the novel might have gotten their dead little girls in a bind. The gender of our protagonist was swapped and she was not only given a small child to protect but a tenuous relationship with her ex-husband. However, this not only serves as a source for drama but also subtle feelings of protectiveness, understanding and even attraction that comes across as extremely mutual and heartfelt. Excellent writing and acting convey this relationship with only a few words being spoken outside of the crisis at hand. It’s clear where the spark was between these two romantically, just as much as it is clear why the relationship didn’t work out. Coupled with the VHS Sword of Damocles, it’s very difficult not to feel empathy not just for our heroine, but for just about everybody involved.

That is what a lot of horror-based entertainment seems to miss more often than not: empathy. If we care about the characters, we care about what happens to them and we don’t want to see them killed. It’s why Silence of the Lambs is still a breathtaking piece of work, and Ring is just as good. When we don’t care about the characters, and they’re more or less lined up for a monster or monsters to turn them into five-foot piles of chunky salsa, things get very boring very fast. Despite it’s “lack of action” or “absense of gore”, Ring is a film that will have you on the edge of your seat. It shows us not just a great story with tension, intimacy and truly shiver-inducing horror, but the way to tell that story with the barest of tools in the author’s arsenal.

They didn’t even need CGI for the iconic TV shot. All you need is a tattered nightgown, some makeup and a very talented contortionist. … Actually, that sounds like a recipie for a rather entertaining evening, horror movie or not.

Akuma

Set in feudal Japan, this story is not for the faint of heart.

Until her release from the Hell of the Vast Cold countless days after the night of her murder, Lady Takahashi Makoto did not fully grasp the concept of cosmic balance and the role of akuma, or demons, within it. On that night she died, as she applied the hairpins that made her black tresses an immaculate aspect of her beauty, her focus was more on her boredom and disgust than on things beyond the ken of mortals. As she always did when dealing with her husband or his sycophantic subordinates, she hid her seething anger and abyssal loneliness behind the mask of powder and paint she spent hours applying each morning. As her husband, Lord Takahashi, discussed with those fattened generals plans to sweep down upon the forces of the young and powerful Nobunaga Oda, and then over the whole of Japan, she found it more difficult than usual to ignore the emptiness that was the throbbing echo of his rough violations of her supple and bruised body.

One couldn’t even call it lovemaking, she reflected. It had been her hope, when dapper men took her away and left a substantial dowry in her place for her parents, that her husband in this arrangement would be kind, which would have made her duty to be an obedient wife much easier. But Takahashi was anything but kind. Beside the physical abuse, he often taunted her with a life she could have known, pressing her into service like any common girl rather than allowing her to help in running the household.

This hurt more than the blows from his hand or the curses murmured at her in the throes of his passion. The women in her family before her were not so abused. They learned martial arts, they married men who saw them as equals, they even inherited property, and here she was shuffling about serving tea with mute obedience. Takahashi enjoyed this, using and abusing her in these various ways, and it had been like this every day since her arrival five insufferable months ago.

“A hunter’s moon tonight,” one of the generals said, the predatory word rousing Makoto from her dark reverie. “An auspicious omen for our endeavor.”

“I agree,” said another. “But that much light on this night bothers me. What if our respective lords see their armies leaving?”

Makoto tried not to pay any mind to what they were saying. She went about her duties, cleaning up plates from their meal and pouring fresh cups of tea. The generals pretended like she didn’t exist, as Takahashi had instructed them on numerous occasions. This was the way she and every other woman in the castle was treated: like an animal or an object, something unworthy of notice, devoid of honor. It burned under Makoto’s skin, but she still remembered the way he broke her arm after her first protest four months ago. She was not eager to repeat that experience. The bruises and soreness every morning after he came to her were enough.

“Do not worry about your lords,” Takahashi hissed. “When the dawn comes, your secret blood-oaths to me will bear the fruit you each desire. And do not worry about Oda. That, too, is taken care of.”

As he spoke, the doors of the hall flew open. Makoto looked to the sound, but saw not who opened them. It couldn’t have been the samurai walking in, for his arms remained at his sides, as relaxed as his measured strides. Watching him, she knew he was a predator, and she could almost smell the thick and exotic scent of blood on him. His hair, black as his lacquered armor, trailed behind him in a long thin queue like ink from a brush.

Then his eyes turned to her. Pale blue, the blue of ice on a river at dawn, they settled on hers and did not stray to her curvaceous form, paid no attention to her finery. Makoto felt as if her painted mask was melting, her clothing burning away, and every bit of her being lay exposed to him, giddiness and terror both gnawing at her heart.

“Ah. The assassin with no name.”

The nasal hiss of her husband brought Makoto back to reality. She caught her breath, wondering why she suddenly felt so warm.

“You are here for the map?”

“And a meal. Perhaps a bath.” His voice was a whisper, yet Makoto heard him clearly across the hall. Takahashi smiled thinly.

“Yes. Of course. My wife will see to your needs while we finalize our battle-plans. Then I will tell you how you’ll be my tekken; yes, my fist.”

Takahashi was full of his plans, and himself, moreso now than ever before. It didn’t concern him in the slightest how unsavory it was to send his wife off with a strange man, endangering her honor. To him, she was just another tool to be used, abused or discarded as he saw fit. Every time he had her serving tea to his gathering of traitors, every guest she guided alone through the castle was another sharp blow to her soul as damaging as his fists. Yet, through her seething hatred, she felt the eyes of the man in black boring into the back of her neck.

“Do you desire to eat or bathe first?” she finally managed.

“My desires are not quite what you think,” he whispered in reply. “Instead, I ask you yours. What do you desire?”

The frankness of his manner, and the complete lack of fear in his voice as he asked such a thing of another man’s wife, let alone the one of the likes of Lord Takahashi, left Makoto speechless. Then a wave of melancholy and sadness washed over her in a dark tide and her eyes fluttered shut as she surrendered to it, her strength gone like sakura petals on the wind.

“Freedom.”

“Not an uncommon desire. What makes yours special?”

“You’ve met my husband.”

“I have.”

“Then you know why.”

“He is ambitious. And powerful.”

“Things any commoner could tell you, with a voice full of fear.”

“He is more than that,” the wandering swordsman continued. “His lust and greed are exceeded only by his pride. And those generals with him are traitors.” His words caused heat to rise to her face again. She had no idea how he knew these things. Yet he continued, showing a peculiar insight that was perhaps fueled by the same scrutiny igniting her passion and her dread. “He doesn’t beat you out of anger or insecurity. He does it because he can, and because he enjoys causing you pain.”

They stepped out into the open air, and she turned her eyes to him in wonder. His face was downcast, shadows falling over it like black curtains. He stopped walking, turning to face out across the courtyard. The overhang above them kept off the first few drops of rain, and the wooden floor under their feet seemed less substantial to Makoto for some reason. She shook her head, trying to seize control of her emotions.

You have only known him a few moments, woman, she told herself.

Yet, he had spoken barely a word to her husband, and he instantly knew the heart and soul of that evil man. And when his eyes turned to her, she felt it again. She felt her breath shorten, the sensation of exposure, of revelation, of vulnerability and, strangely, desire.

“How do you know these things?” she ventured, halting in her walk.

He was silent. He turned his gaze from her, his face a taut mask of pain and sorrow. He walked further into the darkness away from her, and turned over his shoulder to address her in his audible whisper.

“Tonight. You will have your freedom.”

The words sank into her belly like a hot blade, the sensation oozing down her thighs and making her knees weak. She doubled over and struggled to grab the wall, moaning softly. What did this mean? How could she feel this way? Sick, yet enthralled and exhilarated all at once? Desperate wishes and unspoken prayers, seemingly about to be answered in the person of this dark assassin, gave fuel to a flame of desperate hope that fluttered in the breeze of a nameless and creeping fear that crouched on the edge of Makoto’s soul like a stalking panther anticipating the right moment in which to pounce.

Makoto gathered herself best she could. She had to maintain composure. It was unseemly for her to act thus. She wanted time to consider these feelings as best she could. The night air chilling her skin seemed to murmur in her ear that what she had set into motion now could not be undone, and reinforced her sensation of falling.

The alarms began to sound, whistles and bells madly making themselves heard. Makoto looked around, confused. Time had lost all meaning in the face of her desires. She gathered up the loose folds of her kimono and walked as best she could towards the sounds.

Men in armor ran past her, swords, spears and halberds at the ready. She quickened her pace, reflecting on how shaken the hardened warriors had looked. The guards at the door to the stateroom tried to stop her, but she pushed past, to find a scene belched forth from a screaming nightmare.

The floor was slick with blood. The generals of the other lords lay eviscerated around the table. The maps and plans on that same table were the funeral dressings of Lord Takahashi himself. His hands and feet had been severed, one laying on each of the four corners of the room. An ugly wound lay between his legs, and his head rested on top of his body, facing the door, his mouth open in a silent scream, his face streaked in tears of blood from the open sockets where his eyes had once were. From the spatters and footprints around the scene, it was clear that it had taken this master of traitors a long time to die.

Yet, in the face of all this carnage, Makoto felt no fear or even revulsion. From the moment she’d first beheld her husband, she had expected and even wished for this, regardless of its cost.

“He’s this way!”

The cry of the guards tore her attention away from the scene before her, and she followed them to the courtyard, the same courtyard where she had stopped earlier, struck by the dark visitor.

All fifty of Takahashi’s samurai surrounded the assassin, weapons at the ready. He seemed to show no fear, or anger, no emotion whatsoever, only cold precision, taking a measure of each man arrayed against him. Both of his swords were drawn, one in each hand.

“You’ve killed our lord! You will pay!” one of them shouted.

The dark man said nothing, closing his eyes and shaking his head.

“Speak, fool! Speak before you die.”

“Go. Leave this place, find your own paths, before your lives are cut short. I only warn once.”

Screams of rage met his mellow whisper, and they fell on him. Silently, his blades sliced through the air, armor and parrying blades unable to prevent his assault. Even as they got close enough to strike, the samurai and guards fell back, dead or dying. One of them, near Makoto, struggled with a matchlock rifle, trying to load it. She wanted to shout a warning, but she wouldn’t have been heard over the battle. Instead, she kicked the man in the head. The matchlock went off, shooting down the man about to slice for the dark swordsman’s throat. The bullet passed through the guard’s body and smacked into the warrior’s arm, as others at the courtyard’s edge readied their own rifles.

He winced, growling “Damn your modern weapons, you cowards.”

Anger rose within him. He reared like a scowling beast and sheathed his blades. The power came to him, almost unbidden, unholy laughter welling up from around and inside of him. He felt it, the quickening of his blood, the burning of his flesh, the armor melting into his very body and the powers of Yomi, the dwelling place of the dead, surging forth from the darkest place of his soul, and he welcomed it as an enamored wife welcomes her lover’s caress.

Makoto gasped. The dark man’s face became a mask of anger, even as his skin took on the color of his armor. The lacquered suit sank into him, his muscles standing out in dark obsidian relief. Gleaming claws sprang from his fingers, his eyes taking on an angry crimson glow, and black leather wings highlighted by red veins unfurled themselves from his broad shoulders. Her desire was now entirely swallowed by fear.

Akuma…” she whispered.

Revealed, the demon grinned at the remaining men. There was a flicker of dark movement, a hiss of razor-sharp wingtips sailing through the night air, and Makoto’s vision was suddenly obscured by something warm, sticky and wet. She dropped to her knees, struggling to clear her eyes, her sobs drowned out by the screams of Takahashi’s guard.

Cries of vengeance were cut short. Pleas for mercy ended in soft gurgles. Whispered prayers to spirits or ancestors were punctuated by crunching bone and splattering gore. Every sound and scent wafted at Makoto as she tried to restore her sight. When she did, she looked down at her hands, and felt a chill deep in her gut as she realized the bloody spongy viscera between her delicate stained fingers had once been a bodyguard’s brain matter.

There were no cries now. No pleas or prayers. Only a soft sucking sound broke the silence. She blinked, looking up at the akuma. It was bent over several corpses, feeding. It turned, letting one fall away and lifting one over his head. It looked up at the guard, grinning, and the other struggled. Makoto knew she should cry out for the akuma to stop. The guard turned her way, and his eyes went wide, pleading.

“Why bother?” she whispered, resigned to the price of her desires.

The akuma grunted, and the guard’s body broke apart, showering the demon in blood. His mouth open, grinning, the akuma drank in the essential fluid as it flowed down his strong arms from the shattered body of what had once been a family man, a dedicated student of bushido, and a loyal follower of Takahashi. Even as he licked what was left from his clawed hands, he realized, again, that he had touched each of the souls he’d taken mere heartbeats before sending them to Yomi to dwell with their departed and damned lord.

The akuma turned, walking away, his stature returning to what it had been, wings disappearing into his back as his armor separated from his skin, flawless and gleaming in the moonlight, his swords at his side once more like a constant companion. In his wake he left a confused, bloodied, and breathless young widow.

~~~~~

“Wait!”

He turned. Makoto’s faltering sprint caught up to him and she came to a halt, short of breath.

“Why did you follow me?” he whispered.

“I wanted to ask you something, akuma,” she replied as she regained her composure. “While I am free of my husband, and am thankful for that, what will you do now that your employer is dead?”

He closed his eyes.

“Is that the freedom you truly seek?”

Her brows furrowed. “What do you mean by that?”

He turned and looked out. The province of Mutsu, on the northern tip of the main island of Nippon, shared much of its border with the sea. Takahashi’s castle had been situated atop one of the jagged cliffs that overlooked the violent shore, and it was along that precipice that the dark man had walked, and that the young widow had followed him.

“Your life is a joyless one. That blood-soaked castle holds no more hope for you than this wind-swept road does now. Even if you stayed there, your destiny would continue to be defined by men of power without the temperance to use it. I’m no different, in a sense.”

“Yes, you are. You’re all alone, just like I am now. And besides, what good is freedom if you don’t have anyone to share it with?”

He sighed. “You do not know true freedom yet.”

She blinked. “What?”

He looked out over the dark waves. “This is a cruel world, Makoto-chan.” She blanched a bit at be referred to the way one refers to a beloved child or sibling, but did not interrupt. “The cruel and strong subvert the monies and abilities of those less able or less cunning, and give them lives that amount to little more than slavery. The only escape, the only freedom, is the cool and pale caress of death.”

She shuddered. “You’re going to kill me, then.”

“I must. You know who, and more to the point, what I am.”

She was stunned for a moment, and then regained her composure. “You think you frighten me, akuma? And is that your name, or should I make one up for you?”

He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he laid them upon her. In them was no longer the bloodthirsty spark that had laid waste to threescore samurai and guardsmen, nor the cold distant glance of the stranger that had stepped into Takahashi’s castle. She saw pain, and sorrow; a deep, abiding resignation to fate, and the faint glimmer of hope that he might, someday, make a difference, even as he walked a path of darkness, blood, and death.

He reached out his hand, and pulled her to him. She held back a shriek, then let her eyes flutter shut, listening to his heart beat, feeling the warmth of his body, and embracing what she felt in her own soul, which was not fear, but something else entirely.

“I am the fist of the Thousand Hells,” he whispered in her ear, “I am death incarnate, my love. I have no choice but to deliver each to their destiny. But, doing so to you breaks my heart into a thousand shards. That’s why I walked away, but your pursuit of me leaves me no choice. Forgive me for doing the only thing for which I am suited.”

With that, he pushed her into the winds that lay beyond the edge of the cliff.

As she began to fall, she was surprised at herself. She wasn’t screaming. In fact, she was laughing. She laughed all the way down to the craggy rocks below.

~~~~~

Her laugh haunted him. For countless days after that night, he wandered, slaying the wicked and claiming their souls for Yomi, the Thousand Hells, the crucible in which he had been confronted with his own wickedness and found the strength to strike a deal for atonement. He had left all aspects of his old life behind, from his name to his dreams, and crawled back into the world of the living, a world in which he walked and spoke as a man but existing and acting as something else entirely. He walked that way for a long time after that night, never resting and always alone.

The akuma had long ago resigned himself to his solitude, and his mission, one he pursued to the exclusion of all else even on the night he’d murdered the first woman since his release from the Hell of Being Skinned Alive to cause the unfamiliar and somewhat terrifying notion of love to stir deep in what remained of his soul. Despite the pain of it, despite the tears he’d silently shed standing on that cliff, he’d carried out his duty, and continued on from there until another night when the capricious but just hand of the cosmic cycle brought that woman into his life. This time, it occurred in the last way he could have anticipated.

Another battle, so similar to the others he’d waded through in his sanguine path, had passed and left him the last one standing. Now, as the commander of the former army knelt in pain before him, he cleaned his short wakizashi with a single flick of his wrist, blood and gore flying from the blade like water off the back of a duck, spraying across the face of the fat feudal lord.

“I… I can pay you…”

“I have no interest in your money,” the akuma whispered, smiling as his katana whispered free of its scabbard, hearing the screams of it’s previous victims roar in his ears like the surf Makoto had plunged toward years ago. The Yomi-forged blade gleamed maliciously in the moonlight.

“Only your soul.”

It was over quickly. Too quickly. The akuma left the dismembered corpse behind. Hours of walking later, even after such violence and joyous work, he was still nagged by the questions. He looked up, realizing he was passing the camp of his recent victim’s rival. Sounds of lovemaking came from the largest tent. He drew closer, only to hear the man’s grunts cut short with a vicious snap that could only be made by a neck broken in strong hands. The woman’s moans continued, grew louder, then faded and ended with a sadistic chuckle. There was the sound of fabric being gathered and replaced, and the flap of the tent came open.

For the first time since his rebirth, the akuma found himself surprised.

Nihao, Hajime-kun,” Makoto Takahashi said with a soft smile, using the other’s birth name. Her skin was the very color of the moonlight, her kimono-like robe revealing tantalizing cleavage. With every silent step of her bare right foot, her leg peeked through the hem, inviting and deadly all at once.

“You…”

“I am no longer the fainting widow you sent plunging to her fate,” she murmured in a seductive whisper that was all too much like Hajime’s own soft tones. “I am akuma, like you, only I prey upon men’s lusts for flesh, not power or glory like you do. You might be the fist of the Thousand Hells, my darling, but I am the geisha of the Lords of Yomi. You are the Blade that Skins Alive; I am the Vast Cold personified.”

He tried to hide his true feelings, but her eyes bored into him. Is this how they feel when I flay their souls open to my scrutiny? he wondered.

“You should not have come back.”

“Oh? And what will you do now, Hajime-kun? Slay me again? Or shall I, perhaps, slay you?” She took a step towards him, taking his trembling hand and sliding it under her kimono against the ivory skin of her bosom, sighing as her eyes fluttered shut at his touch. “Cool beneath your fingers, is it not? Like frost clinging to cherry blossoms before the morning sun rises. Only you can warm me, my darling. But will you do it with the love that I know still slumbers in your heart, or with the soul-hungry blade in that other hand of yours? It is your choice entirely.” Her blood-red lips curled into a seductive smile that would have made Takahashi, Nobunaga, and every man in Nippon weak in the knees and longing for her favor. “But only one choice will place me at your mercy. That is where you’ve desired me from the moment you met me, not broken at the base of a windswept cliff, but broken by your strength and bent to your will. Of course, I could be wrong.” She shrugged, her kimono sliding from her creamy shoulders. “If I am, you’ll try to murder me again.” Her eyelashes lifted slowly to fix the elder akuma with her amethyst gaze. “Either way, I assure you, I will challenge and exhaust you. Make your decision, my dark brooding darling. I am breathless with anticipation.”

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