Shura (1971) carries the subtitled print title of Shura: The 48th Ronin, giving the impression that Shura is the name of the film’s antihero, which is soon discovered not to be the case.
But nowadays the film tends to be given simply as Shura & I like that best. But it has also been distributed as Pandemonium which is a lousy title; as Bloodshed which is awfully generic for a samurai film; & as Demons which is finally correct, the term Shura being derived from asura, a sanskrit buddhist/hindu name for a demon.
Shura is sometimes regarded as a specific asura, a dark god who suffers & declines unless steeped in constant warfare, for which he eternally hungers. The word is additionally a Noh drama term for for a type of play about ghosts or suffering warriors, which would be a dead-on description of the gloomy haunted protagonist of the film.
1971 may seem awfully late for a black & white samurai film. But Shura is of a very special sub-genre of « cruel jidai-geki » which by tradition were filmed in black & white to enhance the horror of the situations. In the late 50s & 1960s when most « fun » samurai films with smiling heros were in full color, « serious » doomful films were still in black & white.
Cruel jidai-geki was kind of the last stand for film noir in which nihilistic samurai followed paths of destruction & self-destruction in worlds of shadow. And Shura is the last great example of cruel jidai-geki in its purest form.
Shura actually begins with a full color image of the sun going down. As the demon-haunted night descends, the film becomes b/w, & gets increasingly dark as the characters come closer & closer to madness.
ShuraWashing the color out of the opening scene is like « announcing » this is a cruel tale, & the director pushed the cinematographer to extremes to capture sharp images of character’s faces amidst the deepest of sinister shadows, a world wherein occasionally the only thing visible were lanterns, or a few facial elements leaning into candlelight, almost like disembodied spirits.
Shura is based on the play Kamikakete sango taisetsu by Nanboku Tsuruya (1755-1829), whose most famous kabuki play is the often filmed Yotsuya Ghost Story. Shura though not quite as overtly supernatural as Yotsuya Ghost Story is nevertheless powerfully infused with a sense of demonic posession.
The screen adaptation was written & directed by Toshio Matsumoto. Matsumoto was an experimental filmmaker & some of his avant gardism finds its way into Shura but not so much that it seems to leave the samurai adventure genre.
A typical experimental treatment is when Gengobe breaks into the room where Koman is being sold to a patron & stops the transaction by redeeming her himself. But then he snaps to from this fantasized event & runs into the room to stop the transaction a little differently than imagined. Throughout there are odd little tricks played so that the line between reality, imagination, & nightmare blends.
Matsumoto is also a well known artist & photographer in Japan, & his pictorial sensibilities are all over this visually gorgeous, if horrifying, film.
A 1955 graduate of Tokyo University, Toshio Matsumoto is a pioneer of avant-garde experimental movies, multimedia, and video in his homeland and abroad. His first experimental short was _Song of the Stones (1963)_. His most famous work is 1969’s wildly experimental _Funeral Parade of Roses_, notorious in japan for its homosexual imagery. He has published several photo and art books, and is currently a professor and dean of the Faculty of Arts at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Matsumoto is also President of the Japan Society of Image Arts and Sciences.
Title in Original Version : Pandemonium