Monday, June 21, 2010

L5R Week - 5 movies to get you excited to be a samurai.

I've decided that, to celebrate the new release from AEG - Legends of the 5 Rings 4th Edition (L5R) - we should spend some time on the blog looking at what makes L5R exciting and something worth your time. When I first heard about L5R the game was deep into second edition and the CCG was running high. I was incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of product and didn't know where to start, so I didn't. It's very much like how I felt when first looking into 3rd edition D&D. Just like with D&D, now that the fourth edition, touted as simpler and more accessible for new fans, L5R is pulling me in like quicksand. Happy, exciting, samurai quicksand.

When first looking at L5R, I had the question: what do characters do in the game? A lot of games are plagued with this question and end up not hooking me with a simple concept (Mage: The Awakening is a good example of this). For me, the easiest way to look at what characters do in a certain genre is to look to movies for inspiration. So, without further ado, here are some of the movies that get me pumped for my copy of L5R to come in later this month (it's out now, but I made a deal with myself, and I'm going strong still!).

5. Red Cliff
While not technically a film taking place in Japan or about samurai, Red Cliff is a modern epic depicting medieval (and way earlier) warriors fighting against staggering odds. The movie is actually an adaptation from John Woo of one of China's most beloved epic stories, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I spent way too many hours in high school playing the Dynasty Warriors (DW) games (based on RotRK) and began learning the names of these epic warlords and generals. I thought the action was way over the top and amplified just for the sake of it being a video game. Then I saw Red Cliff. This has got to be the biggest budget Romance has ever seen in its numerous screen interpretations, and John Woo lives up to his reputation. One of my favorite DW character, Zhao Yun actually is a bigger badass with his legendary spear in Red Cliff than he is in the game. The same goes for all the characters. I loved 'em, and it really inspired me to create some equally badass Japanese warriors. While extremely slow moving at points, the action is worth watching, and I think the story's actually pretty good too. There is a bit of court intrigue in here as well, although it's extremely light.

4. The Last Samurai

I like this movie, I own it, and I make no apologies for this. I'm betting a lot of people don't give this movie a chance since Tom Cruise is in it and he's arguably fulfilling the old cliche of the white guy coming in the help the native people deal with their issues. Look past this and you have an amazing visual presentation with samurai characters that feel real and not just cardboard cut-out caricatures. I love Ken Watanabe and wish he was my uncle, and his Katsumoto character is incredibly badass while also well-rounded as a man who values the lives of the men he leads. This movie is full of incredible scenes of samurai charging en masse on horseback or fighting ninjas in a surprise night attack in their homes. The armor is awe-inspiring and the sword work is amazing. Of course we get some over-the-top fight scenes such as Tom Cruise's character duel weilding katana's (I don't think anyone ever really did this outside of 80's action movies), but it's appropriate as inspiration given how skilled and super-human the characters in L5R could be. Let's not forget the man who looks like a walking reincarnation of the great Toshiro Mifune, Mr. Hiroyuki Sanada.

3. Throne of Blood

Did someone say Toshiro Mifune? The actor for Akira Kurosawa, Mifune is the very essence of my concept of samurai. The man's played more samurai characters than anyone else on the planet, and most of them under the direction of Kurosawa. I could easily make a list of the top 5 Kurosawa samurai films and I'd have too many good choices from which to choose. Throne of Blood was picked for a very specific reason: the supernatural. Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, ToB is the darkest samurai film Kurosawa made and could easily be considered a horror movie. There are more icy cold stares and just creepy shots in 10 minutes of ToB that will freak you out than in the entire Saw series combined. The movie is filled with tension, and it's just insanely gripping. There's a great range of the supernatural from subtle knowing looks from the Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji Washizu to the more overt with a ghost suddently appearing in the woods. The scene with the trees moving is just wrong in a fundamental way and will make your skin crawl. The whole thing could take place in the Shadowlands of Rokugan (L5R's setting). I love Throne of Blood.

2. Kill Bill 1 & 2

Being a gamer audience primarily, I have to assume most of you have seen at least one if not both volumes of Kill Bill. These movies are amazing modern-day representations of what a lone Ronin (masterless Samurai) would look like fighting in a world full of guns and motorcycles. Whether the massacre in the House of Blue Leaves in Volume One or the training of the Kung Fu master Pai Mei, there's a lot of fodder to draw from here. The battles in the House of Blue Leaves show an amazing combination of both one samurai taking on a horde of lesser warriors and fantastic duels between the Bride and GoGo or O-ren. The action, while not serene and respectful like Crouching Tiger, shows an amazing potential for the energy and gore that can be often overlooked in the smaller, more meditative image of a samurai doing the best job he can to take his (or more approriately her) opponent down.

1. Seven Samurai

There's really no other option for number one on this list. If you want to get a more historic image of what samurai actually did, there's no better place to turn. When making this list up, I did my best to avoid the lone samurai on a mission movies, because that's not too indicative of how a party is going to work in L5R. It's tough, because for many, Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro are the samurai movies from Kurosawa. If Throne of Blood was picked because of its supernatural and horror aspects, Seven Samurai is number one on the list because of one word: teamwork. The basic premise; peasants go to town to hire as many samurai as they can to help protect themselves from bandits that come every year to steal their food. It's such a simple story, but the way the characters interact is what makes it shine. The seven hired samurai organize the peasants into a small militia and set up the best defenses they can against the large group of bandits. You'll love every one of the seven by the movie's long climactic battle, and as a nice side-effect, you get some idea of how peasants live their lives - one of the focuses of making Rokugan a well-rounded world. The movie is long (very long), so it's best to split it up into several viewings the first time through like a TV miniseries. It's worth watching and making your way through it. I'd put this in my top five movies not about samurai as well. It's good stuff. Oh, and it of course co-stars Toshiro Mifune.

What's Next?

This is just part one of our L5R week. Check back next time when we take a look at the L5R Quickstart and sample adventure, Legacy of Disaster given away this past Saturday at Free RPG Day. We also have a surprise for later in the week that you won't want to miss out on!


  1. I'd also recommend renting "The Twilight Samurai", a brilliant depiction of the decline of the Feudal State in Japan that is much more sincere and historically accurate than "The Last Samurai". The movie has a certain quietness and austerity about it that some viewers may find boring, but the climactic fight scene is so masterfully done that just about any shortcomings within the film itself can be forgiven. This is the one movie that I ask everyone to watch before joining my L5R game.

  2. Excellent recommendation! It's one I've heard of but haven't really had the chance to check out myself. Guess I know what's coming up on my Netflix queue for me :D

  3. I would have to absolutely, positively add "Onmyoji" (2001) to this list. It's about a court 'onmyoji' (shugenja) in the Heian period of Japan. The supernatural aspects of the movie (magic, oni possession, curses, evil shugenja, court intrigue) are very L5R in feel, and moreover the character interactions are really well done, ranging from dramatic to comedic; it gives the movie more depth than some other Japanese supernatural movies I've seen. Well worth a watch.

  4. 47 Ronin should be a note worthy film on here too.


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