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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #25 (June 20, 2006), page 15.
Katanas on film: an indispensable guide
Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook
By Patrick Galloway
Stone Bridge Press, 2005
Paperback, 240 pages, $19.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
As author and Eugene resident Patrick Galloway points out in the introduction to Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, "the samurai film genre is woefully underrepresented in film criticism," a polite way of saying that film snobs have generally disregarded what they consider to be a class of inferior foreign action flicks. But anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa’s seminal epic Seven Samurai or Masaki Kobayashi’s surreal Kwaidan knows that samurai films can be brilliant cinematic masterpieces in any genre. Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves is Galloway’s marvelous groundbreaking effort at righting this cinematic wrong, a book packed with information, humor, and personality, revealing his abiding love for this oft-disparaged category of films.
Galloway begins Stray Dogs with an introduction to the samurai genre, including important cultural aspects to the films that Western viewers might not be familiar with. He reviews the historical time frames for the films, from the turbulent Sengoku period to the fading glory of the Edo years, information that’s vital to understanding and appreciating the events of most samurai movies. He also explains the symbolic nature of Japanese films in general, and samurai films in particular. This kind of information, familiar to Japanese audiences but not to their foreign counterparts, makes Stray Dogs more than a rehash of cool swordfighting flicks. Galloway recognizes the many artistic layers of good samurai films and strives to make Westerners understand and appreciate these different levels of meaning.
After an overview of significant samurai filmmakers, stars, and production companies, Galloway launches into the book’s main section, a decade-by-decade tour through over fifty of the best samurai films ever made, from Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning 1950 masterpiece Rashomon to Yoji Yamada’s brooding 2003 post-samurai tale Twilight Samurai. He summarizes each film (without spoiling the ending), places it within its historic and cinematic context, and explains important plot points or details that might be puzzling for Western viewers. Each film also comes with a difficulty rating (easy, tricky, or tough), to let readers know how hard each film is to find, either online or at your local video store. Fortunately, nearly all of the films are easy to find (they’re cinematic classics, after all), though Galloway warns readers about distributors peddling poorly transferred copies.
Boldfaced words in his text point readers to the book’s incredible index, which contains more than just standard reference fare: Galloway lists common Japanese samurai terms, and (best of all) matches samurai actors and directors with a list of their films. Since many of these films — especially Kurosawa’s — draw from the same pool of actors, Galloway introduces us to the sport of "samurai spotting," using his index to trace a favorite or familiar face through several films.
Sidebars throughout the text feature film stills, Asian artwork, or a running question-and-answer series with "Takuan, the Know-it-All Priest," a way for Galloway to provide cultural details in a more tongue-in-cheek fashion. Though they are largely helpful, it’s a pity that better photos couldn’t have been chosen for some sidebars (many are Japanese movie posters featuring close-ups of the primary actors), and some of them are poorly chosen, bearing little correspondence to the text around them. The sidebars comprise the most uneven feature in the book — sometimes funny, sometimes puzzling — but they’re little more than a distraction, a withered garnish that doesn’t quite match up to the amazing main dish that is Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves.
Galloway’s thoughtful and personal touches make this book much more than just a vital reference for samurai film fans. He doesn’t simply gloss over each film, explaining its academic importance or the director’s lofty intentions; he shows us what he loves about each one, and what makes it a notable example of samurai filmmaking. A labor of love and knowledge, as well as the first book to devote itself entirely to this important film genre, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves is an extraordinary achievement and an absolutely vital reference text. If you’re already a big fan, you can’t live without this book; if you’re even vaguely interested in samurai films, this book will show you what you’ve been missing.