from cinema to joystick, video games in Kurosawa mode

Under the auspices of American publisher Devolver Digital, Leonard Menchiari has teamed up with Polish studio Flying Wild Hog to create a chiaroscuro homage to samurai movies.

In the movie The game of death (released 1978), Bruce Lee climbs the floors of a pagoda to fight a series of increasingly difficult battles boss† In Hong Kong’s virtuoso film-makers, jumps and double-jumps follow each other over the clash of blades, akin to the whirling acrobatics of platform games. If martial arts movies seem so close to video games to us today, it’s because the latter, from its earliest years, took some of its most enduring choruses from these Asian cinematographies – such as karateka who in 1984, by rotoscopy, invented a video game equivalent to the technical apotheosis of the kung fu movie. The influence has become mutual, as the recent sifua relentless fighting game that pays tribute to the famous “corridor dolly” of the Korean thriller old boy (2003), itself conceived as the horizontal scrolling of a video game.

A pioneer of rotoscoping animation,

A genre separate from martial arts cinema, the chabara (or Japanese sword movie) is also an important reference in action video games, where samurai, ronins, and other ninjas are recurring characters. katana duels Samurai Shodown (1993) to the sharp jousts of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019), the titles – mostly Japanese – that capitalize on the chivalric folklore of the archipelago are legion. But if most of them are based on heroic, frantic and grotesque gestures (like the series onimusha), few have dared to be so literal with the samurai movie as karateka had never been to the kung fu movie. Lately, however, multiple titles have been claiming this illustrious but hard-to-honour heritage.

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Back to classics

Amongst them, Head to Yomi, which comes out Thursday, May 5 (on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC consoles), is notable for its grainy black-and-white image and an elegant sense of framing. Presented as a love letter to Akira Kurosawa’s films, this short title takes advantage of an aesthetic in paintings where the enemies emerge from the confines of the aircraft like so many surprises. The director, Leonard Menchiari, once again evokes the spirit of the “cinematic” action-adventure games of the 1980s and 1990s, that of kareteka and others An other world rotoscoped: he had already paid tribute to the latter with The Eternal Castle in 2019.

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The return to a more primitive form of the video game allows the cinephile Menchiari to work on scaling, transitions, games with caches and silhouettes, this time in the striking imitation of patina. chabara from the 1950s-1960s. Added to this is a documented recreation of the Edo period, as well as compelling borrowings from other film genres such as the jidai-geki (period film) or the kaidan-geki (fantastic movie). This search for authenticity, right down to the exemplary soundtrack, will seduce connoisseurs. The cinematic argument, however, fails to extend beyond the certainly appealing first hour of a collision-based fighting game with sometimes frustrating repetition.

It is because the use of the “Kurosawaian” model here is more a matter of image texture than of playful reinterpretation, just as was the case in 2020 for Ghost of Tsushimaa spectacular open world game set in 13th century Japanand century and based on exotic images. The blockbuster from the American studio Sucker Punch was embellished with a “Kurosawa” mode, a filter that allows the image to be changed to black and white with contrast effects worthy of movies in TohoScope, it embellished with a rougher sound and gusts that reduce the elements. as in the masterpieces of the Japanese master. In principle, however Ghost of Tsushima remained an ultra-classic action game, a thousand miles away from the director’s rigorous cutbacks of seven samurai† essentially staged in a sequence shot in the pursuit, hand-held camera, of a frolicking protagonist rather than that of a wandering ronin.

Inspired by the style of Akira Kurosawa,
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Beyond the Edge of the Sword

Like the game nioh (2017), initially intended as an adaptation of an unfinished script by Kurosawa that has evolved over the course of its development into a supernatural tale that is ultimately very different, the video game is said to struggle to grasp the codes of Japanese sword cinema. to appropriate? Notable exception, the highly cinematic saga Yakuza produced two scintillating episodes (unfortunately unpublished in France) set in feudal Japan, which owe as much to the dramas period of Japanese television than with the historical melodramas of Kenji Mizoguchi or those with The Legend of Musashi (1954) by Hiroshi Inagaki. Despite everything, the way of video games chabara is often limited to a stylized aesthetic that hardly goes beyond mere homage.

Billed in 2004 as the adaptation of an unproduced script by Akira Kurosawa,
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Keep in mind that Akira Kurosawa didn’t just make black-and-white films and wasn’t limited to sable films. The characters are individuals who dare to reject the conventions of duty on which video games still want to develop their samurai figures. In Kurosawa, violence only intervenes as a last resort. At the end of Sanjuro (1962), the character played by Toshiro Mifune explains that: “The best swords must remain in their scabbard”† Thus, the final duel lasts only the time of a flash and a spurt of blood. In Head to Yomithe mentor is also called Sanjuro, but he drags the hero to hell, in a series of battles accomplished in the name of revenge and redemption.

From Kurosawa preserves

In addition to the humanism dear to Kurosawa, the samurai film is a cinema of the delayed attack, of ellipses, which is based on an economy of action. It is this peculiar grammar that Sergio Leone has reappropriated with the Spaghetti Western, an extended and picaresque version of the classic Western, conceived on the model of the bodyguard (1961) by Kurosawa. The video game would undoubtedly have much to gain from such a conversion, given the chabara not as a simple aesthetic filter, but as an opportunity to reinvent the rhythm and staging of the action game. From 1984, the slowness and attitudes of the duelists of karateka outlined a cinematic playability that Head to Yomithough in line with this classic, it doesn’t quite manage to bring it up to date.