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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 1, 2003

Return of the Samurai

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Samurai films, other favorites around the clock

Launching today

Oceanic Digital Channel 679

Free preview, today through Wednesday, for all digital subscribers

Included free if you're an NGN subscriber ($17.95 a month, plus digital service fees)

Non-NGN subscribers may opt for NGN3-only for $9.95 a month, plus digital service fees


Brian Suzuki recalls the era of the 1940s and '50s when the 'A'ala Park area boasted five movie theaters showing Japanese films.

A film historian, particularly of Japanese classics, Suzuki is thrilled that a cable channel exclusively devoted to chambara (samurai) and other Nippon dramas and ghost films — the very kind of movies that played at the now-gone theaters — launches today on Oceanic Cable.

The station, NGN3 (digital channel 679), will draw from the vast film inventory of Toei studios, one of the pillars of Japanese movie-making over the decades, and other independent sources. The launch is an only-in-Hawai'i rarity, offering subtitled movies around the clock.

The appeal for contemporary audiences is that these films will be accessible with the subtitles. Samurai, ninja, drama and obake (ghost) films will all be shown, all with noted Japanese actors from the past.

"'A'ala used to be a hub, the center of Japanese films of the 1920s, '30s, into the '40s and through the '50s," said Suzuki, 60, who is president of Hawai'i Air Cargo, a company that ships, among other things, most of the commercial films that play in Hawai'i today.

Suzuki said the launch of NGN3 — the acronym refers to Nippon Golden Network; the 3 earmarks the third cable channel with NGN ties — recalls that golden era when going to a Japanese theater was part of a weekly ritual for Americans of Japanese ancestry and gaijin (non-Japanese), too.

INGN is the first network of its kind outside of Japan, said Owen Ogawa, 26, project development manager for the cable channel. The channel will offer hard-to-find, rarely seen blockbusters, including some recent titles, but mainly from the vaults of Toei.

"There's really not much available (in Hawai'i) today," Ogawa said. "There may be a couple of titles available at Blockbuster, but typically, for a movie fan to see these Japanese favorites, he has to go to Japan, or order through the Internet."

These vintage films, Suzuki said, were magnets for Japanese-speaking viewers and were often the core of entertainment for pre- and post-World War II plantation workers, when such movies were commonly shown at rural plantation sites, with bed sheets used as screens.

"We went to see the villains and the good-guy hero, and you always knew who was who," Suzuki said. "And good always won over evil, just like the classic American westerns. We knew the outcome; but we just liked learning about the (Japanese) culture. Then there were the action films, too — all of this, before the arrival of TV in the Islands."

Eighteen features will be shown in December, Ogawa said, with films originating from the past five decades. Recent fare will be part of the programming.

Today through Wednesday, all Oceanic digital subscribers will be able to watch free preview showings.

"For us, it's not about trying to sign on new subscribers, but to provide more value to current subscribers," Ogawa said.

The most daunting task of providing Japanese films around the clock is the subtitling. A crew of about seven tackles the vagaries of the changing Japanese language.

"I would say that it takes three times the running length of the film to complete the whole process of subtitling," Ogawa said. "Usually, there's no script, so the translators have to watch the film, scene by scene."

Though Hawai'i has had Japanese-language channels, none has ever shown subtitled feature-length films, Ogawa said.

There's generational interest, too, in the old Japanese movies, Ogawa said.

"I mention these films to my grandmother and mother, and they get really, really excited," he said. "They tell me, 'It's before your time, so you can't understand,' and, yes, there are many who remember the films and the (now-gone) theaters."

"These old movies have been very much a part of the Hawai'i culture," said Suzuki, who often talks about the heyday of these old films at churches and with senior citizens groups.

Ogawa's father, Dennis Ogawa, a University of Hawai'i professor of American studies, said these classic Japanese movies are "of real value to students of culture."

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.


• • •

Plenty of samurai action in films, TV

Raise your swords: Samurai season is here:

  • Japanese samurai films will unreel in a new 24-hour NGN3 cable network (see story) that bows in today, reviving classic cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun.
  • "The Last Samurai," premiering Friday in theaters, puts Tom Cruise in Japanese garb and wielding a sword, portraying a Civil War officer recruited to teach Western battle methods to Japanese samurai of the 1870s.
  • "Blood of the Samurai," local boy Aaron Yamasato's award-winning homage to samurai and horror flicks of yesteryear, is just out on DVD.
  • "Blood of the Samurai: The Series," also by Yamasato, is the first locally produced ongoing series, airing this fall and winter on Oceanic 16.
  • "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" Quentin Tarantino's current action film, includes swordplay and samurai situations.
  • "Samurai Jack," an animated series with a titular swordsman, is a popular show on the Cartoon Network.