Tuesday, April 1, 2014

El Descondido (Jikan no mishiranu hito) (1985)

El Descondido may be a cult film par excellence. Known to only a few ardent devotees (who lovingly refer to the film as “Santo-ichi”), they can be found at sparsely attended midnight screenings across the country dressed as wizards, luchadors, and even like hybrid mastodon-anteaters (baku or dream-eaters, which figure heavily in the plot). While little known to the public, this bizarre martial arts/wrestling/samurai/time travel/fantasy film has left its fingerprints on the culture. Oblique references to El Descondido can be found in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, Darren Pellett's We Should Get Out More, Marisha Pessl's Night Film, a pair of Haruki Murakami short stories, countless music videos, Inglourious Basterds, three episodes of Community, and even several songs by Guided by Voices; Yahoo Serious mentioned how the film partially inspired the bubbles-in-beer scene from Young Einstein during an appearance on Nickelodeon's Don't Just Sit There; and though cagey about it, Japanese wrestler The Great Muta has confessed that he took the move The Shining Wizard (a leaping knee strike to the temple) from the title character of the film.

But why so influential?

Why not.

Take one of the more memorable action set pieces. There's our hero, El Descondido, a Mexican wrestler (played by a Japanese actor who simply went by “El Descondido,” but more on that later) in Edo period Japan. He wears a suit and tie and a full black mask with a question mark on it, and he's a death-defying high-flyer when he fights. Mid-film, as he makes his escape from the castle of The Darkling Wizard (Gousuke Okada), he's pursued through a large thicket of bamboo by the villain's tick-tock ronin and strawman ninja. For the next four minutes, El Descondido defeats each foe with moonsaults and rising knee strikes and Mexican surfboard stretches, with European uppercuts and head scissors and flying forearms, ascending higher and higher into the bamboo to gain advantage, balancing on the bowing stalks that glimmer like the blades and gears of his enemies. In a moment that's as much Georges Melies as it is Kinji Fukusaku, as the canopy teems with reassembled tick-tock ronin about to strike, El Descondido is saved by his ragtag friends riding on a giant dragonfly; the dragonfly is a temporary magical construct made of leaves that, once safely landed, disperses like confetti into the night on the breeze.

It is only then that you realize the entire battle and rescue and dispersion of leaves has been shot as if it were one continuous take.

El Descondido was one of only three films directed by Ryu Tsuburaya, an unsung filmmaker whose work drew a number of comparisons to the previously mentioned Fukusaku. He may be best known, oddly, as the man who directed and edited the kinetic opening credits sequences for some of the Metal Hero shows through the 1980s (e.g., Space Sheriff Gavan, Space Sheriff Sharivan, Space Sheriff Shaider, etc.). Tsuburaya's other two films were 1987's Red Cow (Reddokau), a brutal gangster picture about counterfeit Kobe beef, and 1991's media satire Television! Television! (Terebi! Terebi!). All three films were co-written by long-time girlfriend Kimberly Anne Nance, who met Tsuburaya in the early 80s when she was an art student abroad. Nance's influence on the script may explain the bizarre hodgepodge of cultural references.

What Tsuburaya and Nance do best in El Descondido is find the odd heart in otherwise absurd material. Yes, it's silly, but there's a sense of being a stranger in life and the joys of friendship and connection when one find themselves lost, unable to speak the language, in an unfamiliar world. The film opens in Mexico City 1985 (really a gymnasium in Nagoya) where El Descondido systematically dismantles an opponent with submission moves and flips, eventually performing a tornado DDT that rips a hole in the fabric of space-time, sending him back to Japan in the early-to-mid 1800s. In order to return home, El Descondido must help the local villagers defeat The Darkling Wizard, a 10-foot-tall despot who has been trying to become master of all existence. To help our hero, there's a wizened Judo master (Hideo Murota), a samurai with a robot arm (Kenji Obha, but not the one who played Space Sheriff Gavan), a young wizard in training (Akemi Kikuchi), and an American cowgirl-pretending-to-be-a-cowboy (Nance).

As a fighting unit, the quintet don't really come together until the end, when they drive a herd of baku through the castle gates to defeat The Darkling Wizard once and for all. In that climactic siege, the whole workshop of The Darkling Wizard takes on our heroes. There are remarkable acts of badass cooperation throughout that makes me long for the teased sequel: Judo throws into shotgun blasts, scarecrow baddies ripped in fifths by anything that protrudes from the torso. There's also a cavalry of villagers on horses made of rocks and soil, and one sequence (another remarkable continuous shot with masked cuts) in which all five heroes leap back and forth on the backs of raging baku. As Roger Ebert wrote in his essay on Lawrence of Arabia, “The word 'epic' refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision.” This is especially true with any sequence that takes place in The Darkling Wizard's own private chamber, which is simply called “The Invertosphere.” The camera tilts and shifts where it will in this dizzying Technicolor nightmare.

Yet the film wouldn't have come into existence if it weren't for El Descondido, who was wrestling in Japan during the 80s. Tsuburaya inadvertently thwarted a robbery at the wrestler's apartment late one night, which prompted El Descondido to offer his friendship and his story. Yes, the film El Descondido is based on the supposed true-to-life story of the man El Descondido. This sense of conviction in the yarn is palpable in El Descondido's performance. During the sushi scene (a favorite among midnight audiences since it allows them to throw uncooked rice at each other), El Descondido pulls up his mask just above the mouth to eat; there are tears streaming down his face from the first act of kindness he's experienced since being unstuck in time; while weeping, his exposed mouth opens and closes in such a way that it seems to take the place of the dot of the question mark from the mask. In real life, people on the street would see El Descondido--always masked, always in a suit--eating at restaurants in a similar manner. Jushin Liger claimed that El Descondido kept his mask on in the shower.

This is wrestling kayfabe taken to a new level.

It's baffling to me that El Descondido isn't talked about more, even if just for the music number/training montage (!) in which our hero perfects The Shining Wizard on abandoned huts and rotting trees. What's worse, I keep missing screenings of it around town. Given, the screenings tend to be poorly promoted and little publicized. The cult of El Descondido wants to keep the film their own, which includes the people in the film. (Tsuburaya and Nance supposedly live in Wales now and, though leading quiet lives, are trying to buy back the rights to their three films.)

As for El Descondido the man, someone claiming to be him always shows up at the rogue screenings of the film. No one knows who he is, though everyone's pretty sure he's not really a time traveler (or Mexican). Before a screening of El Descondido at the Ken Cinema in San Diego, the supposed El Descondido was asked, “Who are you really?”

Adjusting his tie, the time unstuck hero replied (with a British accent), “Does it matter? The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.”


  1. Bravo, it is fantastic to see this rare gem get some much needed recognition! though perhaps its lack of notoriety is something I too can take some of the blame for; its obscurity is part of its charm and so I find myself reluctant to share knowledge of its existence with others.

    You've given quite an exhaustive account of the film's background, but i couldn't help but notice a few interesting details omitted.

    First, cineastes and Japanophiles alike will surely want to know about the annual festival in held in Chono, a small village in Kyushu prefecture, that was celebrated in the second week of June between the years 1972 and 1988 (hence causing some debate over the exact span of Santoichi's career), JIKENKA MATSURI. To honor the time traveling luchador, pairs of amateur wrestlers and ordinary citizens, all masked, would choreograph lucha libre matches and perform them IN REVERSE. The duo to receive the largest ovation was awarded with the services of 10 trained monkeys, raised by local Nakamura wrestling school to carry their wrestlers' ring gear, set up rings, and so forth.

    Another interesting cultural detail, this one more of an offshoot of the film El Descondido, is a legendary performance of an alternate soundtrack to the film performed live by Avante Garde saxophonist John Zorn, Haino Keiji on Hurdy Gurdy, and Masami Akita on assorted electronics. They were joined by Yamatsuka Eye and Mike Patton, both wearing lucha libre masks, who provided screamed vocals. Unable to find a proper venue in Japan, they performed the 10 hour live soundtrack with a reel of the film projected in a continuous loop in the background in Belgium, at legendary coffee house/ performance space Dieuxplex. Its closure is rumored to bne connected to this performance, which some claiming to be in attendance have described as causing several large wall sized glass windows to shatter.

    Would love to hear more of this singular cultural phenomenon.

  2. このレッビュ が すごい!日本でサントイチもエルデスコンヂドはあまりゆめいじやない。
    たくさんの人 は ほんと に サントイチ というひと が いる のを 神しんじゃられない。
    でも10ねんまい がくえんハルのプロレスのエベントのあとで らめんをたべにきました。
    らめんができると となりに すわっている 人は サントイチ だった!!
    はやくカメラをさがしてもいちど まがって サントイチはも いなちゃった。
    サントイチの えいがを よむと あの日 を おもいだして、ありがとうございました!