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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sengoku Jieitai (1979) 2 disc DVD Review


Sonny Chiba (Yoshiaki Iba), Isao Natsuyagi (Kagetora Nagao)

Directed by Mitsumasa Saito

While on maneuvers, a unit of Japan's Self Defense Force is mysteriously transported back in time during Japan's Feudal Era. Led by Yoshiaki Iba, the group soon befriends Kagetora Nagao, a Samurai leader serving under Lord Yukinaga Koizumi. Realizing the potential of these strangers in a strange land, Kagetora and his men utilize the military might of Iba and his forces forming an alliance to overthrow their many enemies.

Recognizing the possibilities of remaining in the Warring Times, Iba decides to stay in the past to rule with his newfound friend, Kagetora. The final test pits Iba and his small band of militia and modern weaponry against the might of Lord Shingen Takeda and his vast army of samurai warriors and ninja assassins. Clearing a path for sovereignty between their two factions, Iba keeps his promise to meet Kagetora in Kyoto to discuss their future regime. But there is room for only one ruler of Japan.

Saito's amazing, thrilling and extravagantly violent soldiers-versus-samurai tale of epic proportions is a staggeringly effective, if sublimely unique samurai saga. Based on a novel by Ryo Hanmura, the original Japanese version, running at 139 minutes, is filled with well drawn characters and large scale battle sequences. Outside of BLACK MAGIC WARS (1982), I've seen none of Saito's other directorial works but he deftly handles the material with striking care applied to the huge action set pieces most dominantly during the films big denouement. Saito allows us to spend time with his characters that have been thrust into a situation beyond their control. Some wish to go home, some wish to stay and others turn as barbaric as the denizens of this era from history's past.

Sonny Chiba offers up another excellent role from his numerous genre credits. His portrayal of Iba isn't far removed from any other military leader persona seen in many other army pictures. Around the halfway mark, his character begins to change and it is at this point a fascinating character swap takes place. Iba finds a friend and ally in Kagetora Nagao. The two form a brotherly bond swearing to one day rule Japan together and with the help of Iba's modern guns, a tank, jeeps and a helicopter, it would seem that wouldn't present much of a problem.

Unfortunately, court intrigue and duplicitous means spoil any such plans for Iba and his men. For the films first half, Iba relies on his guns and military training to survive. After witnessing a gruesome display of violence from Kagetora against an enemy, Iba learns the ways of the Samurai from him, ultimately transforming himself into a warrior of the Feudal Era. By the films fateful final moments, Iba has now taken up the sword while Kagetora has picked up the rifle.

Chiba's performance is further bolstered by his willingness to do his own stunts and some of his work here and that of others is often breathtaking. One such scene has the character of Iba exiting the helicopter high above the ocean descending the length of a long rope in an effort to liquidate a group of awol and rampaging militants. It is clearly Chiba doing the stunt and he talks at length about this and other actions with jubilation in a 21 minute interview about his time on the film. In Chiba's interview, he divulges that in the original script, Iba was to become Nobunaga Oda. Chiba proclaims that even though it isn't actually stated in the finished film, his interpretation of Iba is the cinematic representation of Oda himself.

One of the most notable aspects of Chiba's performance is his steady decline, or ascendancy, depending on your point of view, as a soldier of the Warring States. Iba grasps the advantages of living in such a wild and less civilized time in Japan's history. Leaving behind all the comforts and amenities afforded the modern age, Iba finally embraces what niceties are now available to him. A man can go where he pleases, conquer another if he so chooses and take up weaponry that truly define the Samurai way.

However, Iba doesn't completely give up his right to bear arms till the final moments. During his solo fight with the powerful Lord Shingen, Iba fights the war monger on his own terms--sword against sword, but when it becomes evident Iba's skill with the blade will not be enough, he resorts to his side arm to finish off his enemy. Immediately thereafter, Iba takes Shingen's head in a scene that mirrors an earlier scene where Kagetora easily obliterated an encampment of enemies before taking the head of the leader as Iba looked on in astonishment.

Isao Matsuyagi's rendition of barbaric, but resolute samurai, Kagetora Nagao is the embodiment of the warrior spirit who befriends this stranger from out of time. He and Iba, once they realize they share much in common, despite both being from different times in history, become one and the same. Only during the finale do the two switch places. When the deceptive advisors of the Shogunate reluctantly convince Kagetora that a man ripped from the tides of history cannot be trusted, (not to mention that with the loss of their tank and helicopter, Iba and Co. are of little use now) the plan is hatched to eliminate them. However, Nagao obviously does not want to do this to his friend but with the pressing insistence from the devilish and duplicitous advisor's that "Only one man can rule the nation", Kagetora aversely sets out to do what he knows will have to be done at some point or other.

Soon-to-be Japanese heartthrob Hiroyuki Sanada has a role as stealthy samurai fighter, the son of Lord Shingen. He spells doom for the soldiers helicopter only to lose his fight and his head in a brief altercation with Iba. In a brief shot, Sanada can be seen riding his horse standing up(!) before leaping off on top of Chiba. Sonny says in his interview there was more of this shot but because Sanada wasn't known at the time, the full bit wasn't used. Sanada performs one major death defying stunt where he jumps out of the helicopter landing only on some unraveled sets of cloth held out by waiting samurai from below. However, underneath them was a mat hidden under some grass. But had Sanada missed his jump, he would have been easily killed. A very dangerous and eye opening stunt performed by Chiba's future most popular pupil.

During the films lengthy running time, a subplot develops wherein one of the soldiers decides to take advantage of the less industrialized time period they have found themselves inexplicably placed in. Rebelling against Iba, the rebel without a cause goes on a spree of rape and violence. Of course, some of the other members join him which leads to the soldiers going against each other further dwindling their already diminishing numbers.

Also, scenes from the modern day are infrequently spread out during the picture. One character only wants to get back to his lover and scenes of her waiting for his arrival are interspersed at certain points throughout the film. Most poignant of these is the scene near the end where the soldier meets his doom and a shot of his still waiting girlfriend observes a modern day re-enactment of samurai on horseback. Another ironic scene has a group of the soldiers paying a visit to a recently widowed Japanese woman and they, along with a group of samurai, all take their turns with the invitingly licentious woman.

Later during the massive final battle, some samurai attempt to stop the tank from advancing. The driver sees an enemy atop the main gun and both recognize each other from that night of lust in the widowed woman's hut. Further irony is displayed not long after when one of the soldiers is confronted by what appears to be a kid (Hiroko Yakushimaru from LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI) dressed in warrior attire. The soldier is hesitant and pays for his cautiousness when he is abruptly and fatally stabbed with a spear uttering, "You're just a kid!" as his last dying breath. Even still, he manages to put down the anxious fighter.

With this being a Kadokawa production, the presence of spectacle is a given and TIME SLIP (1979) offers that in abundance. While there is ample time devoted to character development, generous screen time is afforded numerous large scale battle scenes. The depiction of the modern military in bloody combat against armies of samurai and ninja is an irresistible combination and this film doesn't disappoint. One major set piece, a near 30 minute spectacular on screen war of perpetually gruesome and violent enormity is one of the most astounding and captivating pieces of screen action ever captured on celluloid.

Iba and his now minuscule band of fighters bravely, but somewhat foolishly, decide to take on Lord Shingen Takeda and his hordes whilst Kagetora takes up the fight elsewhere. Kagetora seems perplexed and amused that Iba and his minute band are going to take on this massive, near unstoppable force seemingly alone. Even with their powerful modern day weapons, sheer numbers are stacked against them. In a scene reminiscent of the ending of THE WILD BUNCH (1969), Iba and his ragtag militia take on Lord Shingen's forces. The magnitude of their power isn't felt until it is nearly too late. Wave after wave of samurai encroach on Iba and Co.

Among the swarms of descending samurai, numerous crude, but effective contraptions are used against the iron clad fortitude of the uncompromising might of the tank and helicopter proving that strength in numbers is not to be underestimated. When everything looks hopeless for the heroes, ninja suddenly appear and Iba fights them on their own terms in a startling scene where he takes up a spear and bow and arrow. Words don't do this jaw dropping sequence justice only that the viewer is nearly exhausted when it's finally finished, making you feel as if you have somehow participated in the battle along with Iba and his ill fated compatriots.

The overall film features some grim and thoroughly brutal and gory scenes of violence. Some of this violence recalls such films as the banned (still in some places) and controversial film, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979). The shot of Kagetora rather gleefully decapitating his enemy replete with blood spraying into his mouth is striking but even more so when he lifts the head of his enemy into the air while his men dance and yell around him while a swirling fire burns behind them. This scene perfectly captures the savagery of what it must have been like to have lived in a time free of constraint and a general law of the land.

The ferocity of the violence is present throughout but reaches its apex during the big action set piece near the end. The films final scene packs a wallop all its own in a totally unexpected and nihilistic fashion. Even though this bit is over with rather quickly, the immediacy and finality of the violence is shocking made all the more effective by the absence of music hammering home the enforced vehemence with authority. Not long after this the camera lovingly lingers on the vanquished warriors, their bodies riddled with gore. The film ends with the somber expressions of Kagetora and his regiment having done what he didn't want to do. Saving his fallen comrade the indignity of taking his head, he opts instead to allow his brother in arms and his few remaining crew to cross over in a more worthy fashion. All this accompanied by a typical Japanese pop song which correlates to the on screen action and this time, thankfully, subs are provided.

Which brings me to the music; Many fans of these films often despise the choice of music or song heard in Japanese action films particularly from this time period. I must be alone in this assessment but I actually like the music here as well as in other Japan action films. I do not find it distracting at all and apparently, the Japanese audience don't find it jarring themselves. I guess it's down to personal taste I suppose, but the songs here are mainly all pop songs; slow romantic themes with electric guitar riffs and the last song bears some 50's slow rock sensibilities. With the subs provided for these tunes here, it becomes evident that the songs coincide with what is transpiring on screen. The final song is, in my opinion, the most effective and the extended "funeral" sequence resonates an almost music video quality as Kagetora and his men perform "burial rites". While their actions are played silent, the song describes the emotions of Kagetora and what has become of the relationship with his now departed friend perfectly without the need for dialog. A brilliant move on the part of the makers.

Mention should also be made of the astoundingly similar American film from the following year, THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980). It's about an aircraft carrier that is transported back in time just before the events at Pearl Harbor. The participants are faced with using their modern weapons to halt the impending attack thereby altering history in the process, or simply standing by and let history take its course. While it's a good film as I remember it (haven't seen it in years), that all-star US production didn't have Sonny Chiba among its esteemed cast.

This new 2 disc re-release of TIME SLIP (1979) has been unleashed on an unsuspecting public somewhat under the radar by BCI. I could find no significant information about its release but apparently all the near 90 minutes of interview material from the 2005 Japanese DVD have been subtitled and ported over offering a fascinating look into this amazing, and woefully misunderstood film. There's even a brief interview with the man who acquired the tank seen in the film! TIME SLIP (1979) appears far more colorful than its previous DVD release and often looks like it was made yesterday. The Surround and Stereo mixes left off of the Adness release are thankfully included here. Surprisingly, I assumed with this being a 2 disc set, that the US cut (or abomination, again depending on your point of view) under the title GI SAMURAI (running a severely truncated 85 minutes!) would be included but this omission is conspicuous by its absence, but nonetheless, this release is just fine without it.

SENGOKU JIETAI aka TIME SLIP (1979) is an exhaustive, character driven action spectacular rife with enormous battle scenes. Peppered with plentiful shots of gruesome violence, it would make Hong Kong director Chang Cheh proud or would fit snuggly among John Milius's earlier films such as DILLINGER (1974) and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). A brilliant and beautifully realized film that perfectly captures the lawlessness and savagery of times less refined but strangely cognizant of the times we live(d) in then and now.

A highly recommended movie for Sonny Chiba fans who gets one of the best, if not the juiciest role of his long, illustrious career. Some fans will most probably be put off by the music, but the intriguing storyline and the raw, but ornate battle sequences make the DVD worth the purchase. In addition to the plethora of subtitled interviews present, that's the perfect icing on the cake for fans of this movie.

This review is representative of the 2 disc DVD edition.

DVD availability: Ventura/Adness, BCI/Ronin Entertainment (Region 1), Toei DVD (region 2; Japan)

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