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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983) review


Hiroyuki Sanada (Shinbei Masashi), Hiroko Yakushimaru (Princess Shizu), Sonny Chiba (Dosetsu Tadatomo), Etsuko Shihomi (Keno Tanetomo), Yuki Meguro (Hikita Gonnokami Motofuji), Mari Natsuki (Tamazusa), Nana Okada (Hamaji), Masaki Kyomoto (Shino Moritaka), Kenji Ohba (Genpachi Nobufuchi), Nagare Hagiwara (Yonosuke), Mamako Yoneyama (Funamushi), Akira Shioji (Genjin)

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

The Short Version: This Japanese fantasy spectacular is from revered director, Kinji Fukasaku. Adapted from a famous novel, Fukasaku's second cinematic version of the popular story is a massive sword and sorcery epic with lots of flashy effects and rubber monsters. Big budget action set pieces and some gore round out this well known and successful Haruki Kadokawa super production.

100 years after the destruction of the evil Hikita line by the brave Satomi clan, the undying spirits of the Hikita return for vengeance successfully annihilating their enemies, but fail in murdering Princess Shizu, the Satomi clan member prophesized to bring about the ultimate downfall of the Hikita followers. Whisked away by her few remaining subordinates, the princess is to find eight mighty warriors of different backgrounds, each of which possessing a magic crystal denoting them as one of the chosen eight. These eight noble samurai are destined to eradicate the Hikita once and for all to restore peace and tranquility to the land.

The director of such movies as BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR & HUMANITY (1973), YAGYU CLAN CONSPIRACY (1978) and BATTLE ROYALE (2000) returns to the classic Japanese novel, 'The Eight Dogs of Satomi', previously shot by the director five years prior under the gloriously gaudy guise of a science fiction movie, the enormously goofy and fun MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978). For this retelling, the director returns to a period setting, but places the production in the realm of fantasy replete with magic, witches and monsters.

The story is a bit mangled from the original source material, but no doubt much the same way other movies deviate from the written page from which they sprang. Fukasaku appears to be simply having fun here just as he must have been doing with such films as THE GREEN SLIME (1968) and the aforementioned MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978). Granted, some of the esteemed directors efforts were indisputably commercial affairs, he brings some majesty to the fantasy trappings showcased in this typically big budget Kadokawa production, reportedly the biggest Japanese picture at the time.

The curious and uninitiated may be slightly disappointed to learn that, despite his presence among the cast, this is not a Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba lead vehicle. He plays a major role, but by this point in his career, Chiba was content to let his proteges take over. In this case, it was Chiba's most popular acolyte, Hiroyuki "Henry" Sanada. Sanada quickly got his own vehicles to shine such as SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), Fukasaku's other mystical samurai dark tale, SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1981), the modern actioner, ROARING FIRE (1982) and also BLACK MAGIC WARS (1982). Sanada was everywhere around this time even in Hong Kong movies like NINJA IN THE DRAGON'S DEN (1982) and ROYAL WARRIORS (1986) with Michelle Yeoh. He's even more popular today having broke into the US market on the popular television show, LOST.

Meanwhile, while giving some of his other students a chance to headline in other ventures, Chiba did take the leads in his numerous television programs at the time most notably the KAGE NO GUNDAN series parts 1 through 5. Chiba is a major presence in EIGHT SAMURAI nonetheless and gets some of the most memorable shots in the film including one that literally brings down the house. Like Sanada, Chiba's career got a big boost after appearing in the American film, KILL BILL. Prior to that, Chiba had also had co-starring roles in films like IMMORTAL COMBAT (1994) and IRON EAGLE 3 (1992).

Fans of Chiba will also be delighted to see the stunning beauty of Etsuko Shihomi as Keno, a hired ninja assassin who attracts the attention of the Hikita clan member, Yonosuke, the snake man. This fractured rivalry/romance is one of several side stories littered throughout scriptwriters, Fukasaku and Toshio Kamata's dark landscape. The two meet in one of the castle chambers and have a big duel while Yonosuke's giant snakes writhe about. This sequence, as well as several others in the movie, have a very stagey, theatrical appearance. There are many operatic nuances such as lighting that highlights mood, intentionally fake looking snow as a backdrop to a Kabuki show that ends in violence; Anger of characters causing a great rustling of wind, things like that.

Many other scenes have a painterly quality about them akin to much of what was seen in the ghost classic, KWAIDAN (1965). And this picture delivers its fair share of ghosts and demons. The wicked Tamazusa, who has an incestuous relationship with her equally sadistic son, Motofuji, turns into a walking rotted corpse at one point and bathes in a large pool of blood to retain her beauty. One of her sinister seers, Funamushi, is an old hag with a taste for eyes. At one point in the film, she rips her face off and a giant (rubber) centipede erupts from her neck. There's also a male spellcaster named Genjin who creates an army of beautiful, poison saturated living dead girls whose very breath and sweat is fatally toxic.

Chiba's JAC band puts together some striking action sequences, the bulk of which appear during the explosive climax that recalls everything from the STAR WARS series to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in its scope. There's action sprinkled throughout the movie such as an assassination at a wedding and the heroes battling it out with a giant centipede. The main centerpiece is the expansive 'Storming the Hikita Castle' finale from the bowels of the fortress all the way to the throne room. The Japan Action Club put in some overtime to make this large scale battle as exciting as possible. It should be said that not all the eight samurai make it to the end.

In addition to this grandiose battle sequence, this spectacular Jida Geki has lots of flashy optical effects, a grand orchestral score and even some 80's style rock music courtesy of American musician, the late John O'Banion (with writing and conducting contributions from Ritchie Zito, Joey Carbone and David Palmer). Often the bane of seemingly every single American fan of Japanese action movies, the sappy love songs (it seems just as many people love the song heard here as hate it) and rock tunes were a requirement in Japanese cinema of this vintage. Sometimes these were sang in Japanese and in the case of this movie, both the title song and the love ballad are sung in English. Singer, O'Banion was a big star in Japan, much bigger than he was elsewhere.

I must admit I actually enjoy the "out of place" musical selections in so many Nipponese films and television programs. Such tunes were very popular (I think they still are) with audiences there, although these choices appear bewildering to most foreign ears. The orchestral score itself is distinctively Japanese indigenous to films of this period. Frequently exciting, the score builds to a crescendo during the final 20 minutes.

While this Fukasaku picture has many admirers, some viewers might be put off by several of the side stories and also areas where some of the main characters garner late blooming revelations of their background. Granted, even at 136 minutes, some things could have been fleshed out, or explained a bit more, but as it is, it's an entertaining fantasy samurai adventure.

Fantasy film fans looking for something different may find it interesting and Chiba and Fukasaku lovers that haven't already seen it will no doubt want to give it a look. Long available on dozens of PD labels, it was previously available from Prism Video (the film also got a US theatrical release) in a fullscreen, dubbed edition which is the source for all those dupes. The widescreen DVD in original Japanese with English subtitles reveals a much wider expanse of the dark canvas painted by the director and a greater appreciation for one of the best remembered Japanese action pictures of the 1980's.

This review is representative of the BCI/Ronin DVD from The Samurai Collection set.


Samuel Wilson said...

Venom, I've been leery toward Fukasaku's special-effects films, but I do have a copy of this from Mill Creek, after they got the rights to Chiba's Kadokawa films, so I'm going to give it a look at some point. Sanada has had an amazing career. Who else -- apart from Uma Thurman -- has worked with both Sonny Chiba and Merchant & Ivory?

venoms5 said...

It's been a favorite of mine since first renting it back in 1988. It was the first movie of its kind I had ever seen. To my young eyes, it was a Samurai picture mixed with elements of Godzilla and sword and sorcery and I loved every minute of it. It's much better in its original language, too, in my view. I hope you like it, Sam.

R.A.M.'67 said...

This movie was quite an experience, venoms5! I, too, got the original version via the Mill Creek box set, and this is the best of the four films within it!

Judging by your screen captures, you also liked Hiroko Yakushimaru as the princess! She's quite gorgeous, too! I read somewhere she was (at the time) a Japanese pop singer.

It's great on many levels, including special effects. The moment I saw one of those particular "rubber monsters", I was reminded of the creatures Fu Sheng fought in Na Cha the Great!

Franco Macabro said...

Gonna search it out, thanks again for pointing me in the right direction, sounds like this will be a blast to watch!

venoms5 said...

@ Fang: Yes, she's quite a beauty. I've not seen the Mill Creek set of this. I wouldn't be surprised if this movie got a remake at some point down the road. I think there's a TV series, too, isn't it?

@ Fran: You like sci fi/fantasy a lot so I think you may get a kick out of this, Fran.

Richard of DM said...

I remember seeing the trailer for this one a while back but I forgot about it. Dang, I really need to check this out. Great review!

venoms5 said...

Yeah, that trailer (I presume the English one) is a hoot. The voiceover refers to it as 'The Legend of the Eight NINJAS'. The dub, too, replaces samurai with ninja despite only one of the characters being what would constitute a ninja. I guess because of the popularity of that riot of a film, ENTER THE NINJA, using that more familiar word would increase its BO.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

I only remember the silly English trailer to this. It had that pop song and the narrator couldn't even tell us the right title. I just thought it was absolutely hilarious. Sounds like a decent enough flick though. May check it out if I ever track it down.

venoms5 said...

If you don't normally watch these kinds of things, it might not do much for you, Fred. The last twenty minutes is worth a rental, or if you want to see Sonny Chiba in a non STREETFIGHTER type role.

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