Friday, January 15, 2016

Samurai Pirate (1963) review


Toshiro Mifune (Luzon Sukezaemon), Tadao Nakamura (Chancellor), Makoto Sato (Black Pirate), Arishima Ichiro (Kume Sennin), Kusabue Mitsuko (Masuo), Mie Hama (Princess Wataru), Kumi Mizuno (Miwa), Akiko Wakabayashi (maid), Hideyo Amamoto (Witch), Jun Tazaki (Suribu), Jun Funado (Kimiko), Haruo Suzuki (Prince Feng Shen of Shiro), Takashi Shimura (the King), Kimu Sakatama (Giant)

Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi

The Short Version: This fanciful Japanese Adventure movie was promoted as a Sinbad picture in the United States in 1965 under the banner of AIP. Unfortunately, there are no stop-motion monsters, nor any of the man-in-suit variety, but there is a fantasy element involving two sorcerers; one of them being a horny wizard with a predilection for big breasts; and a nasty looking witch who can turn people to stone. A bit long at 97 minutes, and with the bulk of the action saved for the last 20, Taniguchi's unusual movie might be a hard sell for both monster and samurai fans. However, the film's biggest selling point is an exotic look and the fantastic cast that's a veritable pirate's treasure of familiar faces from many of Japan's famous SciFi and giant monster movies. Toho's light-hearted actioner is equal parts pirate movie and peplum picture; more SINBAD THE SAILOR (1947) than Harryhausen's 7TH VOYAGE (1958); but it's a nice change of pace for Mifune fans used to seeing him in more serious samurai roles.

Framed for piracy and ultimately escaping execution by being burned alive, the wealthy merchant, Luzon Sukezaemon, leaves Japan behind and takes to the sea to become a real pirate with a crew of his own. However, a storm at sea destroys his vessel killing all but two of his ship mates. Adrift with his remaining riches, Luzon and the remnants of his crew run across the dreaded Black Pirate who quickly overpowers them and steals his treasure. Presumed dead, the now penniless pirate washes ashore on a tropical island somewhere in the South China Sea and is aided by an eccentric wizard named Sennin. Taken to the city Luzon becomes entranced by the lovely Princess Wataru; but not necessarily by her beauty, but that she's wearing one of his prized jewels. Befriending the Princess, Luzon soon uncovers a plot by the Chancellor, a duplicitous Premier with eyes of usurping the throne of her father, the King. With the help of an evil witch, the Chancellor plans to steal the hand of the Princess by murdering her fiance, a Chinese Prince, before he arrives on the island. Luzon, an amorous wizard, and a spunky female fighter and her band of thieves intend to stop him before he can bring his plan to fruition.

Aside from some mild violence and light sexual overtones, SAMURAI PIRATE is a family affair in the vein of your average Fantasy classic it seems to be modeled after. Still, it never achieves the level of wonder and adventure of the 1958 Harryhausen Sinbad that was such a worldwide success. The filmmakers settle instead for the subdued whimsy of 1947s SINBAD THE SAILOR. As entertaining as it is, Toho's mix of pirates and Italian style peplum tropes fails to match the average film in those genres with its low, and predominantly restrained action quotient. There's minor bits of aggravated assault with certain characters, but for the most part, the bulk of the action is saved for the last 20 minutes. Prior to that, the focus of Takeshi Kimura's and Shinichi Sekizawa's script is on a comical tone. There's nothing wrong with this playfully kid-friendly nature, but considering the potential for high-spirited adventure, some viewers may be disappointed by the subtle amount of swashbuckling; and, since it's a Fantasy film, and a Toho picture to boot, the absence of any monsters will likely leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans expecting them.

Arguably the single best attribute of this production is seeing Toshiro Mifune acting alongside Toho's cast of familiar faces seen in any number of their beloved monster movies. Mifune--no stranger to Fantasy films having starred in 1959s THE THREE TREASURES--is essaying a hero of circumstance; a former merchant who, after being blamed for thievery, decides to become one. He slips into the role rather easily, playing Luzon as rough around the edges yet always stern and assured. By the end of the film he's leading a full-fledged revolt; rescuing dozens of female slaves; toppling Nakamura's evil Chancellor; and settling things with Makoto Sato's Black Pirate.

For what it is, Toho delivers an enjoyable romp even if it's like having an appetizer without ever getting the main course. Eiji Tsuburaya was the SPX director (with Teruyoshi Nakano assisting), but his talents are muted, even with the few miniature boats, a model city, some mattes, optical effects and rear projection. There's not a lot done with them aside from sprucing up a scene. Toho apparently wasn't willing to go all out on a flashy adventure movie that could have been an unheralded classic.

Take the Black Pirate's ship, for instance; it has an enormous spearhead mounted on it, but we never see it used as a ramming device or anything. It's just there to make the model ship look more menacing. The drill-like weapon looks a lot like the one seen on the Gotengo in ATRAGON (1963). Had time and budget permitted, an ocean battle (or even a sea serpent!) would have been a great addition to this film.

The most outrageous, if unconvincing, SPX sequence is when Luzon attempts to covertly get back inside the castle by using a giant, bird-shaped kite. This scene, like most others, has a playful quality about it as opposed to rousing adventure.

The closest to a monster in the picture is the old hag, a frighteningly over the top makeup job brought superbly to life by character actor Hideyo Amamoto in drag. You'll know him as Dr. Who from KING KONG ESCAPES (1967) and the kindly toymaker from Ishiro Honda's under-appreciated GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969). Amamoto not only steals the picture away from Mifune, but the character's demise is one of the highlights of the film. Possessing a magic mirror, this lethal harpy doesn't need a broom to fly and her magic power of choice is turning people to stone. Thankfully, we see quite a bit of the witch, enhancing the villainy alongside Tadao Nakamura's murderous Chancellor.

Fans of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) will get a kick out of Arishima Ichiro as Sennin, the kooky good wizard. Unrecognizable in his old man makeup, Ichiro was Tako, the bumbling businessman who financed Kong's capture. Here, he's a horny hermit who goes to pieces over bodacious breasts; so much so, that at one point he turns himself into a fly and lands safely atop any firm, exposed cleavage within range. The duel between the two wizards is, like most of the movie prior to the finale, played for laughs.

The one lady that sends Sennin into debauched fits of nirvana is a bosomy slave girl played by exotic beauty Akiko Wakabayashi (see insert). Appearing in some European films early in her career, Akiko was, like her co-star Mie Hama, among the Bond girls in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967). Mie Hama (see above) gets a meatier role playing the elegant Princess Wataru. Both women were among Toho's most famous faces in the 1960s. A third, Kumi Mizuno, gets a juicy supporting role as Miwa, the feisty leader of a band of thieves. Mizuno, more than the other two, became Toho's signature actress in their SciFi-Monster canon with roles in pictures like MONSTER ZERO (1965) and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARUGON (1965).

Action and swordplay is dotted throughout, but doesn't truly arrive till the last half of the movie. There's some good maneuvers captured on film, but the fighting isn't too overly dramatic in its design. Misaki Gentaro's weapons work differs from the typical samurai epic, with the choreo feeling more at home in a traditional Anglo styled adventure. Gentaro worked on Kurosawa pictures like THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) and SANJURO (1962); and others including the Mifune Productions SAMURAI REBELLION (1967) and SHINSENGUMI (1969); and Toei pictures such as KARATE WARRIORS (1976) starring Sonny Chiba. His last work was Kurosawa's RAN in 1985--the same year in which he died at 76 years of age.

Director Taniguchi made his debut in 1947s SNOW TRAIL; a film that was also the first acting role for Toshiro Mifune as well as the first scoring job for notable composer Akira Ifukube. While the first two reunite here, Masaru Sato does musical duties and delivers a fantastic score, a highlight of which is an incredibly catchy main theme. Sato later delivered an eye-opening soundtrack for GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), and you can hear hints of that later score in this one.

Senkichi Taniguchi directed and worked on largely serious pictures, examples being directorial duties on ESCAPE AT DAWN (1950) and scripting Kurosawa's THE QUIET DUEL (1949)--another film starring Mifune. Later in his career, Taniguchi relaxed into a lighter realm including the last two installments of the five film INTERNATIONAL SECRET POLICE series--those two films being KEY OF KEYS (1965) and DESPERATE SITUATION (1967); the KEY OF KEYS being the recipient of dreary treatment by Woody Allen, re-dubbed and re-titled as WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY? (1966).

Toho produced a follow-up to SAMURAI PIRATE in 1966 with most of the same cast, crew and again directed by Taniguchi. Titled THE ADVENTURE IN KIGAN CASTLE, the cast play similar roles; such as Hideyo Amamoto wearing nearly identical makeup as another sorcerer type character. The model castle set built for this picture was utilized for episode #7 of ULTRAMAN, 'The Blue Stone of Baraji'. Additionally, one of ULTRAMAN's Science Patrol members, actor Masanari Nihei (see insert in middle), plays one of the thieves.

Released in Japan on October 26th, 1963, the movie was picked up by American International Pictures and released in 1965 as THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD. Paired with Italy's horror peplum from 1964, WAR OF THE ZOMBIES (ROMA CONTRO ROMA), AIP marketed Toho's picture with their usual razzle dazzle promotional stylings; even going so far as to ballyhoo Mifune as Errol Flynn's successor!

Likely the best audience for SAMURAI PIRATE would be those overly enthusiastic to see this cast in something without giant monsters destroying miniature cities. For those expecting something remotely close to a Toho SciFi feature, there's not enough fantastical elements to satisfy the monster movie crowd; nor is there enough swordplay or compelling dramatic qualities for the Chambara lovers. Bearing a formula script, blessed with an unusual setting and costumes, this lively, minor Mifune movie isn't among his treasures, but it isn't fool's gold, either.

This review is representative of the Toho R2 DVD. Specs & Extras: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; Japanese language only; behind the scenes footage including set and costume designs; original trailer.

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