Monday, December 7, 2009

REVIEW: Legend Of 8 Samurai (1983)

If you’ve seen Hideo Nakata’s Ring series or the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, chances are you would’ve been impressed by actor Hiroyuki Sanada – he played the estranged yet enigmatic husband of Ring heroine Nanako Matsushima, and easily outshone Cruise in the latter.

Sanada also put in revelatory work as the lead in Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai (2002) and sparkled as the bad-arse wizard-villain Douson in Onmiyoji (The Yin Yang Master, 2001).

Since these inroads he’s been variously wasted in the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer (2008), played the mandatory criminal element in Rush Hour 3 (2007), and was one of the best elements as the ship’s captain in Sunshine (2007), Danny Boyle’s relatively unnecessary retake on Event Horizon.

Fancy, then, checking out Sanada in hot pants, back in the ‘80s when he was a rising, hot-blooded 23-year-old warrior blade in Satomi Hakken-den (Legend of Eight Samurai, 1983)?

Funnily enough I didn’t find this movie here in Japan – I stumbled across it in a $2 bin in New York’s Chinatown back in 2004. All of the Japanese people I’ve shown the cover to, and occasionally deigned fit to screen the DVD before, have never encountered this truly hidden gem.

The truth is that we could’ve done without those bare-skinned pins too, but Sanada – who’d already cut his teeth as a child actor by 1983 – holds up well in spite of his kitsch attire (which includes a string disco body-top underneath armour) and bouffant hair that’s contested only by the female lead, Hiroko Yakushimaru, as Princess Shizu.

Incidentally, Yakushimaru herself (now 45) resurfaced four years ago in Seijun Suzuki’s whimsical musical Operetta Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon, 2005), alongside Chinese starlet Ziyi Zhang and Joe Odagiri (Azumi); since then the actress featured in Takashi Yamazaki’s Always - Sunset on Third Street series.

Also starring here, as the leader of the legendary eight samurai (erroneously called ‘ninja’ in the English dub and brought together by fate to defend the princess) is Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba.

Otherwise known as the sushi chef and grand master sword-smith in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Chiba has been a rip-roaring actor and fight coordinator in an array of Japanese and Hong Kong action movies - with titles like G.I. Samurai, The Bloody Bushido Blade, Karate Bear Fighter, The Street Fighter, The Bodyguard, and Vigilante In The Funky Hat: 200,000 Yen Arm - over the past 40 years.

Here he goes all patriarchal and plays the Jedi-like philosophical sage (with a fatal illness) who brings together the key heroes – but turns out to be patronizing, flawed and judgmental, and the kind of guy you’d really wouldn’t want to be your dad; Alec Guinness he most certainly is not.

The story here revolves around a century-old curse for revenge by the Hikita clan, which was destroyed a hundred years ago by the righteous Satomi clan.

Involved in said revenge are a fitful of prophecies, a spin on 'Beauty & The Beast', an Oedipal sub-plot, reincarnation, birthmarks, redemption, giant centipedes and snakes, guys wearing more makeup than girls, poison breath, Chinese Confucianism, Japanese bushido ethics, Buddhist philosophy, etc, etc...

Remember, this is an ‘80s movie, so there’re myriad blue backdrops and pastel colours, and a musical score of soft-rock and desultory synths. Joey Carbone, who worked on the cheesy soundtrack, went on to make the theme music for the classic anime series Project A-ko. On the DVD cover itself, the publishing company (Front Row Entertainment) claims that this version has a “digitally remastered superior picture and sound quality”, so I’d hate to see the original version.

Regardless, the whole caboodle is directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku – who directed a lot of those ‘70s yakuza gangster flicks, often starring Sonny Chiba, that were such a big influence on contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike. He also more recently helmed the sublime Battle Royale.

And somehow – somehow - it works.

Actress/singer Mari Natsuki (as the saucy, evil Hikita matriarch Tamazusa, who indulges in blood-baths, much erotic pouting on screen, and apparently shocked local audiences at the time with her full-frontal nudity) is a revelation of superb over-acting.

As it turns out, she worked on a ton of the more homogenized 'Tora-san' comedies over the years – then voiced the sinister witch Yubaba in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime classic Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001) and popped up as a mum in Mika Ninagawa’s Sakuran (2006).

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