Tak Sakaguchi slashes his way through nearly 600 bad guys in a single take, but the audience gets exhausted long before he does.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Is the one-take gimmick filmmaking or a flex? It’s a question that’s plagued filmgoers and critics since the days of Hitchcock’s Rope and bolstered in recent years by the long-shot audaciousness of the works of Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman). The longer the shot, the more impressed we are — the more we imagine the logistics such a feat would require, how hard everyone had to work to make it happen, how many takes it took to work. It’s a magic trick, a ‘how’d he do that?’ that often interests us more in the mechanics of the act than its aesthetic value. Crazy Samurai Musashi dares to ask the question, what if we built the entire movie around the gimmick, and forgot to make it worth watching?
Ostensibly, the notion of one long, uninterrupted, 77-minute-long fight scene perks the ears, especially in the context of a jidaigeki film. It’s a genre seemingly tailor-made for showcases of expert fight choreography, after all, with plenty of context for down and dirty blood-letting featuring hundreds of foes. What’s more, the central role of historical swordsman Musashi Miyamoto — Japan’s greatest duellist, played by luminaries like Toshiro Mifune in the past — is filled by martial arts master Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), reuniting with director Yuji Shimomura after their work on Death Trance. The possibilities are downright entrancing!
And then the film actually gets down to business, and you swiftly realize that watching the same thing, no matter how interesting, for 77 minutes gets boring.
The script, penned ever so thinly by Sion Sono (Tokyo Vampire Hotel), sets up a simple scenario for our samurai in the more conventionally-shot opening minutes. A spurned clan, reeling from Musashi’s murder of their royals, sets up a trap for him in the forest with the young boy who’s next in line as bait. Naturally, he takes the bait, kills the kid, and the title screen flashes as an army of clansmen and mercenaries descend upon the legendary samurai.
Then we get to the meat of the piece, the hour-plus melee that comprises more than 95% of the film’s runtime, and it’s hard not to let out a disappointed sigh. Rather than the crisp, expertly-cut photography of the opening minutes, Shimomura opts for a handheld digital format (a necessity, granted, given the length and ambition of the shot), which blows out the lighting and feels innately less cinematic. One gets the impression you’re not watching a professionally-made samurai movie as much as a YouTube video of an amateur katana enthusiast farting around in the park with his friends.
The choreography, also by neccessity, is similarly unimpressive and languid. Musashi has to barrel through 588 bad guys to win the day here, which most often takes the form of groups of hyperventilating samurai shuffling in a circle around him, in time for one or two of them to approach so he can bop them once or twice with a sword and they can fumble off-screen to perish. There’s none of the wire-fu of a Zhang Yimou joint, or the bloody mayhem of a Takashi Miike movie; what brief spurts of CG blood we get is never reflected on the character’s clothes or weapons, or the environment. Presumably, this was to conserve Sakaguchi’s energy for the long haul (hydration breaks are worked into the choreography), but it doesn’t make for interesting viewing.
One gets the impression you’re not watching a professionally-made samurai movie as much as a YouTube video of an amateur katana enthusiast farting around in the park with his friends.
After a while, you just become numb to the violence, especially given how repetitive it is. Occasionally, Shimomura tries to break things up by giving Musashi a miniboss (given no more dialogue than your characters spout at each other before a round of Mortal Kombat), which he dispatches as quickly as he does all the other goons. In one moment, he even gives the spotlight to two henchmen waiting for Musashi to arrive so Sakaguchi can catch a breath (the scene has my favorite line in the whole thing: “You are a coward and horny.”). But it’s all dull window dressing to get to the next awkward dance between an exhausted star and poorly-staged extras. And don’t even get me started on the unconvincing CG lightning that presages the inevitable rain-soaked climax.
The greatest crime of Crazy Samurai Musashi is that, apart from the fatigue of its star, there’s no sense of variation or urgency. None of the hundreds of samurais encircling Musashi ever get close to him or nick him, making him feel overpowered and his enemies hopelessly feeble. Hell, the story itself remains static for the whole of the big money shot, which means the better-shot framing device could have just served as its own, more polished samurai short. The final minutes with actual editing, fake blood, and inventive kills are mounds more interesting than the flashy snake oil that precedes it.
To paraphrase famed historical samurai Jeff Goldblum, Shimomura and co. were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. A 77-minute fight scene is a fine thing to sell your samurai movie on, as long as those minutes are worth it. Sorry to say, they’re simply not here.