Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Samurai Reincarnation (1981)

(Please note, the above image may have nothing to do with this film specifically [it may have to do with an anime based on the same source material], but I liked it more than what else was available online)

I absolutely love the video game The Legend Of Kage.  The premise is basic: rescue a princess from the bad guys, who happen to be other ninja and Japanese Buddhist monks.  However, you, Kage, are not a ninja of the traditional variety (at least visually).  You have no mask and full-covering outfit.  Instead, you have long hair, no mask, and shorts.  And did I mention the monks you have to fight can breathe fire?  The first time I played this game, it put me in mind of the film Ninja Wars, which I had seen a couple years before.  Up until this point in my life, I had seen a bit of Shaw Bros’ kung fu goodness here and there, but my experience with Chanbara/Jidaigeki was limited, and my experience with ninja was with the Kosugi/Cannon versions of the archetypes.  The first time I saw it, I didn’t quite know how to process something like Ninja Wars.  It is utterly bizarre and a bit sleazier than I was used to at that point in time.  Kage gave me a way to deal with what I saw in that film.  Jump, throw shuriken, beat firebreathing bad guys, and win the lady’s hand; the game and game play is simplistic in the extreme but so much fun.  To my adolescent mind, this was the video game adaptation of that outré film which had piqued my young brain’s interest, and I loved it, because I got to be a part of it.  Or, you know, as much as you can be a part of a video game you had no part in creating. 

Following the wildly unsuccessful Shimabara Rebellion of the seventeenth century, beheaded Christian leader Shiro Amakusa (Kenji Sawada) returns from the grave, denounces the God he feels is uncaring towards he and his people’s plight, and invites the power of the Devil and his minions into his body to take revenge on the Shogun (Noboru Matsuhashi).  Making his way around the countryside, Shiro assembles a collection of people with various evils in their hearts and regrets on their minds and transforms them into his coterie of evil ghosts.  Meanwhile, Jubei (Sonny Chiba), one-eyed son of the Shogun’s sword instructor, Tajimanokami (the Lone Wolf himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama), has taken on the task of bringing down the demons before they demolish the entire Tokugawa Shogunate.

Like Ninja Wars, the late, great Kinji Fukasaku’s (who most will remember as the director of such classics as The Green Slime, Battle Royale, and Message From Space) Samurai Reincarnation (aka Makai Tensho, the title of the book on which the film is based) was released by the Toei Company, and the two do share some obvious similarities.  They both have ninja who dress like Kage.  They both have Sonny Chiba, though I think his role is bigger in this film, if memory serves.  They both have evil Buddhist monks doing disreputable things to young women.  More than those things, they both mix Chanbara and Fantasy/Horror elements.  Consequently, fans of period films about samurai can enjoy them, though perhaps slightly less than Horror or Fantasy fans will.  

This mixing, however, is something which feels more organic in Japanese cinema than it does in Western cinema.  There are not a lot of Weird Westerns which are all that successful either on the level of audience satisfaction or box office (or any, come to think of it, though the wretched Wild, Wild West came close monetarily, and the animated series Bravestarr was a lot of fun if fairly one-note).  Perhaps this is because, for as much as the country has changed technologically, the Japanese spirit has forever been perceived in the same traditional manner since the West became aware of it.  Therefore, there is a general viewpoint that, no matter how much Japan develops in reality, its spiritual link to the land it’s built upon makes it easy to believe the confluence of nature and the supernatural.  Thus, the inclusion of uncanny elements is exactly that: inclusion.  Unlike in the Western world, the Japanese spectral and corporeal realms crisscross with one another, affecting and reacting to each other in a matter-of-fact fashion.  I admit, these are my own conclusions based upon my experience with cinema on both sides of the pond, so by all means, feel free to disagree.

The film has a theatrical air about it, which Fukasaku plays up at every available opportunity.  The very first scene takes place with the Shogun’s samurai watching a performance (in the Noh form of Japanese theatre, if I’m not mistaken), presumably after having slaughtered about thirty-seven thousand Christians (the timeline is unclear).  The evil Shiro possesses the body of the play’s main actor.  Afterwards, he dresses in a fashion which is extremely flamboyant (and importantly recalls a more Western archetype of sorcerous sartorial cooptation).  The director also makes heavy use of frames within frames, and this is a technique I have always found extraordinarily appealing.  Here, whether the frame is the pillars holding up a roof or the separate sections of a stained glass window, they evoke the proscenium arch of a stage, separating viewers from performers.  Aside from the heavy use of makeup on the ghosts’ faces, Fukasaku further distances the film from the realm of naturalism in his treatment of flashbacks, most notably those involving the master swordsman Musashi (Ken Ogata).  While sitting in full armor, his thoughts are spoken aloud to the audience.  His past youthful triumphs in battle are then recounted via a series of cuts to black and white photographs.  This bit of self-reflexivity reminds the viewer that they are watching a film, as well as very effectively conjuring the same sense of nostalgia anyone may get looking over the pictures they have amassed over the course of a lifetime.  

The settings of the film switch between natural and soundstage (I can only assume as a means of controlling scenes which have a large amount of special effects work in them), but in whatever environ, Fukasaku  goes out of his way to create a strong sense of depth within the frame, mostly via the use of overlapping objects from foreground to background.  Combined with strong, atmospheric light schemes throughout, the filmmaker creates a mildly nauseating mood in line with the sense of tragedy and borderline revulsion the film is intended to evince.  It is, after all, one thing to defy one’s Higher Power after feeling betrayed.  It is another to do so by deliberately sticking one’s finger in the Almighty’s eye and wallowing in the fetid crapulence of one’s basest appetites.  It’s like the difference between breaking up with one’s lover and breaking up with one’s lover and then having really deviant sex with every one of their friends and family on which one can lay one’s hands.  And while the film’s episodic structure does rob it of some much-needed momentum, and the ending itself is a trifle anticlimactic (I’m unsure if there was ever a sequel; perhaps Ninja Wars was it?), it’s the admixture of Samurai Reincarnation’s disparities which makes it as entertaining as it is.

MVT:  I have to give it to Fukasaku.  The man had a sense of style and composition as strong as that of any more well-known director.  Even when working on some less than prestigious projects, he brought his every talent to bear, and Samurai Reincarnation is no exception (though I don’t mean to imply it’s not a piece of work to be proud of, merely that it’s hardly ever mentioned in the same breath with some of his other films, like, say Graveyard Of Honor, though if Wikipedia is correct, Samurai Reincarnation won two of the three “Awards of the Japanese Academy” for which it was nominated).

Make Or Break:  Towards the film’s climax, there is a duel inside a burning building.  From the very first shot of the scene (which has risen to being possibly one of my favorite images in cinema of all time), the fight is staged and filmed remarkably well.  If there was matting used, I couldn’t spot it.  I also couldn’t spot any stuntmen standing in for the actors, so kudos across the board for the bravery and dedication this scene puts on display.  Plus, it’s a cracking good action setpiece.

Score:  7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment