(LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI)
I include this quote to bring up the issue of Toei studios and the "honorable" gangster. You see, there was one man -- largely considered a "stable director" and hardly enough of an "artist" for a scholar like van Wolferen to notice -- who had the courage to start making films about the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, as he knew them and as they really were: brutal, ruthless criminals whose "code of honor" was a sham. This director was Fukasaku Kinji, and his groundbreaking series of films called Battles Without Honor or Humanity became enormously popular. Of course, it might be argued that since Fukasaku's minor revolution, the public has stopped idolizing the noble gangster and started idolizing the amoral thug, but that's a different argument.
"...The days of the serious Japanese cinema, exploring social and political issues, are long gone. Since the 1960s the Japanese movie studios, which are very much a part of the System, have turned out totally predictable fare made according to a small variety of rigid formulas. Toei studios have long had intimate connections with the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, and have made hundreds of films celebrating the traditional 'morals' of gangsters, as well as films on wartime and post-war history with a nationalistic slant. Twice or three times a year, perhaps, a more independent director will produce a quality product; but even when these satirise contemporary social practices, they lack implicit analysis of their origins. Japanese avant-garde theatre groups sometimes claim to make 'political statements', but their messages are abstract and imponderable."
-- Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power
(New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1989)
What makes Fukasaku's achievement all the more remarkable is this: he made the Battles Without Honor... series at Toei studios.
Fukasaku passed away in 2003 at the age of 72, at what many believe was the height of his career. He has always been considered strictly a commercial director; since his work usually fell into sharply-defined genres, and was aimed at the domestic audience of his time, the best of his work never attracted international attention the way many Japanese art film directors' movies did. Yet in Japan, he was very well respected, earning a special commendation from the government for his lifetime's contribution to Japanese cinema. He had worked in a bewildering variety of genres, from sci-fi to crime to romance to comedy, yet in almost all his work there is a spirit of rebellion. His trend-breaking yakuza films are the most obvious examples of this, but there are plenty of others: take, for instance, his casting of the female impersonator Miho (Maruyama) Akihiro as his "female" lead in two films in the 1960s. Admittedly, there had always been a role for the onnagata, or man who plays a woman's role, in traditional theatre... in fact, according to some scholars, it was the Shogunate's decision to discourage immorality in the theatres by banning women and boys from the stage that forced kabuki to turn into a mature art form. However, this tradition had never translated to the screen. Also, Miho was far more than just a master of the incredibly difficult art of onnagata: he was also one of Japan's few openly gay public figures. Casting him as the femme fatale among other recognizeable actors, in not one but two movies, was a daring gesture.
Fukasaku's non-conformist attitudes, in the strictly conformist Japanese society, were never extreme enough to earn him serious censure. However, it could be argued that he was more influential in changing public attitudes in Japan than the "serious" statements of the internationally-recognized art film directors. Now, after his death, and in the wake of his controversial late film Battle Royale, Fukasaku is finally starting to get some recognition outside Japan. The endorsement of other film makers like Quentin Tarantino has also helped develop a new audience for the late director's work. Films like Rage and Blackmail is my Name are becoming available in the United States for the first time, and are being discussed with the same sort of respect and admiration as the long-neglected American noirs of the 40s and 50s were when they were "rediscovered".
Oddly enough, the non-Japanese people who are most likely to be taken off-guard by the Fukasaku renaissance are the genre-movie fans. Most other film fans outside Japan have had no associations with Kinji at all: had you mentioned the name "Fukasaku" to them, they might have responded with a blank stare (or said, "Gesundheit!"). But for connoisseurs of bad movies, the name brought back memories of some of truly astonishing examples of crap cinema. Here's the irony: a handful of the director's movies had been exported to a mass audience outside Japan, but none of these were among his best, or even his most representative work. The reason for this is obvious: Fukasaku, being a solid commercial director, was contractually obligated to put out a certain number of potboilers along with his more personal efforts. Whatever the project, he was aiming squarely at the audience he knew best, and what was important to the Japanese audience wasn't as likely to appeal to foreign audiences as, say, a generic sci-fi action film. Thus we didn't get to see the gritty dramas that so impressed Tarantino. The Fukasaku we saw in the US was the director of the distaff monster movie Green Slime; or of the flashy but ill-thought-out Star Wars cash-in Message from Space (which was actually, in many respects, an even more thoroughly Japanese movie than the yakuza pictures... a fact which was lost on the international distributors); or the heavily re-edited disaster epic Virus, a movie that was intended for world-wide distribution, but which didn't survive the trip intact.
Now, as more of Fukasaku's filmography beomes available to a wider audience, and as his reputation is finally being established outside Japan, I thought it might be a good idea to go back to some of the director's work that did make it into the overseas commercial market. After all, there is a danger his reputation could get a little too respectable. Let's not forget that Fukasaku made some real crap — but being the enormously talented director he was, he made some of the finest quality crap you're ever likely to see. In other hands, the films might have turned out unwatchable; but with Fukasaku, even his worst movies kick ass.
In particular, I wanted to take a good, long, fresh look at a movie that's been ignored in supermarket bargain-video bins for decades now: Legend of the Eight Samurai. As of early 2005, the movie has finally been released on American DVD, widescreen, uncut and subtitled. Prior to Adness Video's release, Eight Samurai had a tendency to pop up on budget DVDs, often as a "B-side" to some other movie starring Sonny Chiba, like Street Fighter. Two hours and ten minutes of poorly-dubbed, panned-and-scanned video is a bit of a challenge to the casual viewer, so it's anyone's guess how many people who own the cheap DVD have actually watched the movie. I too had been guilty of neglecting it: I'd seen it years ago, but as I prepared for this review I didn't even realize that I still had a copy of the old Prism videocassette in my library.
Though the title suggests a rip-off of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, the impression is the fault of the American distributor: the original title of the film is Satomi Hakken-den, or Legend of the Eight Dogs of Satomi. No doubt the distributor thought the original title was too peculiar for American audiences, especially since there are no dogs in the movie. Both the title and its meaning would have been familiar to Japanese audiences: Fukasaku's film is based on "Nansô Satomi Hakken-den", an epic novel by Kyokutei (Takizawa) Bakin, who is considered to be the greatest Japanese writer of his age.
The new title, The Legend of Eight Samurai, might have been appropriate for a translation of Bakin's novel1, but it's not entirely accurate for the movie itself. In the novel, all eight warriors are really, truly samurai... that is, members of a particular caste of warriors, who lived and fought by a stringent code of conduct called bushido. In the film, not all of the warriors are samurai: one is a female ninja, one is the disgraced son of a nobleman, one is even a child. And then there's one who is the son of a peasant, a lad who went off to the wars and came back in borrowed armor. This pseudo-samurai (psamurai?) is at first unwelcome among the band of warriors, though he proves himself later, and... umm... umm... OK, this sounds familiar. Maybe the American distributors weren't the only ones trying to rip off Kurosawa's masterpiece.
Whether our eight titular heroes are really samurai or not, the English dub confuses the issue even more by having the characters constantly refer to themselves and to each other as "ninjas". They don't often use those terms interchangeably in Japan. In Japan, as in the UK, a certain American kids' show was renamed Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because it was considered unsuitable to use Ninjas as heroic role models for kids. After all, the ninja was the warrior who did all the dirty work the samurai was forbidden to do by his code of ethics: spying, assassination, poisoning, infiltration, backstabbing, guerilla warfare... all sorts of things the samurai considered immoral and cowardly, no matter how necessary they might have been. So when young Shinbei (who represents the noblest aspects of bushido in the novel) kneels at his father's grave and laments how he never got to see him become a famous ninja... we crinja.
La Femme Hikita
Eight Samurai opens with true horror: the opening theme music is some of the worst American 80's pop I've ever had the misfortune to hear. I'd always assumed that this and the equally awful ballad that comes later in the film were tacked on by the American distributors. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the Japanese version is also infested with these same bad pop tunes.
After the credits, we find ourselves outside the gloomy Hikita Castle, where a huge and bloody battle has just been fought. The evil Lady Tamazusa2 and her son, Lord Motofuji, leaders of the Hikita clan, have defeated the rival Satomi clan and executed its leaders. The victory is particularly sweet for the pair, since they'd been killed -- that's right, killed -- by Satomi warriors a hundred years before, and have been thirsty for revenge ever since. A century ago, Tamazusa had been burned alive in her castle; Motofuji had escaped, but had been horribly disfigured by the fire. Tamazusa has now returned as a sort of Japanese vampire, while Motofuji requires the skin of innocent victims to restore his horribly burned flesh.
If these two seem like characters out of a Jess Franco movie, the comparison is apt. During these opening scenes, and at several points thereafter, the movie even looks like a big-budget version of a Jess Franco movie. When he's not immersed in hyperkinetic battle scenes, Fukasaku seems to get impatient with his camera. He zooms in and out in a very irritating manner, as though he's losing interest and is looking for something, anything, to liven up the scene -- an unfortunate habit that mars Franco's style, too.
As Tamazusa surveys the carnage in the combined gloom of nightfall, ominous storm clouds and the smoke of battle, she stops to cackle with glee over the severed heads of her enemies. But then she counts the heads, and her mood changes: one head, the most important one, is missing! Somehow, Shizu-hime (that is, "Princess Shizu") has managed to escape. This is particularly distressing to Tamazusa, since a mysterious prophecy hints that Shizu is the one person who can bring about the downfall of the undead Hikita clan.
You see where this is going, don't you?
Of course you do, but remember: we have another two hours and five minutes before the foregone conclusion arrives. So hang in there. It's going to be a rough trip in places, and it will be made even rougher by the background music. Most of it's not as bad as the opening power ballad (though the "Love Theme from Legend of the Eight Samurai", which gets vomited up by the soundtrack towards the end of the movie and over the final credits, is nearly as awful). Still, the music is out of place and painfully uninteresting. There's a chord called the "diminished" chord; it's made up of two or more minor thirds piled on top of each other, and it's used sometimes to create tension because it sounds incomplete and ambiguous. The tension dissolves in tedium, though, when the diminished chord is all you hear, over and over again... and that's what we get to accompany many of the scenes between Tamazusa and Motofuji.
The dreadful music distracts us from some astonishingly colorful visuals in these scenes. Tamazusa's lair, deep underground in a hidden cavern, looks like something from Mario Bava's worst Technicolor nightmare. It's got green-glowing walls, scores of guards in crimson armor, sacrificial altars with the requisite torture tools, and a huge, black, bloodthirsty statue of Mitama, the Spirit of Evil. The Mitama idol is buried up to its forehead in rock, and behind it, embedded in the castle wall like a ghastly tapestry, are hundreds of twisted corpses. It's against this backdrop that we eventually learn the true, sickening relationship between Tamazusa and her son -- a very close family, the Hikitas. It just wouldn't be a Fukasaku movie without a moment like this, calculated to be mildly unsettling to the mainstream audience of the day... though frankly, it's hard to beat the scene in Samurai Reincarnation in which the sexually-ambiguous Christian samurai zombie villain begins to seduce his young acolyte while convincing him to rape his girlfriend on her father's grave.
They just don't make 'em like this any more, do they?
In the meantime, the Princess Shizu is fleeing for her life with her two surviving servants. We're given to understand that the young Princess is quite the little spitfire, aching for a chance to take up a sword and avenge her family (though in the event, she never really gets the chance to do anything, except be menaced by the Bad Guys and get rescued by the Good Guys). Shizu refuses to eat the meat her manservant has cooked for her, because she can't tell what it is (and the girl will get no sympathy from anyone who's ever eaten lunch in a public elementary school). When her servant tells her -- it's snake, caught at no small risk to himself so that she might eat and stay strong -- she forces herself to choke it down.
The plan is that Shizu should try to make it to the castle of her uncle in Musashi, where she would raise an army to come back and drive out the Hikitas. To help them evade capture, the Princess is dressed as a young peasant boy; apparently,there weren't enough peasant clothes to go around, as Shizu's one surviving lady-in-waiting is still dressed in royal robes. The refugees are crossing open terrain in moderately good light3 when -- surprise! -- a band of Hikita riders catch sight of them. The old man throws the Princess into a ditch so she won't be seen, while the lady-in-waiting runs on ahead as a sort of decoy. The riders slay the old man and capture the fake Princess, but the real Shizu-hime manages to escape unnoticed.
Back at the Hikita Headquarters, Tamazusa and Motofuji prepare to carve up the girl they think is the Princess. The girl's death will serve three purposes: to stave off the prophecy, to feed the Evil Spirit with royal blood, and to repair the last bit of Motofuji's disfigured face. However, just as Motofuji goes to work with his ginsuTM knives, the statue of the Evil Spirit starts hollering "TREYF!" and making vast, godly gagging noises. Obviously the girl on the slab is no true Princess. Tamazusa immediately begins chanting her deepest apologies to the Powers of Darkness; and boy, is Motofuji's face red (except, of course, for the bits that are all black and gangrenous... but you get the idea)!
If I Could Walk That Way...
A young man in full battle armor comes riding into a village. The kid is apparently just back from the war -- his first -- and he's full of himself; he rides irresponsibly through the village's single road, kicking up dust and calling for women. His ride is cut short by a calm old man, who rebukes the kid (whose name is Shinbei) for riding off and deserting his father, who has since died. This news knocks some of the swagger out of Shinbei, who wanted nothing more than for his father to see him become "a great ninja" [sic; this is from the American dub, of course] (Of course, by running off against his father's wishes, Shinbei is disobeying one of the tenets of bushido: kou, or filial piety. While the magical crystal that Shinbei will eventually obtain, with the character jin, or "humanity", represents the highest virtue of bushido, it was kou that was originally given the highest priority in Confucian thought. So we're already seeing a huge difference between the film and its source novel concerning the characters and their behavior).
Shinbei goes off to pay his grudging respects at his father's grave. In the original version, he admits what we've already suspected: that his samurai armor isn't really his at all. While he's kneeling by the grave, he catches sight of someone sneaking through the forest. It appears to be a young boy, lost and scavenging for food. Of course, it's really the Princess dressed as a grubby little kid. Shinbei catches the "boy" and scolds him for poking around where he doesn't belong. But having some pity for the poor child, who appears to be extremely stupid, Shinbei tosses him a handful of food. The "boy" takes it and walks slowly away.
And then the woman-hungry Shinbei gets an eyeful of the "boy"'s retreating derrière...
Faster than you can say "Das ist kein Mann!", Shinbei has tackled the retreating Princess. Unfortunately, his conduct has nothing to do with any of the Eight Tenets of bushido, and he's not just ripping off her clothes to make sure she's really a girl. The good news is that he's suddenly dragged off the struggling girl by two strangers who leap out of the bushes.
The two armed strangers begin dragging Shizu off into the forest. Shinbei is about to follow when another group plunges out of the woods after the Princess. These are Hikita horsemen, hot on the trail of their quarry. The two mysterious strangers manage to escape with the girl, but Shinbei, watching from the sidelines, has learned that there's a bounty on the Princess' head. He decides to try to capture her himself.
And now for the really bad news: the would-be rapist and bounty hunter Shinbei is going to turn out to be our hero. Even though he's played by the capable and charismatic Henry Sanada Hiroyuki, Shinbei is such a lout that it's really difficult to see him as the lead. His reprehensible behavior during the first part of the film is eventually given an excuse, and by the end he's undergone some transformations that make him an entirely different character. However, none of these mitigating factors are terribly convincing. He doesn't skirt the edge of villainy or emerge as a shining hero as a result of careful character development: he just, um, kind-of shows up different.
The two mysterious plot conveniences -- er, swordsmen -- who rescued the Princess turn out to be the samurai Dôsetsu and Daikaku. These are the first two of our Eight Dogs, and luckily for the plot, they're already conversant with the whole mystical story of what's really going on. They've been searching for the Princess, since their lives' whole purpose has been to protect her from the power of the Hikitas. They need to find another six warriors, all of whom bear mysterious glowing crystals, but none of whom really know their destiny.
Dôsetsu is in a heck of a hurry to assemble the Dog Samurai, and it's not just because Tamazusa's forces are gathering strength and getting ever closer. It turns out (in another serious divergence from the novel) that Dôsetsu is terminally ill, and has only a month to live. Well -- you know how it was, with the state of chemotherapy in 15th century Japan... plus, the samurai health plan was never very good, what with the civil wars and the divided Shôgunate and all. Japanese HMOs never knew which shôgun to send the bills to, so they often just gave up. Anyway, since Dôsetsu is played in typically energetic style by Sonny Chiba Shinichiro, it's easy to tell what's really killing the samurai: it's a Japanese variant of Ari-Magurô disease... this one where you get progressively stronger and more robust as your death approaches.
Dôsetsu then tells Shizu-hime the tragic history of her ancestors, and why he, Daikaku and the six other fighters he's looking for (the hakken-shi, or Eight Dog Warriors) are her only hope. He illustrates the story with a scroll, on which the significant events have been painted. The illustrations act like a medieval Japanese version of the freeze-frame montage of the French New Wave... a technique that Fukasaku used in his yakuza films, but which also pops up a little incongruously in Samurai Reincarnation.
The Satomi story goes something like this (deep breath):
When the Satomi clan's Lord Yoshizane defeated Lord Sadakane and burned Hikita Castle, Lady Tamazusa placed a curse on the Satomi clan. Years later, in a desperate battle with Lord Anzai, Yoshizane cynically promised his dog Yatsufume the hand of his daughter Fuse in marriage if he would bring back the head of his enemy. When the dog promptly brought back the head of Anzai, Yoshizane was forced to live up to his promise. The dog took his bride off to a distant land, where she played her flute for him (Dôsetsu even gives Shizu-hime the actual flute!) and bore him half-man half-dog children. But Yoshizane was so appalled at the idea of his grandchildren barking at the postman and peeing on the tatami that he sent his warriors to kill the dog. Fuse ran to defend her canine husband and was shot dead, but as she died, eight glowing orbs (originally eight beads from a Buddhist rosary, one for each of the Eight Tenets of bushido) sprang from her body; and with her dying breath, Fuse proclaimed that these eight stones would become incarnated as eight warriors, who would some day save the Satomi line from extinction. In the meantime, Jessica has started sleeping with Paolo, who is secretly engaged to Brionna even though he is unaware that she is really the long-lost daughter of Don Alfonso who was stolen by the Old Gypsy Woman in revenge for the death of Leandro in a duel with Eldanir the warrior, who brought the magic sword Sildenafil to the very halls of the evil Grokknarr, but who was turned at the last moment into yesterday's newspaper by Yllomer, god of warm-water laundry, for yodelling in his sleep. Got all that? There'll be a quiz.
All right, I admit I made those last bits up (or rather, I stole them from Woody Allen, who in turn stole them from Robert Benchley. So sue me).
Fukasaku had a self-confessed fondness for complicated stories with a large cast of characters. Sometimes he managed to pull these stories off -- Battle Royale, for instance, keeps a black-humored running tally of who's dead and who's still alive; and Samurai Reincarnation follows a similar plot-line to Eight Samurai with greater coherence, though this time it's the villain who travels across Japan looking for his loyal warriors. Other times, though, Fukasaku got lost in the convolutions: witness Message from Space, which (not coincidentally) also features eight flying stones (or walnuts, anyway), a fugitive princess, and eight underdeveloped characters fighting an evil warlord & his perverted mum. Still, when you consider that the source for the Eight Samurai is a 104-volume epic novel from the early 19th century, it's understandable that this 2-hour-plus movie feels a little rushed.
Actually, Eight Samurai is more of a remake of Message from Space than an adaptation of the original novel4. While Message obviously borrowed the idea of the eight flying orbs from the original Hakken-den novel, the fleeing Princess plot of Eight Samurai and the unhealthy relationship between the Evil Overlord and his Mommy are equally obvious holdovers from Message. Of course, most of Message is a crib from Star Wars, which in turn got its inspiration from another Japanese chambara (samurai flick), Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. So it's really difficult to tell who's borrowing what from whom. Probably they all got it from Benchley, which wouldn't surprise me in the least.
Now that the plot mechanics have been presented to the audience... er... that is, now that Shizu-hime knows what must be done, the scene changes abruptly. We find ourselves at a courtly wedding ceremony, where the beautiful Hamaji is about to be married to a highly-placed magistrate. We can tell that the magistrate is as bad a hat as any of Motofuji's lackeys because he, too, has a discolored face. Into the ceremony creep two of Motofuji's actual followers, one of whom is some sort of snake spirit called Yônosuke.
Everyone is excited about the wedding -- except the bride and her adopted brother, Shino. There is some sort of mildly unhealthy relationship going on here: Shino may not be a blood relative, but the whole incest vibe between him and Hamaji is more than a little icky. Shino is about to swallow his disappointment and let the wedding go on, when suddenly a snake drops from the rafters, scaring the jigoku out of the bride. In the ensuing confusion, the woman performing the wedding dance draws a sword and murders the groom.
This woman is actually a female ninja -- for once the term fits -- whose name is Keno, and who had been hired by persons unknown to dispatch the magistrate. As she flees with almost supernatural agility into the night, Shino and Hamaji decide to take the opportunity to run off together. They are captured by the men pursuing Keno, and when the two protest that they really love each other and want to elope, their father and his retainers conclude that Shino must have been responsible for the assassination. In the ensuing melée, Hamaji is accidentally killed; her death sends Shino into a frenzy, and he proceeds to kill everybody, including his adopted father and uncle.
After the carnage is over, Shino goes looking for Hamaji's body. It's gone (we'll find out later that Motofuji's servants have stolen it, along with the bodies of other women slain during the confusion. The plan is to turn the dead women into zombies, whose bodies are so saturated with poison that their slightest breath brings instant death. Doctor Goldfoot would be so proud... though unfortunately, this little plot thread is left unused until it's wa-a-a-y too late). What Shino does find, in a pool of water near the bloodied grass where Hamaji's corpse once lay, is his very own glowing crystal.
Shino, the sister-loving parricide, gets the crystal with the symbol kou: filial piety.
This episode marks one of the most serious departures from the novel. In Bakin's story, the samurai Shino meets and is deeply attracted to the lovely Hamaji, who pursues him for several chapters. Hamaji is even willing to sacrifice her honor for him... and Shino is sorely tempted to let her. In the end, though, Shino remains true to his mission as a samurai, letting nothing distract him from the Confucian ideals of the warrior.
(You might get the impression that Fukasaku and his co-scriptor Kamata Toshio are taking the mickey with the old story, as they make their traditionally-garbed characters behave like the most liberal of modern Japanese young people. By turning the story of Shino upside-down, they may even be making an ironic reference to what really happened to Bakin, the fifth son of a real samurai: Bakin married a woman far beneath his station, and had to give up his rank. As often happens with marriages like this, Bakin regretted his decision for the rest of his life. He sublimated his frustration at abandoning his samurai heritage by writing his epic novels, in which the noblest of all imaginable warriors sacrifice everything they have for their code of honor. He also put his own son under so much pressure to live up to the code of the samurai that the poor young man died of the strain.)
Shino is now seriously upset with Keno, whom he blames for the death of Hamaji. However, he's been delayed -- what with killing his father, and all -- so the lady assassin has had a chance to escape to a cemetery, where her contact has left her money for completing her mission. Keno leaves the magistrate's severed head by a tomb... but before she can leave, Yônosuke appears. Keno's beauty, deadly skill and affinity for snakes have attracted him. Keno, who has never known love, is bewildered. Just as Yônosuke crushes her to his manly -- or perhaps, serpently -- chest, Keno reveals her own glowing crystal (which bears a character I don't recognize as being one of the Eight Tenets, though its radical seems to be the same as the character for the principle rei, or propriety. You know, these things seem to be about as accurate as fortune cookies. I should point out that originally, the [male] character Keno had the stone bearing the word chi, or wisdom, which would have been equally inappropriate under these circumstances). Yônosuke reacts to the crystal like Dracula to a crucifix; Keno realizes that this man is her enemy, and escapes, leaving her blood-money behind.
"So, you all meet in a bar..."
Shinbei, in the meantime, has been wandering the forest setting traps for wayward Princesses ("Be vewwy, vewwy quiet!" he apostrophizes. Well, at least he ought to.). Suddenly, he comes face to face with the ghostly figure of Tamazusa, who starts asking him some very odd questions about his origins and his family. As he flees from the apparition, he stumbles across an old woman lying on the ground. When he tries to awaken her, he discovers that she's dead. Her eyes have been torn out, and an insect is crawling into one of the sockets.
Not far away, Shino takes shelter in a house -- which just happens to belong to the samurai Daikaku. It also just happens that Keno is sheltering there as well. Shino recognizes her, and the two begin a knock-down drag-out... when who should arrive but the Princess and her two companions! What a coincidence!
Shortly thereafter, Daikaku's elderly mother comes back to the house. There's something oddly familiar about her, and something vaguely disturbing about the way she keeps her head covered with a hood. She also seems fascinated by the Princess. "My, what big eyes you have, dearie!" she says (or words to that effect). Her fascination with Shizu's eyes should give us a pretty good idea what's really going on.
Suspecting nothing, Shizu-hime goes off for a quick bath (Fuakasaku has an uncanny knack for knowing when to leaven the action scenes with the occasional naked chick -- again, cf. Samurai Reincarnation). As she's soaking, nude and vulnerable, she sees Tamazusa creeping through the bushes. Shizu-hime jumps from her bath in terror, but when her protectors rush out to help her, they're stopped by Mama Daikaku. Except it's not Mama Daikaku -- hers was the eyeless body Shinbei stumbled over a few scenes ago. It's really a Hikita demon in the old woman's shape. To everyone's horror, especially Daikaku's, she insists she must eat Shizu's eyes. Then the "old woman" rips off her face and turns into a gigantic centipede.
From naked chicks to flying swordsmen and giant rubber monsters. Now this is cinema!
And now it's an all-out battle, as the four reluctant allies take on Tamazusa's monster. The animated centipede is a close kin to every rubber-suit-and-piano-wire monster Japan is famous for, though you don't always get to see a big rubber beastie going hand-to-hand with a band of fearless samurai. Once again, just when all seems lost for our heros, the power of the crystals comes to the rescue and destroys the centipede-demon. The crystals also take a horrific toll on Tamazusa, who has been waiting on the sidelines. Faced with the combined mystical might of four crystals, she temporarily reverts to her true form as a withered corpse-woman, and staggers back to Hikita Castle.
Fortunately for Tamazusa, she has a handy pool of blood to immerse herself in, so she may restore her youth and beauty. Once again, we interrupt our story for the requisite naked chick; but -- since this is the Ultimate Evil Woman -- we get to see a heck of a lot more of her. There is no plot so diffuse, nor character development so weak that it can not be redeemed by a naked chick dribbling handfuls of blood down her body... that's what I always say.
With Tamazusa on the retreat for the moment, and half the Dog Samurai assembled, things appear to be going fairly well for Shizu-hime. This is the cue for Shinbei to re-enter the picture. It just so happens that Shizu, walking with the others back through the woods, steps into his Princess-trap, and it also just so happens that Shinbei is able to abduct the girl before her mighty heros can do anything to stop him. This bodes ill for the hakken-shi being able to defeat the Forces of Evil, when they can't even protect the Princess from the Forces of Barely Competent.
We follow Shinbei and the Princess through the inevitable "cute abduction" sequence, in which we're supposed to accept Stockholm Syndrome as shorthand for "falling in love".
Shinbei takes Shizu-hime back to his village... except that the village isn't there any more. Tamazusa's riders have learned that the Princess passed through the village un challenged, and have taken their bloody revenge. The huts have all been burned to the ground, and all the villagers have been slaughtered... except for two small children, who are left wandering in the ruin. As Shinbei and Shizu look on in horror, more Hikita warriors ride after the children. Though Shinbei makes a half-hearted attempt to save them at the last minute -- good going, <scorn>hero</scorn> -- the children are butchered.
General rule of thumb for a Fukasaku movie: Kinji spares nobody on principle.
There is one curious thing that happens just at the moment the children are killed. One of the Hikita horsemen, whose name turns out to be Genpachi, is stopped before he can join the others. It's unclear whether the crystal that appears in his hand at that very moment appeared because he had a crisis of conscience, or if the crystal itself prevented him from participating in the slaughter. The story cries out for Option 1, that is, that he would receive the stone when he was worthy of it; though it looks more like Option 2 is the real explanation. That's a bit of a disappointment, since it suggests that the hakken-shi have no moral strength of their own. Anyway, Genpachi knows the meaning of the crystal, but is yet unaware of what it means to him; he hides it from his fellow warriors as they ride away.
This bit of barbarity has served as a rude awakening for Shinbei. The Princess and her wounded abductor give the children a decent burial. Once they're done, they see a crowd of men slowly emerge from the forest around them. Thinking they're the surviving villagers, Shizu-hime steps forward and introduces herself, vowing to stand up and take revenge for what's happened to her people. But these are no villagers. As the men continue their advance, they begin a terrible, rhythmic clapping and drumming. It immediately becomes apparent that this is an army of bounty hunters, intent on capturing the Princess dead or alive. The sinister horde breaks into a run, and Shinbei and the Princess run for their lives.
Last of the Dogmen
Shinbei and Shizu take refuge in a cave. Ominously, the crowd pursuing them refuses to follow them in. The reason soon shows itself: there's another crowd of nasties waiting inside the cave. These people are a shabby lot, but Shizu thinks there's something familiar about them. Perhaps it's all the empty Milk Bones boxes strewn about the cave? Instinctively, the Princess pulls out Fuse-hime's flute and begins to play. The music entrances the cave-dwellers, who turn out to be the descendants of Fuse-hime and her husband, the dog. Two of the troglodytes step forward to reveal that they, too, have magic crystals -- the very young boy Sôsuke bears the crystal chi, or Wisdom; while his brother, the huge Kobungo, has the stone tei, or respect for the elder brother.
After meeting up with fighters Six and Seven, Shinbei and Shizu are reunited with the other warriors. Since Shinbei doesn't have a stone of his own, and since his behavior so far hasn't endeared him to anyone except (bewilderingly) the Princess, Dôsetsu tells him to sling his hook. Shinbei is petulant: what's so special about having a stupid ball, he asks. If it's balls they want, he's got two of his own5. This attempt at a joke gets the reaction it deserves. Still, Shizu-hime gazes into Shinbei's eyes and begs him to leave, for everybody's greater good. Before he goes, she makes him a present of Fuse-hime's flute.
Of course, by this time Shinbei has fallen in love with the girl he wanted to rape a few scenes ago -- the girl he recently abducted for the bounty on her head. So he follows along at what he thinks is a safe distance.
But the samurai are not as dumb as they may have appeared in the last hour or so of the movie. Dôsetsu quickly realizes they're being tailed, so (without telling Shizu) he sends Daikaku to shoot Shinbei. Two things about this: first, the contempt for firearms which is so evident in Kurosawa's chambara films is nowhere to be found in Fukasaku's. Second, though this decision is sometimes brought up by critics as a really terrible act on the parts of our erstwhile-heroes, I think it's one of the only examples in the film of the warriors doing something sensible. Shinbei poses a real danger to them, both as an unknown character with an interest in the Princess, and as an obvious giveaway to their position should he be seen by Hikita spies. They might not have chosen to shoot him in cold blood -- rather they might have met him in combat, sword to sword, though the conclusion would probably be the same -- but they would certainly have had to kill him.
Shinbei spoils the plan by falling off a cliff -- boy, none of these people can do anything right, can they? Daikaku assumes the kid is dead -- cf. my last aside -- and goes back to join the others. Shinbei, though, is not dead. Disgusted by what he believes is Shizu's betrayal, he throws away the flute. Immediately he regrets the gesture, but when he goes to retrieve the flute, he's discovered and captured by Hikita riders. The Hikita men take him to the castle, where Lady Tamazusa is expecting him.
Tamazusa is interested in Shinbei because of a peculiar birthmark he has on his arm, in the shape of a flame. Ever since the great fire that claimed her life, Tamazusa explains, fire has been the symbol of the Hikitas. She proudly displays the similar mark on her bosom, and a similar mark on Motofuji. Just to grind this message into the heads of the audience, we're treated to a slow pan across everything in the palace hall that has some kind of flame motif. Somehow the birthmark proves that Shinbei is actually Tamazusa's younger son, reincarnated to carry on the Hikita vengeance! Wow! "Shinbei!" cries Tamazusa; "I... am... your... Mother! Join me in the Dark Side, and we will..." No; sorry. Wrong movie... but you get the idea. And let's not forget that Tamazusa takes a much-more-than-maternal interest in her sons...
Shinbei is conflicted. After all, he's always wanted to be a great Lord, and until recently he hasn't had much scruple about how he achieved the position. Now, though, there's the Princess to consider, not to mention the horrors he's seen on his way. But then again, there is his birthright: does he really have a choice? After all, filial piety demands that if a son wishes to correct a wicked parent (usually the father, but it's clear Tamazusa wears the zubon in the family), he must do so in the gentlest possible terms, accepting any rebuke -- even death -- that the parent chooses to mete out for the son's temerity.
What Shinbei does decide to do may break the code of bushido, but it does lead to what I find the emotional and visual high point of the movie. Shinbei suddenly pulls out the flute of Fuse-hime, and there, silhouetted against green water and a blood-red sunset, he plays his heart out. The evil legions are thrown into agony by the music, until Motofuji draws his sword and cuts down his newfound brother. Tamazusa is heartbroken, and collapses sobbing on Shinbei's body. Motofuji orders the Captain of the Guard to take Shinbei to the castle sorcerer, to bring him back to life and make him e-e-e-evil like them. Motofuji's contention is that the skin into which his brother has been reborn is too coarse and corrupt. He gives instruction that Shinbei should be provided with the "soft skin of a woman".
But the Captain of the Guard is none other than Genpachi, the man who was prevented earlier from participating in the murder of the children. Rather than allow Shinbei to be resurrected by the Sorcerer, Genpachi slays the old bastard (though he comes back to life shortly afterwards) and rides off with Shinbei's body. By some weird instinct inspired by his crystal (i.e., "it's in the script"), Genpachi is able to locate the other six Dog Warriors in their super-secret Doghouse in the mountains6.
Not that the warriors are thrilled to see Shinbei, or anything.
Their welcome is tried even more when Shinbei revives -- as a super-powerful demon! "Ha-ha! Thought you'd get rid of me, eh Princess?" he snarls (since he's e-e-e-evil now). Shizu, who had nothing to do with the attempted murder, and actually kinda likes him, tries to go to him and calm him down... but Dôsetsu and the others restrain her. Shinbei flies through the air, attacking the Dog Warriors as he tries to get the Princess. At last, the Princess manages to throw herself in front of Shinbei, who is about to turn her into the House Special Sushi Roll when some god or other decides to smite him with a lightning bolt, thereby curing him of his e-e-e-evilness. And really: why not? We've had every other kind of plot contrivance, so why not a little miraculous deus ex machina?
Well. That's enough to convince the others that Shinbei no longer poses a threat to them. Sure, a minute ago he was foaming at the mouth and trying to kill everybody, but now everybody just leaves him with the Princess and goes off to sleep. At last our young couple is alone, so it's time for them to get mushy and violate the samurai code of chastity... which they do in close-up and soft blue light, as the "Love Theme from Eight Samurai" dribbles all over the soundtrack.
Once the Deed's been done, and before the Princess can even ask, "Honey? What are you thinking?"... Shinbei finds something has appeared in his hand. It's his glowing magic crystal, which bears the character jin -- as we've mentioned before, the most important tenet of bushido, representing humanity, purity and honor. Everything, in short, that Shinbei hasn't displayed for the greater part of the movie.
But suddenly, something comes slithering out of the fog. It's... a giant snake! Well... actually, it's a giant rubber snake. And maybe "giant" is too strong a word: it's a big rubber snake. A big, cheesy-looking rubber snake. And yet, again no: there are snakes and there are fnakey-wakeys, and this is definitely a big rubber fnakey-wakey if ever there was one. Anyway, the fnakey-wakey curls up around the Princess and drags her away. Shinbei's cries of alarm bring the other Dog Warriors to his assistance. But there's nothing that can be done: the others arrive just in time to see Tamazusa, Motofuji and a host of others disappear into thin air -- with the Princess in their grasp.
At this point, I'd really like to have a long talk with Dôsetsu and the others about the meaning of the term secret hide-out. This is the second time a party from Hikita Castle has just waltzed in through the front gate. For crying out loud, the Dog Warriors' secret lair has got to be the worst-kept secret in all Japan. It must be in some place called "Dog Warriors' Secret Hideout Mountain" or something. Not that the Hikita clan shows much more intelligence in their approach: they've obviously snuck up on the Good Guys while most of them were distracted, and one of them was even in flagrante with the Princess herself! Talk about being caught with your pants down! The Hikitas could have ended the whole show right then and there. But instead they decide to do what the Bad Guys always do: they take the heroine back to their castle and gloat over her, while waiting for the Good Guys to come kick their collective ass.
So what can our heroes do? Well, now that they have all their marbles -- physically speaking -- they place the glowing stones in specially-carved niches in the side of the mountain. Once all the stones are in place, there comes a blinding flash of light... and from the middle of the light emerges Kannon, the many-armed goddess of mercy. And again, why the hell not? We've already had the indirect deus ex machina with the lightning bolt... why not go all the way and have the deity make a personal appearance?
Kannon hangs around long enough to give the hakken-shi a magic glowing bow, with an arrow stuck to it rather comically. Only one person can wield this bow, and that is the Princess herself. It's up to the eight warriors to get her the bow, even if they must die trying. This is it: the purpose to which each of them was born. Dôsetsu gives the bow to Shinbei, who has now become the official Hero, and off they go to the Hikita's castle.
And now it's time for the moment we've all been waiting for. Fukasaku's action set-pieces are the highlights of his films, and this Grand Finale is everything you could hope for (except, perhaps, subtlety, either on the part of the director or the Eight Samurai, who practically knock on the front door to get in). There are flashing swords, heroes swinging from chandeliers, monsters and magic traps, and (naturally) symbolic-heroic deaths for our Dog Warriors. Keno, in particular, gets to go out in a spectacular fashion: she meets up once more with the snake-demon Yônosuke, who is so in love with her that he's (anachronistically) reproduced Gustav Klimt's famous painting "The Kiss" on the wall of his cave, with his and her faces on top. Isn't that sweet? The two fight it out and eventually end up killing each other, sinking into each others' arms as they expire.
And predictably, it all winds up with Shinbei and the Princess alone against Tamazusa and Motofuji. At last, the versatile Sanada Hiroyuki gets to do his best Mifune-Toshiro-meets-Errol-Flynn acrobatics, and he does them very well... though the audience members will probably find themselves jumping out of their seats, yelling "GIVE HER THE ****ING BOW, YOU FATHEAD!" at the screen, because -- again predictably -- the one thing the heroes need to do to end the battle (and the movie) is the one thing they conveniently forget to do until the very last minute. But by this point, it simply doesn't matter any more, because Fukasaku -- finally -- is completely engaged in the action he's filming. The costumes still look like costumes... the sets still look like sets... the characters are as unconvincing in death as they were in life... but the final battle is staged and photographed with such fluidity that it very nearly makes up for all the shortcomings of the last hour and three-quarters.
The only real problem with the big battle scene is that our courageous Princess has absolutely nothing to do. For half the battle, she's tied to a table; for the rest, she hovers on the sidelines, stepping out from time to time to parry a single blow, or to trip and need saving. Early in the film, we were given the impression that this girl was a real fighter, but when the action really starts she reverts to nearly-helpless-eye-candy mode.
Which brings us, eventually, to the epilogue.
The character of the film absolutely demands a happy ending, uncharacteristic though this may be for a Fukasaku film. Here we're given a send-off that not only manages to turn Bakin's Confucianist moral completely upside-down, it also represents something of a slap in the face to Bakin. At the urging of seven ghostly voices, Shizu and Shinbei both abandon their respective duties and run off together. That's right: Shizu-hime, who had the chance to be a strong female ruler (a rarity in her era), gives up her position to follow her Man. "Bushido, shmooshido," calls the disembodied voice of Dôsetsu, "we went through all that honor-and-loyalty crap, and look where it got us! Feh! You two have Romantic Love, and that's all that's really important... so go on, get outta here, ya crazy kids!" And so our two lovers ride off into the sunset, off to make their own way, living off love alone...
...in feudal Japan.
One can only hope it will work out better for them than it did for Bakin himself.
I don't mean to suggest that there's anything inherently wrong with Fukasaku rewriting the old tale. Japanese cinema has its roots in a long, vivid history of theatre, including jôruri and later bunraku, theatre of life-sized puppets; nô, the stylized theatre of the court; and kabuki, the most popular form of Japanese theatre, with its roots in sacred dance. Taken as a whole, Japanese theatre comprises a set of traditions that, intheir abstraction, are really much closer to cinema than traditional Western theatre. And in this long theatrical tradition, particularly in the most famous works of late eighteenth century kabuki, it was frequently the custom to either recast old stories in modern settings or to present modern stories in the garb of the ancients. So it wasn't uncommon at various periods to have on-stage samurai behaving like peasants, or peasants behaving like samurai.
Still, Fukasaku's film has in many respects been turned into the opposite of its famous source novel. With a filmmaker of Fukasaku's intelligence, it's hard to believe that this inversion was unintended, but if it was deliberate... then what does it mean? We're dealing with a director who is celebrated for bringing an artist's sense of social responsibility to commercial film. When Fukasaku reinvented the yakuza movie in the 1970's, he brought audiences face to face with the ugly truth behind the familiar stereotypes of the Japanese gangster. His crowning success, Battle Royale, dared viewers not to find a view of modern Japan in its brutal distortions. But when he turns a story that's considered to be the greatest epic of its era into a light-headed popcorn movie... what is he trying to do? Is he making fun of the Old or the New Japan?
This is the sort of question that's likely to pop into a pseudo-intellectual reviewer's head (i.e., mine) at three o'clock in the morning on a sleepless night. For the definitive answer, all I have to do is watch the film again. While the movie is running, it's impossible to think about meanings and messages: it's a colorful, mindless action flick without the slightest depth. This movie is an exercise for Fukasaku the commercial director, doing his best with the ridiculous material he's been given (and generally succeeding). So what if the gods and the fates conspired -- and the Dog Warriors lived, and fought, and died -- to preserve the Satomi line, only to have the last Satomi Princess desert her position and wind up in a trailer park somewhere... what difference does it make? We haven't been enlightened, as Bakin intended, but we haven't been bored, either; after two-plus hours of inanity, that's something to be proud of. So here's a happy ending, and to hell with it.
1. ... although no complete English translation has yet been made of the novel. I'm basing my comparisons to the original work on studies done by other people, especially Donald Keene's "World Within Walls".
2. Not to be confused with Justinian Tamusuza, the distinguished Ugandan composer... although, curiously enough, Tamusuza's thesis at Queen's University, Belfast, was on Japanese traditional music.
(There. I'm glad we got that little matter cleared up!)
3. Actually, this is just another example of unconvincing day-for-night photography: the scenes were shot during the day, but were filtered thereafter to make it seem like the action is taking place in darkness. The technique is rarely successful even in accomplished hands, and in the terible American print it just looks like they're running away in weak daylight.
4. Or, to be more specific, Chapters 98 through 121 of the original novel. For complete details on the novel, its characters and its context, visit Hakuryu-Tei, the site of the Hakken-den-obsessed Sonobe Souan. Mr. Sonobe's English is better than adequate, and his site reveals many of the details that are lost in Fukasaku's adaptation (or at any rate, in the movie's awful English dub): for instance, that each of the eight warriors has the Japanese word for dog (inu) in his or her family name; or the fact that each warrior has a form of one of the kanji characters on the glowing crystals as part of his or her given name.
In addition to a staggering amount of information on the novel, Mr. Sonobe also provides Hakken-den-related games and desktop icons.
5. ... and this explains why I haven't made any of the obvious "Warriors with Balls" gags you might have expected. Shinbei beat me to it.
6. Genpachi's stone is shin, or "faith"... precisely what he's just broken with his previous employer.