A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 204 – The Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983 – dub)

The Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983 – dub) – September 20th, 2010

We totally own this movie by accident. I’m sure Andy will go into more detail, but he’s pretty sure he bought this to spite a guy who worked at one of the stores he worked at, who’d put it aside and then never bought it. So we kept seeing it on our list and I’d say “What is that?” and he’d say “I have no idea.” And then when we started it I described it to a friend who promptly said “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that.” All it took was “magical samurai movie with Sonny Chiba and a huge flying rubber snake”. Maybe there are others that fit that description. I don’t know. He knew it immediately and assured me there was plenty out there about the basic story that is the basis for the movie. He was right, and I’m glad, because I had questions.

Unfortunately for me, I’m not terribly well versed in the story this movie is based on. I did a little reading up, but I’d have to spend longer than I’ve got tonight to really know enough to make more than the most superficial of observations. The original work was a serial published in the early to mid 1800s. It’s been reworked a few times for various formats, including this movie. The basic story involves eight samurai who embody the eight ideals of Confucianism. In this version there’s a princess whose family was cursed and killed by an evil sorceress/vampire queen. Also unfortunately for me, the version we have is a poorly dubbed and pathetically pan and scan cut of the movie. So I fear a good deal of the mythology and folklore aspects of the story have been changed around to supposedly suit American audiences. It’s pretty obvious when the samurai are all called ninjas instead. I’ll get to the pan and scan issues later.

At first I admit I was a little lost. I blame the dubbing, which really does make the dialogue and the action seem thoroughly disjointed in many places. But as the movie went on, it got easier and easier to follow it. Princess Shizu’s family has been wiped out by the evil queen Tamazusa. When she runs off and hides from Tamazusa’s warriors, Shizu is first found by a rogue named Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada), then by two traveling samurai, Dosetsu (Sonny Chiba) and Daikaku. Dosetsu and Daikaku explain the backstory to Shizu, which involves a queen and eight magical stones which are now held by the eight samurai who will help Shizu defeat Tamazusa. With our backstory and plot in place, off we go to seek out the other six samurai! That’s really the vast majority of the movie. They encounter someone, they get attacked, a samurai joins them, attack, samurai, attack, lather, rinse, repeat. Like I said, it got easier to follow, largely because it became obvious what was going to have to happen.

From my reading, I know that some of the samurai characters were changed around. I don’t mind so much. Maybe if I was really into the original text and the more faithful adaptations, I’d be annoyed to see one of the samurai as a woman, but seeing as I’m not, I quite like her. My problem is that since there are eight samurai, a princess, an evil queen, her evil son and two demons in her employ, not to mention a number of minor characters, there’s a lot that there just isn’t time for on screen. This is based on a story that was published in series for over thirty years. It’s not concise. While the princess meets Dosetsu and Daikaku right away, and Shinbei’s around from the beginning, there’s still Keno, Shino, Sosuke, Kobungo and Genpachi to introduce and give background to. Keno and Shino get a bit of time, but we barely get a few sentences from Sosuke and Kobungo to explain their situation and poor Genpachi only gets a couple of meaningful looks and no real background whatsoever. Maybe it’s better laid out in the original cut of the movie. I honestly don’t know. I hope it is, because it’s kind of the major draw from the source.

I like the idea of each of the samurai having a different defining aspect, though it’s not really the only thing that defines them and in some cases it’s a bit vague. This very helpful site outlined the way the virtues went in the original text, but when I looked around I couldn’t find anything that really listed how things got moved around in the movie. Combining that with a couple of essays on the movie, I think I managed to make myself a list, but since the movie gives such short screen time to some of these characters, there’s no good way to tell just how well matched they are.

Dosetsu has chuu, or loyalty.
Daikaku has gi, or duty.
Sosuke has chi, or wisdom even though in the original he had gi.
Keno has rei, or propriety, or something that looks like it, though she’s supposed to have had chi.
Kobungo has tei, or brotherly affection.
Shino has kou, or filial piety.
Genpachi has shin, or faith.
Shinbei has jin, which I’ve now seen several definitions of but seems to be the embodiment of all virtue. I saw it defined as humanity and sympathy as well.

The trouble is that for some characters, the virtues they get suit them, but others really don’t. Dosetsu and Daikaku have loyalty and duty. Fine, they’re the first two to help the princess and they stick by her. Shinbei’s trait isn’t displayed until late in the movie, but it works fine. But then there are the rest. We barely get to know Sosuke and Kobungo. The rest of the group meets them in a cave, sees that they’re two of the samurai they’re looking for, and all we know is that the local villagers are scared of the caves and think they’re cursed. Kobungo being fond of his younger brother, Sosuke, is a bit of a cheat, and Sosuke never really displays the wisdom his crystal claims he has. Genpachi is a warrior for the bad guys for most of the movie and gets maybe two lines, tops, so who knows where his faith comes in. And then there’s Keno and Shino. Keno’s an assassin when we meet her and I honestly have no idea if propriety is supposed to be a joke for her. Shino’s much the same, defying his father right before it’s discovered that his crystal claims he has the virtue of filial piety. If it was on purpose, I get it, but given that some of the others fit, some are cheats and some don’t, it comes off as an odd choice.

I’m obsessing a little over the crystals and the samurai, but really they were what struck me about the movie. I wanted to know them better. To be honest, I didn’t care much for either Shinbei or Shizu, neither of whom are very deep characters. I wanted to know more of Keno’s background. What brought her to the point where she was posing as wedding entertainment in order to behead the groom? And what about Genpachi? How did he get sucked into working for Tamazusa? I want those stories! I get that there’s a whole epic love story going on with Shinbei and Shizu, but I’m not an epic love story sort of gal. It’s not a performance issue for either actor. They were both good with their material. It’s just that I want assassins and morally conflicted warriors!

Really, though, I liked the story. I’ve got quibbles and it’s got flaws, but overall I found it enjoyable. I haven’t really addressed the visuals and effects yet, and I think I have a good reason. Three words: pan and scan. I hate pan and scan. I am a firm believer in letterboxing and widescreen editions of movies. There are some classic examples of pan and scan ruining a scene, like when Obi Wan talks about Mos Eisley in Star Wars and the pan and scan version lingers on Obi Wan and the long shot of Mos Eisley is cut out entirely, so you have no clue what he’s on about. This movie is full of those. There’s lots of shots where I’m pretty sure there was something important going on elsewhere on screen, but whoever did the panning and scanning decided not to show it. The final scene, with Shizu and Shinbei is utterly laughable, as they’re ostensibly riding side by side but can’t be shown in the same shot, so it alternates between them. I can criticize the giant flying rubber snake and centipede and not feel bad about it, but I refuse to complain about the cinematography. There’s some good stuff in there, in theory. I’ll reserve judgement until we’ve got it in widescreen.

All in all, I really had no idea what to expect tonight and while I can’t say that this movie is a hidden jewel of a film, it is a heck of a lot of fun. More than I thought it would be. The messiness of the story, the annoying pan and scan, the rubber snake, the 80s synth music that permeates the entire film, yes, they’re problems. And maybe it’s that I really enjoy a fun quest film regardless of flaws. But I liked this. I liked it a lot and I enjoyed watching it. And yes, I think we are indeed buying the subtitled widescreen version. All because of an accidental purchase we knew nothing about.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Legend of the Eight Samurai

September 20, 2010

Legend of the Eight Samurai

We have some fairly random items in our collection. As we were seeking a movie to watch this evening we came upon this title. I had to admit to Amanda that I had no idea what this movie was or where it came from. After a little research on the internet I remembered the story of how this came to be a part of the collection. When I was managing the Blockbuster in Hingham I had an employee who had a tendency to put movies he wanted to buy on hold behind the counter. I had no problem with this, as long as he actually bought them. At one time he took this movie out of our PRP section and put it in a drawer. And there it sat for more than a month. I felt that it was unfair to the customers to hide movies from them – how could we be expected to sell movies if we took them off the shelf and didn’t even let them know they existed? I tried at one point to put the movie back out on the shelf, but the next day it was once again behind the counter. Finally, in an attempt to teach my employee a lesson, I bought the movie and took it home.

According the the receipt (yes I keep my receipts) that was on February 23, 2006. So I’ve had this movie sitting around the apartment for more than four years without even knowing anything about it or ever watching it. And that brings to tonight, and our search for a movie to watch. We wanted a subtitled movie and a samurai flick full of magic and mysticism sounded great. (Little did we realize that the version of the movie we own is a dub, something which took us very much by surprise.) Then we put it in and our every expectation was defied.

The first thing that struck us was the eighties power ballad over the opening credits. Amanda’s exclamation as the credits began was “Oh, Andy, what have you brought into our home?” For the first fifteen minutes or so of the movie, what with the eighties music and the dramatic dubbing, and the overall poor video quality of the DVD version we have, we sort of felt there should be robot silhouettes riffing the film as we watched. For me however that feeling was soon overtaken by sheer enjoyment of the movie.

I should say that I’ve long had a fascination with Japanese culture and mythology, but have had little formal education in the subject. I took a couple courses in college on Japanese art history and culture, but that was years ago and I wasn’t paying very close attention at the time. Ultimately I’d have to say that most of my knowledge comes from what I can glean from the pop culture I have absorbed over the years. Mostly anime and video games. This movie is filled with tropes and references, and I suspect that I have seen many references to this story over the years without realizing it. Take, for example, one of the climactic moments in the movie when two characters turn to stone to stop a stone door that’s closing. My immediate thought was “Wow! Just like in Final Fantasy IV!” Of course it’s probably more accurate to say that Final Fantasy IV liberated many a notion from this story. And there’s a strong influence in the fantastic PS2 and Wii game Okami as well.

The movie tells the story of the princess Shizu, who is fleeing at the start of the movie because her entire clan has been slaughtered by a rival family. As Shizu hides in the forest she is discovered by Shinbei, a rogue who has just come back from some war, styling himself a great samurai, although he’s probably just full of hot air. You can tell that he’s the hero of the movie because he has an upbeat eighties synth theme. At first he takes the princess for a boy lost in the woods, but soon finds that she is a girl and attacks her for her deception in a most unseemly way. At this point she is rescued by a pair of warriors who explain that they are descendants of warriors who once served an ancestor of Shizu’s.

At this point in the movie there’s a whole lot of exposition all at once. It all has to do with two rival clans over one hundred years ago. A noble family rose up and threw down some evil rulers, burning their keep to the ground. But they were soon hunted themselves to extinction except for one queen, who was defended by a dog spirit. When she was cornered and the enemy attempted to kill her dog she threw herself in front of the arrows. As she died eight gems came from her body and she predicted that the warriors born from these eight gems would one day destroy the evil clan forever. All of this is told in voice-over as the camera pans across a beautifully illustrated scroll that tells the tale.

The upshot of all this is that Shizu has a destiny. She alone can destroy the witch clan, but only if she can find the eight warriors who are destined to help her, and these warriors can only be identified by the glowing jewels that they have on their person. So from there it’s a kind of quest tale as we meet each of the legendary samurai and discover their individual stories and powers. Before the whole band can be brought together eighties synth boy Shinbei shows up again and kidnaps the princess so he can claim the price on her head.

Oh, there’s a whole bunch of other mythology in here as well. Shinbei turns out to be a reincarnation of one of the evil clan (as evidenced by his flame shaped birthmark, which is a reference to the way the evil clan burned in their fortress way back in the beginning.) The eight gems are somehow related to eight carved gods in a cave under a mountain, and the curse upon Shizu’s family is from some ancestor who pried the gems from the gods’ foreheads long ago. It gets a little muddled at times because there’s just so much to cram into the movie. Clearly the source material is very rich and long.

Overall its that sense of a deep mythology, and the many references to Japanese folk tales, that really appeal to me about the movie. There are all kinds of things I’ve seen before in anime and manga that I instantly recognised in this movie. Things like the old woman in the forest who is suddenly revealed to be a giant centipede in disguise. The movie has the feel for me of a folk story come to life, and that made me happy. I love folk tales and fairy stories. Especially ones from other cultures that I’m not so familiar with.

I’d say that I really enjoyed the movie. Sure, the soundtrack is dated. Sure there’s a giant rubber centipede and a flying rubber snake that abducts the princess at one point. But it’s a movie with a pretty significant budget too – the climactic battle and the collapsing fortress of the evil clan are great to watch, full of complex wire-fu stunts and enormous intricate sets. As with any good samurai movie hundreds of anonymous extras meet their grizzly deaths at our heroes’ hands.

I’m very tempted to search out a better version of the film now. One with the original Japanese voices, and hopefully one that is in proper widescreen. (This DVD is in pan & scan, as is painfully obvious at times. There was one particular dramatic musical sting for something revealed out of frame that made me simultaneously laugh and wince.) One with better video quality hopefully. (This one had the look of a well watched VHS tape, even though it was on DVD.) I assure you that if we do acquire such a thing we will be more than happy to review it for the project as well. Hopefully it will take us less than four years from when we buy it to when we watch it that time.

September 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment