A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , , , ,

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