When reviewing a disc, our reviewers give primary importance to a critique of the film itself.—The DVD Verdict Manifesto
Despite the film-first sentiments in our manifesto, in the case of Legend of Eight Samurai, the technical aspects of the DVD prevent me making any qualitative judgment whatsoever about the movie itself. The transfer appears to have been struck from a very old video master (one created for a VHS release in the English-speaking world at least a decade ago, I'm guessing). Using the word soft to describe the image doesn't begin to get at the heart of things; fuzzy is more accurate, and blurry is a fair description of the isolated spots in which the image isn't fuzzy. It's a very colorful film, but bright blues and reds bleed and are riddled with video noise and pixelation. Blacks, as well as shadow detail, are muddy. Everything is over-saturated. If all that wasn't bad enough, the film was originally shot in 2.35:1 Toeiscope, but is presented on the disc in a very crowded and chaotic pan 'n' scan, greatly increasing the amount of grain in the image. Legend of Eight Samurai was directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora!), with cinematography by Seizo Sengen. Is their work any good? I couldn't tell you.
The story itself is based on a Japanese epic novel written in the 19th-century by Takizawa Bakin. It mixes good old-fashioned samurai swordplay with magic, mysticism, and other elements of fantasy. The convoluted story involves the kidnap of Princess Shizuhime (Shizu in this English-language version) by an undead warlord after the murder of her family. Like any warlord whose relationship with life and death is tenuous and unspecified (this is no George Romero-style rotting corpse; think Lo Pan from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China instead), he must have human flesh to keep himself alive and looking dapper. Shizu's flesh, in particular, fits the bill since she's been prophesied to be his ruin. Princess Shizu's abduction sets the titular eight samurai, possessors of magic crystals, into action (among the warriors is famed martial artist Sonny Chiba [Kill Bill], but whatever the DVD packaging may indicate, the true star of the film is Hiroyuki Sanada [Ringu, The Last Samurai]—lesser known in the west, but a huge star and well-respected actor in Japan). The eight warriors must battle witches, monsters, evil spirits, and vats of bubbling poison if they are to rescue the damsel in distress.
Made in 1983, the film's special effects betray the constraints of Japanese studios' limited budgets, but effects supervisor Nobuo Yajima's work is good enough that, granted some suspension of disbelief, it does its job just fine. Surprisingly violent, nearly every sword battle contains multiple arterial explosions in the style of the legendary climax of Kurosawa's Sanjuro. The whole thing hints at being an absurd, over-the-top good time, but the shoddy DVD presentation prevents me knowing with any certainty.
Both Sanada and Chiba are easily capable of carrying an action picture, and delivering charm and derring-do in equal portions. Unfortunately, the muddy mono soundtrack, an excruciating English dub, makes it impossible to assess their performances. I can safely say this: the English-speaking voice actors are bad, laying it on thick and heavy, without an ounce of subtlety. Sanada's won the Japanese Academy Award, but you'd never know it from this English-language version of Legend of Eight Samura. I'm a purist when it comes to foreign language soundtracks—I want to hear the original actors' voices. Good dubs are bad, as far as I'm concerned. Bad dubs, like this one, ruin the entire experience. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters in the film.
It would be hasty of me to say VCI has done a terrible job with this transfer. Rights to source materials for Japanese films are notoriously tricky to obtain. The low image quality, coupled with the English title sequence and English-language opening song (a horrible little ditty by one John O'Banion that displays all the cheesiest aspects of '80s American pop) leave little doubt that this release was ported from an extremely old English-language master. VCI's options were probably either to port the master they had, or not release the movie on DVD. Still, I would have chosen the latter.
Legend of Eight Samurai might be a fun and campy action/fantasy/martial arts flick, but you'd never know it watching this DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Sonny Chiba Biography
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