Judge Adam Arseneau pays 5:4 odds on samurai versus a tank.
Our review of Sonny Chiba Collection, published April 7th, 2010, is also available.
Three times the Chiba! Three times the fun!
Hot on the heels of The Shogun Collection comes The Samurai Collection Featuring Sonny Chiba, a collection of three films that have samurai in them and little else to do with one another. A box set full of samurai films would be boring, of course, so The Samurai Collection Featuring Sonny Chiba made sure to include samurai films that also included tanks, wizards, time traveling, and gigantic rubber snakes, perfect for the discriminating collector.
Facts of the Case
Legend of the Eight Samurai
The Satomi clan has been enjoying over a hundred years of prosperity and peace since defeating the evil Hikita clan a century ago. Suddenly, the Hikita clan re-emerges and launches a devastating assault upon the Satomi clan, capturing the castle and beheading everyone in their path—everyone except Princess Shizu, who escapes. Enchanted by dark magic, the Hikita revel in their success and hunt the Princess down mercilessly.
The Princess realizes she is part of a century-old prophecy, a conclusion to the struggle between the Satomi and Hikita clan. As the last living descendant of the clan, she is empowered to recruit eight samurai warriors imbued with magical glowing crystals. These warriors from all walks of life—a hired assassin, a young noble, even a rival member of the Hikita clan army—are to become her champion warriors, destined to defeat the Hikita clan once and for all!
Kashin Koji, an evil magician feared throughout the land, suddenly appears at the residence of Lord Donjo with a prophecy: whoever marries the beautiful princess Ukio is destined to become the ruler of the world! Lord Donjo, who lusts after Ukio, sets a plan in motion to concoct a love potion and usurp the Shogunate away into his control.
Koji sends five of his deadly magical monks into the service of Donjo, who invade a ninja village and capture a young woman named Kagura Ibi—the estranged twin sister of Ukio—and bring her back to Lord Donjo. Through vile magic, they will use her body to concoct the potion and poison the princess with it.
Unfortunately for Donjo, Kagura Ibi has a young ninja lover named Jotaro. When she is kidnapped, Jotaro sets off to rescue his love and defeat the five monks, and will stop at nothing to save his love.
During a routine training operation, a squadron of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) finds themselves hurtled backwards in time in what suspiciously looks like an acid flashback. When they recover from this strange event, they find themselves in the Warring States period in Japanese history—almost 400 years ago!
Stumbling into the middle of a feud between two rival armies, Lt. Iba (Chiba) and his soldiers find themselves almost immediately under attack by an army of samurai who have automatically assumed these new arrivals to the battlefield are their enemies. In defending themselves, the soldiers find themselves unintentionally allied with an ambitious samurai named Kagatori. Kagatori is curious about their noisy guns and steel horses, and being a mite cleverer than the average man, immediately appreciative of the strangers' weaponry. Kagatori wishes to be Shogun one day, and Iba may be his chance to pull it off …
Trapped in time with no way of getting home, some soldiers panic, while others view the lawless time as an opportunity to act out, raping, pillaging, and terrorizing the peasants with their modern weaponry. But for Lt. Iba, who has always harbored secret fantasies about being a samurai, this is his opportunity to make his mark upon the world …
One part Star Wars and one part Red Sonja decorated as a Japanese period piece, Legend of the Eight Samurai is a strange beast. Completely over-the-top in tone and subject, it is a fantastic romp through Japanese folklore, an adaptation of Japan's famous Nanso Satomi Hakkenden story. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale, Shogun's Samurai, Tora! Tora! Tora!), it is one of the director's most notorious works, but not necessarily his best.
Absurdly hokey enough to border on downright farce, Legend of the Eight Samurai represents quite an odd dabbling into a more experimental, supernatural style of jidaigeki begun with Samurai Reincarnation. Every element of the film—the costume, the acting, the music—is so over-the-top that it borders on allegory, or at the very least, Broadway. The storyline is based upon an old Japanese story better served as the plot for about 16 Final Fantasy video games. It makes sense in an abstract sort of way, but only if you keep the English subtitles off and do not know how to speak any Japanese.
It takes a good 90 minutes before anything in the film even remotely heats up to lukewarm action levels, which is Eight Samurai's biggest weakness. For us North American audiences unfamiliar with the source material, a certain level of boredom is an unavoidable side effect, even without all the blood-draining, skin-stripping, and whatnot. The sword fighting is fairly pedantic, but some of the supernatural elements are too funny for words. It feels more like an episode of Dragon Ball than a film by a respected Japanese auteur.
The penultimate sequence of such silliness cumulates with an old lady tearing off her skin to reveal a gigantic 50-foot rubber centipede underneath. The gigantic insect gets thrown from cast member to cast member, who try desperately to swat at it with their swords. The scene is ten times stupider than it sounds, and absolutely has to be seen to be believed. Luckily, if you miss it, the sequence is basically repeated an hour later, substituting a 50-foot rubber snake for the centipede.
At least Chiba gets some screen time in this one. As one of the aforementioned eight samurai, he gets a fair amount of dramatic scenes and fighting done, leading up to his climactic battle where he…um…fights with a magic roll of toilet paper. Yeah. The action sequences are moderately entertaining and well choreographed, save, of course, for the character's complete and utter inability to fight gigantic rubber insects hung from wires.
Though it has achieved something of a cult status among samurai aficionados, Eight Samurai is the weakest film in the set from a critical standpoint. Though amusingly campy and enjoyable, the plot is cartoonish, taking massive thematic and plot shortcuts, runs at least 30 minutes too long, and crams all the good action sequences into the last 20 minutes. The score mostly consists of a foolishly applied power ballad soundtrack from the 1980s that systematically annihilates all dramatic tension and romance from the film; a fantastic technique, if indeed the creators had this intention in mind. Alas, methinks not.
I never thought I'd admit that the weakest part of a box set—any box set—would be a film by Kinji Fukasaku, but here we are. Theatrical and campy, it is admittedly fun in a trashy sort of way, but you really have to be in the mood for gigantic rubber insects.
In comparison to Eight Samurai, Ninja Wars tackles similar supernatural subject matter, but in a slightly more serious fashion. Naked animated corpses try to possess the minds of men, but get burned like vampires at the touch of a cross. Hands glow with blue energy and sever bamboo trees like sharp blades, and magical boomerang sickles carve through walls like butter. Monks spit yellow corrosive acid out of their mouth like a gigantic water cannon. Yep…normal, normal stuff.
The creepy subject matter and mysticism deviates from the standard style of ninja flicks from the 1980s, playing the subject matter straight with little of the grand opulence and inherent corniness of Eight Samurai. There is little fun in Ninja Wars, save for some of the most vicious, (un)intentionally hilarious decapitation sequences ever put to film. There is nothing quite like neck stumps spurting blood in a 180-degree arc for a full ten seconds, before the body walks a few halting steps and finally collapses. It's all about the little details, people.
Speaking of head vis-a-vis neck separations, there is all kinds of unsettling stuff going on in Ninja Wars, like evil monks cutting the head off a woman, magically re-attaching it to the body of another woman, and then gang-raping her. Hard to figure out what element of that particular sequence is worse. This film discourages in the pejorative sense of the word, the way a bad Greek tragedy does, and before long, things transgress inexplicably from bad to worse for the protagonists. If Ninja Wars has a downside, the film is kind of a bummer; extremely beautiful, but in a depressing sort of way.
Artistically speaking, Ninja Wars is second only to Eight Samurai in sheer cinematic style. With its eerie and austere landscapes, it is a dreamlike environment full of burnt stumps, fog, and corpses, like something out of Kwaidan. It also helps that the fight choreography here is taut and exciting, spaced well throughout with some kick ass battles between flying acid-spitting monks and ninja warriors.
One major downside is that Chiba only appears in the film for a heartbeat. On the plus side, he sports a bad-ass mustache and dons some awesome black pajamas.
G.I. Samurai is the odd film out from a subject matter perspective,
since it actually takes place in modern times; at least, for a few minutes. Even
by time-traveling samurai film standards, of which there are, ahem, plenty,
G.I. Samurai is a classic of the genre. It tells the timeless tale of the
modern-day army unit thrown back into the past, who then…um, try to take
over the world. A classic, see?
Chiba gets massive screen time here as the commanding officer Iba. His character is an interesting dichotomy, at first sympathetic, but soon corrupted by his own ego and failed ambitions. Taking the analogy a step further, he can be seen as a metaphor for his entire nation in the late 1970's, an expression of the frustration and futility of living in an era of Japan when warriors are unable to fight any battles. After all, what is the point of living in such a meaningless time? What this says about the Japanese people in a modern context…well, that's up to you to decide.
This modern-day anxiety is further reinforced by the portrayal of the JGSDF soldiers as weak, cowardly, and bereft of morals. Many of the soldiers use their technological advantage to rape and pillage the locals and generally behave badly. In contrast, the samurai warriors are equally, if not more, formidable than Japan's modern-day army. Even with superior tactics, machine guns, grenade launchers, tanks, helicopters, and the like, the soldiers have their work cut out for them. It is clear what group of soldiers G.I. Samurai admires.
Battle sequences in G.I. Samurai vary wildly from the absurd, like seeing a tank fight a large army of samurai warriors, to the utterly absurd, like Sonny Chiba dangling from a rope attached to a helicopter, fighting an armored boat. Given the age of the film, the special effects are rather impressive, all things considered.
Like the other films in this box set, any dramatic tension the film is capable of generating is instantly negated by the corny late 1970s style soft-rock funk songs that perforate it. Imagine a Japanese Hall and Oates cover band singing and you would be not far off the mark.
The outcome of the film is never in doubt for a single moment—the appeal of the film comes in seeing exactly how drawn out and absurd things get before the climax. Thematically, it is a drastic change from the other two films in this set, but stands as a fine Chiba film with some truly outrageous sequences. Its premise may be utterly ludicrous, but G.I. Samurai is great entertainment if only to see who wins in a fight between samurai and tanks.
Considering their varying age (and the company's mixed track record with import material), BCI Eclipse has done a respectable job transferring these films to DVD. All three are anamorphic and presented in OAR with clean prints for the source. All three have aged well and belie their almost quarter-century age, though black and detail levels are not quite up to modern standards. All audio come in simple 2.0 presentations that are clean, if a bit on the dated side, with thin bass response, screeching trebles, and thin dialogue. Still, for the material presented, these are fine enough presentations which garner no serious complaints. Subtitles are legible and grammatically sound.
Extra material? Get serious. Nothing here, save for a few trailers advertising similar samurai films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My main complaint with this set is the same as it was with The Shogun Collection; namely, marketing the set as some sort of Sonny Chiba-a-Thon. In reality, Chiba's screen time in each varies wildly. G.I. Samurai is full of him, but in Ninja Wars, he has five minutes of screen time, tops.
Is there any reason to market the set as "Featuring Sonny Chiba"? Any self-respecting samurai fan will want these films in their collection because the films rock. Really, there's no need for this kind of subterfuge.
Next on DVD Verdict: Kill Bill Vol. 1 Featuring Sonny Chiba! Or not.
The Samurai Collection Featuring Sonny Chiba makes the perfect companion piece to The Shogun Collection, though there is even less continuity in this set than in the previous set. This is a fantastic value for samurai fans, especially if you like your sword fighting mixed up with the supernatural and are looking for the path less chosen in Japanese cinema.
Above all else, these films teach us that if you die, you will probably get reincarnated as a zombie. But then if you get struck by lightning, you will come back to life proper, so don't worry too much about it.
A bit on the silly side, but still gloriously campy and a whole lot of fun. Not guilty.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, G.I. Samurai
Perp Profile, G.I. Samurai
Studio: Media Blasters
Distinguishing Marks, G.I. Samurai
Scales of Justice, Ninja Wars
Perp Profile, Ninja Wars
Studio: Media Blasters
Distinguishing Marks, Ninja Wars
Scales of Justice, Legend Of The Eight Samurai
Perp Profile, Legend Of The Eight Samurai
Studio: Media Blasters
Distinguishing Marks, Legend Of The Eight Samurai
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