By reading this review, you do great honor to Judge Adam Arseneau.
Do you like ninjas? How about samurai? Enjoy the works of Sonny Chiba? Good, put this on.
A box set featuring four Sonny Chiba films—Shogun's Samurai, Swords of Vengeance, Shogun's Ninja and Shogun's Shadow—The Shogun Collection is a fantastic grouping of films that, despite their title, have little to do with one another.
Facts of the Case
(Yagyû ichizoku no inbô, a.k.a. The Yagyu Conspiracy) (1978)
When the second Shogun dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, strife breaks out throughout the Tokugawa shogunate, since an heir to the seat of power has not been established. Tradition would see the elder son Iemitsu ascend to power, but many would rather see his handsome younger son Tadanaga in his place as Shogun. The two brothers begin feuding with one another over rule over Japan as influential lords and politicians begin choosing sides in the conflict. Meanwhile, the nobles play both sides against each other, hoping to fuel the flames of discontent to their own advantage and usurp power from the Shogun back into the hands of the Emperor.
Swords of Vengeance
(Ako-jo danzetsu, a.k.a. The Fall of Ako Castle) (1978)
During a visit to the Shogunate, the ruler of an influential house in Japan, Lord Asano, draws his sword on a nobleman out of anger. Abhorred by his own actions, he submits himself to the will of the Shogun, who immediately orders he commit suicide. To make matters worse, the Shogun orders the Ako clan be immediately disbanded and their assets seized by the Shogunate. Believing the Shogun's decision was one-sided and unjust, Asano's chamberlain Oishi (Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Shogun's Samurai) is extremely reluctant to relinquish control of their castle. Now in direct conflict with the will of the Shogunate, the majority of the Ako clan chooses to follow their master to their grave and commit sepekku, but a few of the swordsmen are infuriated by the one-sided verdict and vow to punish the malicious offender of their lord …
(Ninja bugeicho momochi Sandayu) (1982)
Rumor has it that the Momochi Clan, a powerful group of ninjas has an ancient family secret passed down from generation to generation—the location of secret gold mines scattered across Japan. Hideyoshi (Asao Koike, G.I. Samurai), a power-hungry warlord, desires this gold to fund his war effort and sends his top commander Shiranui (Sonny Chiba) to destroy the clan and retrieve the secret locations of the mines. After a devastating ambush, almost all of the Momochi clan is wiped out, with the exception of the young master Takamaru (Hiroyuki Sanda, Ninja Wars) who escapes to China. Ten years later, armed with exotic fighting techniques and a desire for revenge, he returns to Japan to set right his past.
(Shôgun Iemitsu no ranshin—Gekitotsu/Geki Totsu, a.k.a. The Insanity of Emperor Iemitsu Gekitosu) (1989)
An order is given to the young shogun heir Tachehiyo to participate in an initiation ritual in Edo that will mark his descent into manhood and his ascension to the Shogunate. Unfortunately, the current Shogun has some serious inferiority complexes as well as a fairly strong case of being totally insane. At the direction of his vassal, he tasks Iba Shoemon (Sonny Chiba) to assassinate his eldest son and prevent him from ever reaching Edo alive, thereby ensuring the Shogunate will transfer to his favorite younger son. Fortunately for the young heir, seven samurai have been tasked with keeping the young master safe during his trouble, led by master swordsman Igo Gyobu (Ken Ogata). The odds are not good for their survival, but an oath is an oath …
In the 1970s, director Kinji Fukasaku (The Yakuza Papers, Battle Royale) made a name for himself with hard-hitting, violent yakuza dramas that echoed the nihilism and despondency of the post-war generation of Japanese. Japan yearned for gritty, urbane films, and the historical jidaigeki ("period piece") drama had gone out of fashion nearly a decade earlier. Fukasaku was more than happy to deliver such social realism and yakuza films to the public—until Shogun's Samurai, that is. It goes without saying that it was a daring move on Fukasaku's part to tackle a massive sweeping chambara epic. It was a gamble, but one that ultimately paid off, as Shogun's Samurai still stands as one of Fukasaku's finest films and helped herald a new vogue for the historical epic in Japan.
Epic in scale, Shogun's Samurai traces the ascent to power of Tokugawa Iemitsu against his brother Tadanaga, and the power struggle within the Tokugawa shogunate in 17th century Japan. The subtle political manipulations by the Yagyû clan set in motion a sequence of events that change the flow of power in Japan, propping up one Shogun over another, which leads to bloodshed. Though largely fictionalized and dramatized, the film is laden with countless subplots, background characters, historical dates and places, and politics from the turbulent era of Edo Japan, which can be confusing for Western audiences. Since the movie is rife with backroom deals, double-crossings, political manipulation, and honor-bound characters acting in accordance with the rules of an honor-bound class system, a basic knowledge of Japanese class structure and Shogun-era politics helps immeasurably in deciphering the intricate web of obligations and manipulations at work in Shogun's Samurai. A narrator helpfully provides some background info sporadically, but it is easy to lose yourself in the subtle nuances.
Though complex, Shogun's Samurai is a brilliant and engaging film, perfectly balanced between political drama and the chaotic, violent hand-held camera work that gave Fukasaku his reputation as an action-packed director. Fukasaku directs the film with such enthusiasm and exuberance that the audience becomes captivated by its style and substance, a rare perfect blend in total harmony. This may be the historical Japanese drama for those who dislike historical Japanese dramas. The film features solid performances from its exceptionally large cast, including an animated Sonny Chiba as famed swordsman Yagyu Jubei, a role Chiba ends up playing numerous times throughout his career.
Shot almost back-to-back with Shogun's Samurai, with a near-identical crew and cast, Swords of Vengeance ups the ante and delves into an even longer, more intricate, and class-centric jidaigeki—the infamous Genroku Ako Incident, collectively known as the legend of the Forty-Seven Ronin. Since the story has been adapted numerous times into film (and serving thematic influence in films like Ronin) Fukasaku chose an extremely well-known tale to adapt to the big screen, the story as close to a national legend that Japan has. These were serious expectations to live up to.
Fukasaku's approach for this film was surprising. Rather than create a straight action film, he crafted a slow-paced, character-driven introspection into themes of honor and bushido steeped in historical detail. Since the movie was filmed at the same time as Shogun's Samurai, comparisons are inevitable, but they truly are very different films. Out of all the films presented in this box set, Swords of Vengeance is the most "authentic" in terms of being a film rife with inherently Japanese notions of honor and integrity and the warrior's code of bushido, and the most dramatically effective.
What makes this film more challenging than its companions in this set is its attention to character motivation. Social obligation, not action, drives Swords of Vengeance, making it a challenging but rewarding cinematic venture. The Japanese code of behavior dictates strongly behavior of a certain kind, and to go against it is utterly unthinkable. Though their response is, on paper, a terribly mutinous and contemptuous one, history has lauded the story as one that personifies all that is righteous about the bushido code. Such notions are complex even for those who still abide by them, let alone to a North American audience. Through an inherently dishonorable action by their lord, the disciples of Asano are obligated to reclaim their honor by defying the wishes of the Shogun—an action in of itself entirely dishonorable.
Deliberately paced, Swords of Vengeance is a mesmerizing film, even if cannot appreciate the code that drives these men to throw down their lives. Fukasaku drives his cinematographer to great heights, crafting a visually impressive film with fantastic location shots and excruciating attention to detail in costumes and period accuracies. The score is dramatic and powerful, a sweeping orchestral piece with Japanese instruments and harmonies. This film also turns out some of the best acting performances from its massive cast, what with all the ritualistic suicide and honorable intentions. With a running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours, Swords of Vengeance drags here and there, but no more than one would expect. The quality of its craft overshadows any such shortcomings.
In stark comparison to the two previous entries, Shogun's Ninja is just plain silly, but gloriously so. From here on out, we're talking good old-fashioned 1980s-style ninja movies, with loose, disposable plots, mediocre dialogue and acting, and about a bazillion faceless ninjas leaping out of trees, hiding in puddles, and scuttling up and down trees like spiders, throwing shurikens and caltrops and smoke bombs and what have you. What better way to accompany a ninja film than with the score from Miami Vice? I kid you not. Shogun's Ninja has the most inappropriate music ever cast into film—because nothing says "dramatic tension" like being chased through the woods by ninjas set to an upbeat score of smoking hot saxophone solos and synthesizers. It is entirely bizarre and, to be truthful, nothing short of magnificent.
Interestingly, Shogun's Ninja is structured and written almost exactly like a Hong Kong action film, like something straight out of the Shaw Brothers studio rather than a jidaigeki. Generic kung fu revenge plot: the young prince's parents are killed by a nasty villain and he flees to a foreign land, where he learns all manner of exotic kung-fu. He comes back dressed in his loose, serene clothing and proceeds to beat the tar out of everyone who gets near him, exacting his revenge against the man who destroyed his family. For bonus points, he brings his attractive nunchaku-wielding Shaolin girlfriend with him. Hell, he even gets trained by the archetypal old man in the woods with a huge white beard. It may not be very Japanese, but it is immensely entertaining all the same. The action is fantastic and well-choreographed (handled by Sonny Chiba himself this time) with all manner of hewn limbs, blood spurts, and impaling. Forget about subtle plot development and introspection this time around—Shogun's Ninja is all about hot ninja-on-ninja action.
Chiba gets a bit more screen time and proves his ability to play both sides of the dramatic coin as the very intense, very cold-hearted villain, sending out wave after wave of ninja to vanquish his foes. He makes for an intimidating adversary, but the film has a hard time escaping its (un)intentional silliness. The crazy, hilarious score doesn't help much in this department either. Still, for anyone looking for a bit of mindless Hong Kong-inspired ninja action, you can do a lot worse than Shogun's Ninja.
Like the previous film, Shogun's Shadow is the pinnacle of 1980s ninja goodness featuring Chiba in a villainous role—this time as the man sent out to assassinate the Shogun's son. The plot, such as it is, is little more than an excuse to string together gigantic and expertly choreographed fighting sequences together, but I'm okay with this. Within the first 90 seconds of the film, about 50 people get mowed down by a barrage of arrows shot from spear-wielding ninja, setting a precedent that stays true until the end. Sure, it may be silly, but it's a good kind of silly—the kind with ninjas.
Shogun's Shadow is the most entertaining (and bloody) of the three films in terms of sheer action, but thinnest in terms of brain cells. The film is nothing more than an extended sword fight on wheels, traveling from point A to point B as the young master's bodyguards are whittled down by wave after wave of ninjas and samurai soldiers. Despite realizing that their mission is utterly doomed, the stalwart band of swordsman fight off wave after wave of enemies to protect a snotty little kid. Why? They're Japanese—it's what they do. Honor and stuff, you know.
Choreographed by Chiba's talented stunt team, the fight sequences are top-notch, exhibiting various styles and expertly timed swordfighting sequences, including a hilarious duel at the end of the film that manages to cover about two miles of ground, running through walls and leaping off roofs. The body count is outrageous, and that's just for the humans. While filming, Shogun's Shadow probably killed at least 16 horses during its action sequences. I've never in my life seen such amazingly terrible things done to animals on camera. Obviously the scene when they light the horse on fire and it explodes, um, like a grenade was faked, but I know of no way to fake a horse falling onto its face at high velocity, its neck bending back at horrific angles. PETA would be outraged, to say the least.
Shogun's Shadow is great fun—not the smartest film in the bunch, but definitely the most satisfying in terms of sheer action. Plus, some of the blue-screen effects are hilariously bad.
BCI has a mixed track record of releasing films in North America in terms of technical quality, so it is pleasing to see these four films being handled extremely well. Ironically, the reason for this is that they are exact re-releases of previous versions of the film from a company called Adness. Suffice it to say, if you are in possession of such copies, there is nothing worth upgrading for in The Shogun Collection. But to anyone in possession of scratchy, ugly versions of any of these four films, these versions are a marked improvement. All come in nice anamorphic transfers with reasonable grain and print damage, considering their age. Colors are saturated without being artificial, with moderate black levels. The earlier films show their age in terms of a bit more noticeable print damage here and there, but nothing onerous. All in all, these are four well-presented films.
All four films have a simple stereo presentation, the quality of each improving as the films get more recent. The two Fukasaku films are fairly thin and mono with some popping and crackling now and again, while the latter two films have moderate bass response and more balanced treble and midrange. All four feature clear dialogue and no major defects, with clearly read and legible subtitles. Sadly, none of the films have any extras, save for a few trailers that get shamefully repeated from disc to disc. Yawn.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Packaging these four films together is a puzzle. All four have their merits—from the sweeping historical epic to the cheesy 1980s ninja film—but there is little connecting each film outside of Sonny Chiba, and maybe the word "shogun." To be frank, marketing the set with Chiba front and center on the packaging is a dubious trick at best, downright misleading at worst. He does not headline any of these films, and his screen time in each film is minimal at best.
Besides, if you really wanted a jidaigeki Chiba box set, you'd definitely need to have included Fukasaku's 1981 film Samurai Resurrection, a demonic samurai romp featuring Chiba reprising his role as Jubei. Now that would have been something.
While I find the marketing of such a set as a "shogun"-themed Sonny Chiba collection slightly dubious, this set nevertheless represents a fantastic value. These are four excellent films to pick up in one package, especially if none have made their way into your collection yet. Since these titles are exact copies of the previous Adness titles, there is little incentive here to double-dip, but for Japanese jidaigeki and ninja action fans, The Shogun Collection rocks.
Dismissed on all counts.
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