One of the great joys of writing for this site is that every so often a film pops through your letterbox that you’d never risk buying sight unseen. Often it turns out that you wouldn’t have bought it anyway, but every so often you get one which makes you want to tell everyone you know just how awesomely cool it is. Kinji Fukasaku’s 1984 fantasy epic “Legend of the Eight Samurai” is one of those movies.
The evil Hikita clan ruled with an iron fist & excessive taxations, so a popular uprising led by the Satomi clan burned them to death, & the Satomi clan took rule of the land. With her dying death Lady Hikita put a curse on the Satomi clan, & 100 years later the Hikita’s return from the grave & murder the entire Satomi clan. Only young Princess Shizu (Hiroko Yakushimaru) manages to escape, despite the best efforts of Hikita’s undead warrior clan to track her down. She meets Dosetsu (Sonny Chiba), who tells her of the legend that 8 warriors carrying magic crystals will help her take revenge for her family, & reclaim leadership. But first they need to locate the remaining warriors, whilst also avoiding the Hikita warriors & wildcard Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada) who has heard there is a bounty on the Princess’ head.
First off – yes, this is unashamedly a pulp Kurosawa; a pop fantasy blockbuster far removed from the seriousness of epic Samurai tales as epitomised by the master, even as it calls them to mind with it’s grand vistas & wandering Princesses lead by nomadic Samurai. Whilst many people criticise the film for being so frivolous & sometimes silly, personally I have absolutely no problem with this. The film has been called “The Star Wars of Samurai Films” & it’s an apt comparison – not least since Lucas openly admits one of his key influences was Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress”. To further the similarity, director Fukasaku (annoyingly best know for “Battle Royale”) had already adapted the story “Legend of the Eight Samurai” is based upon for his own Space Opera “Message From Space”. Most of what the films share though is a sense of pure unabashed fun & spectacle. No, it’s not great art (like the Kurosawa’s), but on a pure entertainment level it’s pretty hard to beat.
Whilst the plot is essentially pretty predictable (there’s little doubt as to how it’s all going to turn out), there are a couple of interesting plot developments to maintain interest, as well as an inventive bunch of foes to be defeated. In addition to a couple of highly enjoyable (if desperately daft) giant monster battles, perhaps the best is a group of extremely beautiful women fighters, whose blood & sweat are a deadly poison. It’s a bit of a shame that these tasty foes are somewhat underused. The pace throughout is pretty brisk, with the two-hours+ running time zips by. Initial action sequences are relatively short (but sweet), but each successive sequence builds upon the last, so that by the time we get to the inevitable final assault on the castle, we’re in full-on mode, & this sequence delivers everything I’d hoped for. As you’d expect from Fukasaku, the action is expertly handled – swift & brutal, with lots of wide shots to enable the stars to show off their talents. The production design is simply eye-popping, with a number of enormous sets & in these wide shots every available section of the sets is used to advantage.
Although this title is released as part of the “Sonny Chiba” collection, his is more of a supporting role. The performances throughout do the job pretty well, with the stand-outs being two leads Yakushimaru & Sanada (best known to horror fans as Ryuji in Nakata’s “Ringu”), who have a natural chemistry when onscreen together.
On the downside, the film is quite shamelessly a product of the early eighties, & suffers from some cheesy moments, with slightly dodgy effects & tons of dry ice. Somehow, this actually adds to the entertainment factor. Worst offender is the simply horrible synth-pop music score, which is totally out of place. Of course, there is an argument which says that this music is no more anachronistic than a score for eighteenth century symphonic instruments, but it dates the film horribly – think “Transformers: The Movie”. And there’s that awfully cheesy English-language song – thankfully kept mostly to the opening & closing credits. It only appears once in the film proper, during the love scene. “I don’t want this night to end”, goes the lyrics but frankly you won’t be able to wait for this hideously cringe-inducing sequence to end either. Thankfully, Fukasaku saves it by immediately following it with an attack by a giant rubber snake.
Sometimes you want to watch a movie that will illuminate the dark corners of the human psyche, sometimes you want to watch a film of nightmarish horror & intensity, but then sometimes – well, sometimes you just want to watch Sonny Chiba fighting a giant centipede (incidentally, if you see this brilliantly mad sequence coming, you’re either crazy or a liar). Thankfully, “Legend of the Eight Samurai” is there for those times – it’s certainly not a film for everyone, nor is it Fukasaku’s best, but I had an absolute blast with it, & cannot help but give it my warmest recommendation.
The UK DVD comes from Ventura/Adness in R2/Pal format. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is very strong – a touch dark maybe, but gloriously crisp & with hardly any print damage. The Japanese Dolby 2.0 audio is very clear, whilst English subs are optional. The disc says that it has extras running 21mins, but all I could find on my review copy was about 7mins of trailers for the “Sonny Chiba Collection”. There’s also supposed to be Liner Notes by Patrick Macias (author of “Tokyoscope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion”), but again this was nowhere to be found on my review copy. Hardly a great selection then, but the disc has it where it ultimately counts, & the film delivers more than enough entertainment factor to make it well worth seeking out.