Satomi Hakkenden has been called the Star Wars of samurai movies, and it's not hard to see why — it's terrific fun. It's also one of the most roundly criticized films in its genre, for being an unabashedly pop-culture take on one of the pre-eminent samurai legends in Japanese folklore. Well, says I, there's no crime in that. As someone else once wrote about another movie with no pretensions to do anything other than have a good time, "It may not be Bach, but it is certainly Offenbach."
The story of the Hakkenden, or "Dog Warriors," comes out of Japanese mythology by way of China (there are many examples of Chinese folklore being imported and rewritten, this being one of the most enduring). In it, a young princess, the last of her clan, was endowed with eight spiritually-linked warriors to protect her from various supernatural menaces. The catch, of course, was that none of the warriors knew they had been so selected; each of them recognized the other over time via the presence of special magic beads. Each bead, and thus each warrior, was also linked with a specific Confucian spiritual virtue (a notion this movie doesn't bring out that clearly). The impact of the legend and its subsequently-derived entertainments is hard to over-estimate; almost every Final Fantasy game or anime with a loose-knit group of heroes probably has Hakkenden's mitochondria floating around in its cells.
The evil Hikita clan's army of the undead (and Sonny Chiba!) close in on Princess Shizu of the Satomi.
Celebrated Edo-era author Bakin Takizawa updated the story from the original Chinese for his era and country, and it's this version that's been used as the inspiration for the various film productions since. An earlier film version was made in 1958 (in three one-hour segments, each released separately), but hasn't surfaced in an English-language version. An outstanding 13-part animated series (which I really need to get around to reviewing one of these days) was released by Pioneer in the Eighties — a serious, violent, gorgeously produced adaptation of the story that leans more towards the Art side of things, but never collapses into its own pretensions. This version, from 1983, is Just Plain Fun — a big tall glass of Kool-Aid for the kid in you. Need I say I'm an utter sucker for this sort of thing?
Here we has none other than Kinji Fukasaku at the helm — yes, he of Battle Royale and also of another oft-filmed Japanese legend, Makai Tenshō (sometimes called Samurai Reincarnation). He'd also directed Japan's most explicit answer to Star Wars, an enjoyable fantasy called Message From Space — itself yet another take on the Hakkenden legend! If anything, Fukasaku was over-qualified to make this movie, since he'd done it already in at least one guise. (He also directed The Green Slime, but I can be uncommonly forgiving when the need strikes.)
Shinbei kidmaps Shizu to ransom her, but she's rescued by two of her designated spiritual protectors.
Hakkenden opens on a grim note: the undead armies of the Hikita Clan have all but destroyed the Satomi Clan — except for Princess Shizu (Hiroko Yakushimaru), who has gone into hiding with her retainers. They're soon picked off by the Hikita armies, and Shizu is left to wander alone in search of help. The Hikitas are painted as gloriously over-the-top villains: their clan mistress, Tamazusa (Mari Natsuki), is herself one of the undead, killed over a century ago by one of the Satomi but kept alive by regular sessions of bathing in a giant pool of blood. Her cohort, the also-undead Dosetsu, is played by none other than the great Sonny Chiba, with his trademark smirk cutting right though his pancake make-up and balsa-wood costumes.
Shizu eventually runs into the rakish farmer-turned-soldier Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada, veteran of everything from Ringu to Onmyouji to, yes, Message from Space). He's not interested in saving her or anything nearly that romantic — he's heard about the reward on her head, and wants to make a name for himself by turning her in. Shizu eventually falls into the company of a pair of wandering yamabushi or warrior-monk / ascetics, who reveal themselves to be two of the eight warriors destined to protect her. She doesn't buy it — until they save her from a massive centipede creature that tears apart the building they're in. Things like that tend to change your mind real fast.
The other heroes enter gradually, each getting a certain amount of adventure and screen time ("Introverted, Tortured Loner — check; Mystic Monk — check..."). My favorite was Kano (Sue Shiomi), a female assassin who comes onscreen during a wedding and tears the whole place to shreds, fending off dozens of attackers. The Hikita's arsenal of evil includes a whole army of pretty young maidens who can kill living things simply by breathing on them, and a wild assortment of black magic. Dosetsu himself needs fresh skin to continue looking human, and there are more than a couple of gruesomely medieval Plastic Surgery Disasters. Everything, of course, builds towards a climactic assault on the enemy fortress, where sacrifices are made, the gods invoked, unexpected allies are revealed, and the vast majority of the special effects budget is burned.
Movies like this work when there's a lot of energy and style on screen, and Hakkenden has both. Fukasaku has a restless, lively camera style in many of his movies, and he dives right into the thick of the swordplay with it here. Lavish sets and costumes abound, and the visual effects are hokey but fun — I liked a bit where a statue comes to life to impart the heroes with the power of the gods for one final go-round. (There's even an in-joke involving Gustav Klimt's The Kiss as part of a background picture.)
There are two big bits of bad news: an incredibly ill-fitting musical score that feels like it was stolen off of Moog Smash Hits of the Seventies, and an excruciating Love Interlude with a sappy rock ballad (played over the opening and closing credits, too, to add further insult to injury). There's a fast-forward button on your remote for a reason. The ending, too, goes on rather longer than it needs to — and there's a quasi-obligatory Greeting From Beyond the Grave that will make everyone squirm.
Hakkenden has been floating around for some time in a cut-down and English-dubbed version with the name Legend of the Eight Samurai, with Sonny Chiba getting top billing. He, too, turned up in Message from Space as well as Fukasaku's Virus (Day of Reckoning, worth seeing in its original 140-minute edit), and the amazing yakuza actioner Itsuka giragirasuruhi (Double/Triple Cross). He and the rest of the cast have no end of fun with the hammy script, although he has more charisma in his smirk alone than almost all the rest of the players.
Pauline Kael once said that the movies are so rarely great art that we might as well enjoy great trash when we get it. By "trash" she meant camp — high camp like Hakkenden, rather than the unintentional and insufferable camp of things like "feel-good" movies with Robin Williams. It's a guilty pleasure, to be sure, on the order of Flash Gordon and Once a Thief, but a guilty pleasure is a pleasure nonetheless.