Among Japan’s most prolific authors of samurai-fantasy and lady-ninja adventure stories was a fellow named Futaro Yamada, and his Samurai Reincarnation (also known as Darkside Reborn) was a wildly successful retelling of various samurai legends all spun into one with a supernatural twist. The story has inspired various movie versions, but the best-known and most widely enjoyed remains this version, directed by Kinji Fukasaku in 1981.
Aside from Fukasaku’s golden touch, Makai Tenshōu also features none other than Sonny Chiba playing the plum role of the master ninja Yagyū Jubei. (Fans of Kill Bill who know little of what Chiba was actually famous for in the first place need to put this on their list immediately after screening the Street Fighter movies.) Small wonder it was a stupendous hit in Japan, but it’s taken forever for it to show up here in America in a proper edition — all previous versions of the film were saddled with a ludicrous dubbing job and terrible-looking transfers.
The only man who stands against Amakusa Shiro and his
army of the undead is the fabled ninja master Yagyū Jubei.
This much is fact: In 1638, Amakusa Shiro, a Christian rebel against the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, rallied thousands of warriors to his side. He was able to fend off off the Emperor’s forces for over a month, but in the end, he and the whole of his army were decimated. Yamada’s story begins with that battle, but speculates that Shiro’s spirit did not find solace in the afterworld. Instead, he came back to life, and used black magic to resurrect or control various samurai heroes to create an unstoppable army of the undead and take vengeance.
Tenshou is wild, stylish and gory stuff, never taking the subtle way on anything. Consider the opening scene — Shiro’s resurrection, wherein his severed head takes on a life of its own, assuming control of a Kabuki dancer before massacring everyone in sight. His first reincarnate is a Christian martyr, the Lady Hosokawa (Akiko Kana), who seduces her Shogunate enemies — including the newly-coronated Shogun — and then destroys their minds and bodies with her black magic powers. The movie casts longtime J-movie veteran and pop star Kenji Sawada (fresh from his role as the atom-bomb building high-school teacher in The Man who Stole the Sun) as Shiro, eyes flashing and fingers steepling as he brings death to all who oppose him.
While Shiro's seductress Hosokawa works her evil magic in the Shogun's court,
Jubei's men band valiantly together against warriors sent to destroy them.
Shiro’s army grows quickly. Among the recruits are the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Ken Ogata, who was Mishima in Mishima), ninja master Goemon Ishikawa (Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s been in everything from Ringu to Satomi Hakkenden to Onmyoji), and many others. In each case, either Shiro or Hosokawa are able to prey on their weaknesses, their unresolved feelings, and their ambivalences about their lives to convert them to their cause. Even if the psychological dimensions of the movie are on a pulp-fantasy level, they still lend that much breadth to the film. Fukasaku uses vigorous and involving cross-cutting to show us their backstories, so even when we stop to learn about someone’s past the movie is still hurtling forward. For a movie that’s 125 minutes long, it feels shorter, if only because (in Fuksasku’s trademark style) there’s always something happening.
Over time one man gets wind of the mounting threat to the Shogunate: Yagyū Jubei, another master ninja of legend. His father is not only one of the Shogun’s chamberlains, but was also responsible for him losing an eye during his training as a youth (oh no, he doesn’t hold a grudge!). It doesn’t take long to realize Jubei is facing enemies of supernatural orders of magnitude, and enlists the help of the master swordmaker Muramasa — whose weapons were said to contain evil spirits — to forge a blade capable of killing demons. I love how the movie spins in all sorts of internal connections with its myth-making: Muramasa’s lovely flute-playing assistant is a relative of Otsu, the girl who waited in vain for Musashi to return from his wanderings.
The movie has plenty of swordfights and action scenes, but also spends a fair amount of time with Shiro and his cronies using their powers of darkness to overcome their enemies. Some of this stuff is fairly lurid, closer to the pain-fests of Teruo Ishii (responsible for such stomach-turners as the infamous Oxen Split Torturing) than Fukasaku’s usual swashbuckling. Many of the visual effects are limited by what was available at the time, but the climactic scenes in the Shogun’s castle are absolutely spectacular. There we see the whole of the building converted into a raging inferno, and Jubei fighting Shiro with his body covered in Buddhist writings (a la “Hoichi-the-Earless” from Kwaidan!).
Samurai movies have waned somewhat in Japan, partly because of audience saturation (there are only so many ways you can retell a certain story, or show a head being sliced off), but also, I fear, because of exhaustion on the part of the filmmakers. Many of them would simply prefer to work on other things that are more culturally immediate — there’s been no end of movies lately about Japan’s high-school-girl subculture, for instance. That said, the genre seems to be slowly waking up again, thanks to the genuinely groundbreaking work in movies like Gojoe and Ryuhei (Versus) Kitamura’s Azumi. The former stood a conventional samurai legend on its head and found a genuinely exciting and new direction for its material; the latter was pure video-game excess, but done with such spirit and energy that it was hard not to get caught up on it (although I managed to resist when it wore it its welcome).
Jubei's final battle, against his own possessed father,
in the flaming remnants of the royal castle.
At least two other versions of Makai Tenshōu have surfaced. The first was a two-part direct-to-video production in 1998 — the whole thing clocking in at 180 minutes — which managed to be busy without being the slightest bit interesting. It was also hampered by everything being done on the cheap: some of the worst-looking severed-head effects imaginable, and magical powers represented by green lights pointed at the actors. The 2003 remake — financed by Kadokawa, who also underwrote Fukasaku’s version — sports better special effects and classy photography, but doesn’t quite enthrall as thoroughly as Fukasaku’s. The 1981 version, despite its somewhat dated look (and its especially dated rock score), still holds up as being great fun.