There’s two ways to look at Shogun’s Samurai: it’s either a clever reinvention of history for the sake of drama, or a shameless excursion into total fantasy. The fact that most Western audiences won’t know the way history’s being so drastically mixed around (shilling for mutilated) is a boon, not a hindrance: they’ll see it through relatively unclouded eyes.
I knew enough about the history behind the events in Shogun’s Samurai to be amused by the changes, but I’m not close enough to them to be outraged. Perhaps that makes me the ideal audience for it: I liked it fine for what it was — stylish but also intelligent pulp fantasy — without grousing about what it should have been.
Samurai is based on a popular novel that drew on the intrigues behind the throne around the time of the third Tokugawa Shogun (the mid-1600s). Japan was finally unified, and the Shogun, the military ruler of the country, had to be someone willing to do anything to keep the peace. Iemitsu (Hiroki Matsukata), the underdog for the throne, is nobody’s idea of a ruler: he stammers and has an ugly wine-colored birthmark covering most of his face (shades of I, Claudius). Small wonder he’s out of favor with even his own father. The royal fencing instructor, Yagyū Tajima (Kinnosuke Nakamura, a samurai-movie regular), decides to take matters into his own hands: he has Iemitsu’s father poisoned, then moves to have the misfit installed on the throne.
Yagyū the Elder seeks to place the misfit Iemitsu in power,
while Yagyū the Younger fights for the survival of his adoptive clan.
This series of events sends shock waves through the other nobles. Lord Owari (Toshiro Mifune, in a surprisingly small role for him) is convinced there was foul play afoot, but can’t prove anything and is obliged to leave the court in disgrace. Even more deviously, Tajima works to discredit the other heir to the throne, Tadanaga (Teruhiko Saigo), by blaming him for an apparently unmotivated murder. For this he recruits the Negoro ninja clan, and promises to return to them their former homelands if they can pull it off. What Tajima doesn’t know is that his son, Yagyū (none other than Sonny Chiba), is in cahoots with the Negoro, and the conflicts that erupt from this threaten to tear the whole empire apart. If it sounds confusing, it’s not: one of the best things about the movie is how nimbly it moves between the various strands of its plot.
Movies like this tend to be seriously hit-or-miss. I was worried I’d end up with a redux of the dreadful Owls’ Castle, where director Masahiro Shinoda’s lockstep filmmaking drained all the blood out of a potentially fascinating story. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened here. Samurai’s director was the prolific Kinji Fukasaku, responsible for some of Japan’s biggest commercial successes. He’s mainly remembered in the West for his swan song(s), the Battle Royale films (the first a classic and the second an absolute travesty), which is a little like remembering Steven Spielberg only for Saving Private Ryan and nothing else. Fukasaku has made socially-relevant SF (Virus), wild and stylish adaptations of samurai legends (Satomi Hakkenden) and gutsy and violent yakuza actioners (his mainstay) for both TV and movie houses (Graveyard of Honor).
Before Shogun’s Samurai, Fukasaku had never done a period drama, but his whole approach — energetic, with a roving camera and a vigorous editing style — was perfectly suited to such work, and it seems he needed no warming-up to hit it out of the park the first time. Even in the quiet scenes, the film feels alive, and its 130 minutes don’t feel overlong. Fukasaku also took the time and care to assemble some truly outstanding swordfighting and stunt work, all of which still holds up today. He also brings broad but enjoyable performances out of all his actors, including samurai-movie mainstay Yoshiro Harada and then-teen-heartthrob Hiroyuki Sanada (both in small but important roles). Sonny Chiba also goes a bit against the sneering anti-hero type he usually plays; he makes Yagyū blunt and direct, but also broad-hearted and sharp-eyed.
Yagyū Jubei and many of the other personages here have turned up many times before as ingredients in various spicy jidai-geki gumbos. Te most outlandish of the bunch has to be Samurai Resurrection (aka Makai Tenshōu), originally a fantasy novel, which Fukasaku himself filmed later in his career. There, we had Yagyū Jubei squaring off against an army of undead samurai resurrected by the Christian rebel Amakusa Shiro. Ludicrous, sure, but also immensely entertaining and made with great zest (and Fukasaku quite wisely had Sonny Chiba reprise his performance as Yagyū; why mess with a good thing?). I also love how movies like this bring mythic character details to life, and at one point in Shogun’s Samurai we see how Yagyū ended up with his trademark missing eye.
As much as the real-life Yagyū Jubei has been heavily mythologized, it’s still possible to learn what few facts remain about him, and to see how broadly and drastically the movie deviates from history. Especially towards the end: without spoiling anything, I’ll say only that the climax is roughly akin to John F. Kennedy marching into the Kremlin and shooting Krushchev in the face with a .38. Whether this ruins it for you is, again, likely to me a matter of taste: I know I wasn’t put off. Why, then, did I like Shogun’s Samurai and not something like The Last Samurai, which was not exactly forensic in its accuracy either? Probably because The Last Samurai used its distorted history as a backdrop for an even more improbable story about a Westerner, and for that reason was doubly unconvincing. Shogun’s Samurai is also a lot more fun, doesn’t try to apologize for its excesses by pretending to be nobler than it really is — and, hey, I’ll take Sonny Chiba over Tom Cruise any time.