Sengoku Jietai (a.k.a. G.I. Samurai) starts with an interesting premise: What if a squadron of modern-day Japanese soldiers, complete with their weapons and vehicles, were somehow transported back in time to Japan’s feudal past? What we get, however, is an uneasy mix of war movie and cheesy ‘70s kitsch, courtesy of legendary (sometimes for all the wrong reasons) producer Haruki Kadokawa, who also gave us Satomi Hakkenden and Heaven and Earth. The good parts of Sengoku are really good, and the action is amazing, but the bad parts are dreadful — trust me, nothing clears a room faster than syrupy Japanese rock ballads, and here’s proof.
Like most war movies of any variety, Sengoku opens with a quick run-through of the soldiers in the unit: one of them’s got a fiancée waiting, another’s a bit of a coward, etc. Their leader, Lt. Iba (none other than Sonny Chiba), has long been frustrated by the fact that while Japan outfits and trains an army, it doesn’t go through the extra trouble of actually giving them a war to fight. One afternoon while they’re on the beach, a strange cosmic phenomenon sweeps over them, and they’re sucked back in time, along with a helicopter and a patrol boat. They’re confused, but they figure out their conundrum in fairly short order (maybe a little too fast, if you ask me, but what the heck).
Lt. Iba and General Kagetora at first eye each other with suspicion, then join forces to win the throne.
It isn’t too much longer before they’re set upon by a division of samurai troops, under the command of General Kagetora, a challenger to the throne of Japan. He’s absolutely fascinated by Iba’s “flying metal boxes”, and there’s a great scene where he clambers all over a mounted machine gun and cackles like a little child who’s discovered a whole roomful of new toys. Iba idolizes him, but only inasmuch as he admires Kagetora’s warrior code: he’ll ally himself with the general just long enough to get a shot at the throne himself.
The other soldiers have mixed feelings about all of this. Those who have ties back home (like the one with a fiancée) would rather try and see if it’s possible to jump back into the time stream and maybe get swept forward to the present once more. A few decide that life in the Sengoku period isn’t so bad; there’s a very sweet scene where one of the soldiers decides to put down his gun and be “big brother” to a bunch of orphaned children. Other soldiers are not nearly so nice; three of them kidnap a bunch of local women and enslave them for sex on board the PT boat, figuring no one else around them would do any better. This leads to one of the best action scenes in the film, a three-way combat involving the boat, the helicopter, and a sniper.
The film gets a lot of mileage out of the presence of modern weapons in an ancient battlefield,
although not always in the ways you'd expect.
The second half of the movie is essentially a giant battle scene, with Iba and his men charging into combat against what appear to be literally thousands of enemy soldiers. It’s spectacularly shot and directed (Chiba was also the movie’s fight coordinator), and has the freedom of movement and exuberance that I’ve come to expect from the very best films of this kind from Japan. At first I though Kinji Fukasaku had directed — Sengoku has the same wildness of camera, and also many of the same sociological concerns — but it was in fact Kôsei Saitô, who also directed the outlandish Ninja Wars (also for Kadokawa). Kadokawa spared no expense to make this stuff look good, and he was only outdone five years later by himself when he greenlit the amazingly epic-looking but also amazingly boring Heaven and Earth.
What works? The battle scenes, which are terrific, and some of the little details such as the aforementioned soldiers who go native in different ways. My favorite scene by far: Kagetora commits an assassination, and makes his getaway via helicopter. I also liked the final twenty minutes or so, slow as they are, because they bring home the movie’s conceit that not everything we could do to history would be disruptive. But on the bad side, the music’s horribly dated (bad even by Eighties standards), and there’s a lyrical interlude in the middle of the movie involving Iba and Kagetora that borders on being homoerotic; I half-expected the two of them to start smooching in slow-motion.
G.I. Samurai showed up in the USA before as Time Slip, shorn of almost 40 minutes of its running time (most of the details about the period hit the cutting-room floor), dubbed into English, and with a totally different musical score. It was originally derived from a best-seller by Ryo Hanmura (whose book also inspired the film Sadistic City, featuring a soundtrack by John Zorn), and a good many of what I take were the book’s themes have survived intact (i.e., what’s the point of keeping an army if there are no wars left to fight, etc.) even if they haven’t been treated very profoundly. But I doubt there will be much grousing, as a little Sonny Chiba goes a long way.