I have no shame. I admit it, openly and proudly: Tak Sakaguchi is excuse enough for me to see any movie. After Versus and Death Trance and Battlefield Baseball and all the rest of the stuff he’s been in, having his name on a production draws me to it the way other people pick up the Merry Gentry novels. They’re delicious cinematic junk food: probably not good for me, but oh so good to me.
Samurai School, Sakaguchi’s first outing as both director and actor, is also junk food — but not quite as good to me (and a good deal not as good for me) as Trance, Versus, etc. For about half the time, though, it’s funny and witty and snide, a great skewering of the goofus manlier-than-manly / never-say-die shōnen manga philosophy. Then the second half succumbs to the very clichés it was making fun of. If we go by the junk-food analogy, the first half is dinner at White Castle and the second half is next day’s tummyaches. That said, at least the movie succumbs in style and give us a fun ride on the way down.
The school of the title is a long-honored academy somewhere in Tokyo where only the manliest of the manly need apply, and only the manliest of those manly come out the other side. The graduates wield skills like splitting rocks in half with bamboo swords; the lower-classmen have to do three thousand push-ups before breakfast and endure hazing initiations that look like the stuff Blackwater rejected as too rough for Guantanamo.
Into these hallowed halls of mayhem come a slew of new students: Sakaguchi’s Momotaro, with enough cool to ice over a whole gymnasium floor; and the sniveling Hidemaro, the son of a wealthy family at the end of its bloodline. Hidemaro’s only there because the only thing he’s more scared of than the brutal drill instructors is Mom, and Momotaro seems to be there mostly to kick butt and run out of bubblegum. The two of them are more or less instantly in trouble with both the school’s administration and the other students; at one point they end up in a nasty solitary-confinement cell that combines the worst aspects of both the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag.
Aside from Hidemaro’s ongoing manliness testing, another plot of sorts comes together — a cadre of ex-students who now seek to take the school back from its current masters. This they eventually do by staging a competition between themselves and, you guessed it, Momotaro and his buddies. This is where the movie’s satirical distance between itself and its material magically contracts to the width of a paper cut. The guts-and-balls stuff stops being fodder for humor and starts becoming — gasp — the very substance of the story. That leads to one of those quasi-cop-out endings where no one really wins or loses, but it was all about how you played the game! All set against (what else?) a giant panorama of Mount Fuji. Sigh.
Still, they do manage to slip some more tongue-in-cheek jabs about it our way, as when Momotaro has to single-handedly raise a flagpole with nothing more than sheer masculine willpower. It’s a very, very phallic flagpole. The more amusing material is still earlier on, though, when the students face masculinity tests that revolve around everything from their choice of underwear to how long they can stand being boiled in oil, all explained by a narrator who sounds entirely too enthusiastic about this material.
The absolute best stuff in School is still when Sakaguchi gets to cut loose and demonstrate why he was fun to watch elsewhere. He gets a lot of mileage out of that don’t-give-a-damn pout of his, and the school uniforms he gets to wear are even more badass than the duster he wore in Versus. Yes, that counts for something in a movie like this.