All countries have their perennial movie subjects. Western viewers get treated to new cinematic versions of Dickens and Shakespeare every few years, and Japan has had no less than three movie adaptations of the immensely popular pulp-fantasy novel Makai Tensho (known variously in English as Samurai Reincarnation, Samurai Resurrection, or Darkside Reborn). The first one, a Japanese pop-culture staple, starred the inimitable Sonny Chiba and was directed by Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku; the second one was a dreadful direct-to-video product that wasn’t even worth slamming. This version, released in 2003 under the banner of the Kadokawa media empire, isn’t quite as gleefully wild as the first but it sports better graphics and hardware (so to speak) and is still fairly fun to watch.
Makai Tensho takes inspiration from an actual historical personage, Christian rebel Amakusa Shiro Tokusada (Yōsuke Kubozuka, of Ping Pong), who stood off against the Shogunate in 1638 along with his army of thousands of loyalists. The movie opens with the final siege against his stronghold in progress, a massive battle scene with hundreds of extras and full-scale sets that’s over way too soon. Shiro is beheaded by his enemies, but not before making a pact with the underworld to rise again as a demonic incarnation of revenge. With him come several other figures from Japanese history, including another Christian martyr, the Lady Hosokawa (Clara Oshina), whose seductiveness takes over where Shiro’s powers to raise the dead leave off.
And raise the dead he does. As in the original film, he digs into the underworld and comes up with a few key undead allies—among them none other than famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Kyozo Nagatsuka), and warrior-monk Hozoin Inshun (Arata Furuta of Zebraman). Their “rebirth from hell” has given them supernatural strength, and they have a nasty tendency to not die when you skewer them in the stomach or hack off their arms. The only one who stands in their way is ninja leader Yagyu Jubei (Koichi Sato of When the Last Sword is Drawn), complete with furry topknot but without his signature missing eye—at least at first. Even worse, his own father, a key figure in the Shogunate, is eventually turned into part of Shiro’s army and sent after his son.
The best way I can describe Makai Tensho as a whole is that it often seems underpowered, like they held back a little too much for their own good. The downtime between action scenes is dialed so far down it almost disappears. The acting’s far from bad, though—it’s well-directed and –modulated, and Sato makes an enjoyable and surprisingly sympathetic Jubei. But the talk just isn’t as compelling as the action, even if it’s all relatively focused. Consequently, Shiro doesn’t seem to spend much time actually doing evil. In the original, he created blights that destroyed the crops and wreaked havoc left and right; this time around, he stands around and pontificates a lot about why it’s a bad idea to resist him. Not very compelling.
Another important difference from the original I can attribute to Fukasaku’s gifts as a director: He injected some interesting and well-placed social commentary into the first film and disguised it as historical detail. When Shiro sends the aforementioned blight to destroy the year’s crop harvest, there’s scenes of peasant unrest and rebellion that create a ready-made army for Shiro to rally to his side. In this version, that element is gone, and it makes things seem strangely less urgent: we don’t feel like Japan is being threatened, just the Shogunate. Again, not as compelling, and far less impactful.
The original film’s visual effects weren’t exactly the greatest, but they had a cheesy fun to them. This time around, there’s CGI aplenty, but of widely varying quality. Some Blade-like disintegration effects already look dated, but I loved the way Shiro makes his grand re-entrance—he descends from the skies like an avenging angel (complete with wings!), holding the dead body of a heron the Emperor just shot. (And as he touches down, the heron comes back to life and flies off. Inspired.) Most of the fighting is also well-done, especially an eye-popping final confrontation between Jubei and Shiro, but Fukasaku’s movie just seemed to have more momentum to it: the camera always seemed to be moving along with the actors, not just nailed into place and watching them. (Owls' Castle was particularly bad in this respect.)
I am a fan of Japanese popular culture for many reasons. One of the largest is that it’s an extension of existing Japanese culture—in fact, I got into J-pop culture and anime after I had a general interest in Japan—and it’s always fascinating to see how they treat their own heritage: Gojoe, Shogun’s Samurai, the original Makai Tensho, Lady Snowblood, Satomi Hakkenden. Sometimes it’s pulp fantasy, sometimes it’s quasi-realistic, sometimes it’s entirely unique. This time around, it seems like they couldn’t commit to making either a wild fantasy or straightforward drama, but the pieces of each are pretty good.
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