Legend of Eight Samurai (Review)

Legend of Eight Samurai

aka Satomi hakken-den

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku

A classic Japanese tale gets a reworking and then is dubbed and imported into America. Like many Asian epics, there are a lot of characters and a complicated plot, which is made more confusing with the bad dubbing. Even worse, this is an adaptation of an epic tale that is condensed into a film so huge chunks of back story are either disregarded or glossed over in less than a sentence. Any movie boasting giant centipedes is worth a look. Unfortunately, the 80’s soundtrack does a wonderful job of dating the film, despite it being a period piece. Originally I thought that the songs were added by the American importers, but with the release of the Japanese language original since I originally wrote this review over a year ago, it has become known that the songs where already added in the original version. It’s a deadly blow, imagine the worst of hair bands and love ballads, more deadly than any martial art. The film loses some of the fun factor as the emotion turns to hating the soundtrack. This version of Legend of Eight Samurai that we are recapping is the full screen original American dub, one day we will try to get a hold of the Japanese widescreen version for comparison.

The story is a Japanese mythology that originated in China (like many things Japanese, including the Japanese writing scripts (the kanas are simplified versions of the kanji they “borrowed” from China.) The story of a princess, the last of her clan, given eight warriors to protect her, selected without their knowledge. Magic crystals are found by those selected, the crystals created by a dog (thus giving the story its name:Hakkenden or “Dog Warriors.”) Each crystal has a different Confucian virtue, which is only used in this film as the kanji symbol on each crystal (we have gone through the trouble of translating each one.) Takizawa Okikuni (also known as Kyokutei Bakin or Takizawa Bakin) created the version used in this film from 1814 to 1842 (Edo era) a 106 volume story called Nanso Satomi Hakkenden that took 28 years to complete. Almost as long as the Wheel of Time series is taking. The serial was then updated in 1982 by Toshio Kamata in a novel called Shin Satomi Hakkenden. Many of the stars are part of the Japanese Action Squad, a group founded by Sonny Chiba that practiced martial arts and seemed to star in many movies together. In fact, they previously starred in a futuristic version of this very same tale called Message From Space over here (Uchu kara no messeji in Japan) that even featured the same director!

These are the eight who have Confucian Virtue Jewels:

Daikaku (Minori Terada) – (Gi – Duty or Justice.) Loyal sidekick to Dosetsu, hides Princess Shizu at his mother’s house, only to find his mother has been replaced. Killed in the final battle.
Dosetsu (Sonny Chiba) – (Chuu – Loyalty.)Sonny Chiba gained massive fame from the original Streetfighter film, and had a long career before and after, with many ups and downs. His recent inclusion in the first Kill Bill rocketed him back to fame, and lead to many of his films being released again in better editions. Has been seen here before in Sister Streetfighter, which also stars another of this movie’s actors. Killed in the final battle.
Shino (Masaki Kyomoto) – Brother of his sister (well, duh!) who just happens to be in love with his sister (not blood sister) but as she is getting married it is impossible for him. Until her groom-to-be is killed, but then their forbidden love results in her death and his revenge upon his family. Eventually given a crystal and ends up dead in the final battle. (Kou – Filial devotion/piety.) Played Ryo in Cutie Honey.
Female Assassin Keno (Etsuko Shiomi) – An assassin who disrupts Shino’s sister’s wedding in order to kill the groom. Eventually gets a crystal as well. (Rei – Knowledge traditional/proper form. I think they may have altered her kanji character.) Killed in the final battle by a killer who was hounding her the entire movie. Etsuko Shiomi became famous after the Sister Streetfighter films, and was Japan’s only all-around female action star. She retired after marrying singer Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi and now runs marathons under her married name, refusing interviews about her action star career.
Soldier (Kenji Oba?) – A servent of the demons who kills for them, before given a crystal because of his disgust for what he is forced to do. Killed in the final battle. I believe the soldier is played by Kenji Oba (who is credited as Genpachi in the credits.) Kenji Oba was another Japanese Action Club member who also starred in Kill Bill recently. (Shin – Faith.)
Kid (??) – Some kid who lives in a cave with a Big Dude. He gets a crystal, making him awfully close to Kenny territory. Luckily he doesn’t say or do much at all. Killed in the final battle. (Chi – Wisdom.)
Big Dude (??) – A Big Dude who lives in a cave, where there is also a kid. Both he and the Kid are basically tacked on and don’t do much. Not much except die in the final battle. (Tei – Brotherly affection.)
Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada) – Shinbei is a punk kid who goes around pretending he is a swashbuckler until he finds out the Princess has a reward on her head, then tries to capture her repeatedly. Eventually forced to be evil, then gets his own crystal after he dies but returns to life and has sex with Princess Shizu. You’ve heard of STD? Well, that was STC, Sexually Transmitted Crystal! Not killed in the final battle. (Jin – Sympathy, inclusive of all virtues. Jin is the top virtue in Confucianism, thus the main hero gets it.)

These people have no jewels. Pity them for their jewelessness or something. I call them “neutered castmates”

Princess Shizu (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – The lamest, most spoiled princess to headline a movie and not get one of those lame “learned a lesson about the common people” plots. She doesn’t seem to learn much, and hundreds die to protect her sorry butt. She even gets her own prophesy conclusion despite not being worth protecting from a garbage strike. Only a good leader because the alternative is an evil witch who bathes in blood. Looks like I’d be voting Green Party that year…
Queen Tamazuma (Mari Natsuki) – Evil witch queen, bathes in blood to remain young and beautiful. Wants to destroy all her enemies, except the stupid Princess Shizu won’t die. Killed during the final fight. Mari Natsuki is a famous singer who is still making records today in Japan.
Motofuji (Yuki Meguro) – Queen Tamazuma’s son, his face is incomplete so he takes skin off of unwilling donors. Sort of like a lame Darth Vader. Killed during the final battle
Fugasi (???) – Old Witch Woman who stirs up a lot of trouble but ends up getting killed like all the rest of the bad guys. Probably because she turned into a giant centipede instead of doing something useful. Her name is similar to a former rock band’s.
Lover (???) – Lover, will you be my lover, lover? They never said this guy’s name, but he is the guy who is some sort of obsessed follower of Female Assassin Keno, so we’ll just call him Lover or whatever we feel like at the time. If this movie wasn’t so confusing, I’d be confused. Dies at the same time as Keno, despite not explaining adequately why those two are linked!

So let’s begin…

In olden Japan, soldiers convene as their leaders, the evil Tamazusa and her son Motofuji, are inspecting the collected heads of their enemies, the Satomi clan. But one head is missing, that of Princess Shizu. Tamazusa and Motofuji return to their secret lair regardless, the place where Motofuji was born 100 years ago, and they give a potion made from the blood of the slain Satomi Clan members to the Eternal Spirit.

Final victim Princess Shizu is on her way to her uncle’s castle but is acting stubborn. Her two companions, an old man named Ji and a lady, are trying to hurry her along to escape Motofuji’s soldiers. But her delays make it too late; the soldiers arrive, kill Ji, and capture the other lady believing she is the Princess. Returned to the secret lair, Motofuji is preparing to remove part of the face of the “Princess” to finish restoring his own face, but the ruse is discovered by a crazy old witch woman. Ah, crazy old witch women, what epic fantasy movies WON’T you be in? This one doesn’t babble on about “the painted man” thank God, but probably would were this made after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Meanwhile…a guy named Shinbei is harassing a town demanding a girl. The townspeople just ignore him, and the girl’s father just prattles on about Shinbei robbing the dead and continues working, so Shinbei sulks off in shame. Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen! He notices the Princess scrounging for food, and though she is disguised as a boy, he sees through the ruse. So does the audience, I even didn’t know she was supposed to be disguised as a boy until he said she was. Before he can make her explain what she is doing, two men show up to protect her. One of them is Dosetsu (Sonny Chiba!!!) and the other is Daikaku (Not Sonny Chiba!!!). Shinbei overhears the pair mention there is a reward offered for the Princess and decides he will capture her for the money. Dosetsu shows the Princess scrolls detailing why her clan is at war with the other clan. The story also includes a Princess being married to a dog (???), and soldiers that are jealous of the dog (???????) and try to kill it, but the princess shields it and dies herself. We get the killer line about “the princess gave herself to the dog.” Oh, Japan, you silly goose! Eight crystals emerge from her body, and the crystals exist to mark 8 people who will be born 100 years later to protect a new princess. This new princess is our Princess Shizu, and Dosetsu and Daikako are two of the eight, they were born with the crystals in their hands, and six more chosen ones are around somewhere. That’s great, but how do we know all this crystal nonsense? The princess was dead when the crystals exited, and the guards were far away shooting arrows. Did the dog tell someone? Was he some sort of smart talking dog, possible voiced by Seth MacFarlane or Chevy Chase? Dosetsu is also fatally ill and will be dead in a month. It’s a good thing the action is happening now, or else we’d have a zombie movie in addition to everything else going on here.

We jump to what looks like a totally different Japanese period movie, a guy named Shino has a sister who is being married to a magistrate. Shino looks so much like a Vulcan I thought he’d start remarking “fascinating” every ten seconds, but sadly, that is not the case. During the wedding party, a snake attacks, and one of the dancing ladies kills the magistrate. She’s Female Assassin Keno and is played by Etsuko Shiomi. Shino’s sister is happy, since she is in love with Shino (they aren’t blood related, apparently), but she is then killed by her uncle for her love (D’oh!). Shino flips out and kills his whole family. While the slaughter is happening, cherry blossom petals fly through the air, but instead of making the sequence more beautiful like in Female Prisoner Scorpion movies or Hero, instead they interfere and are very distracting, and are a noticeable change from the normally good cinematography of this film. We find out the DVD company didn’t just add a random reel of another film when Shino then finds one of the six remaining crystals. An old guy who works for Fujimoto steals Shino’s sister’s body, hopefully not because he’s into dead chicks.

An assistant to Motofuji starts hitting on Etsuko Shiomi, but she also has one of the crystals. Shinbei is playing Tarzan, swinging on vines, and Tamazusa appears, startling him and insinuating that he is her son. Both Etsuko Shiomi and Shino meet at a shrine and start to fight, but the shrine also is where Dosetsu has brought the Princess, and where Daikaku lives with his mother. But his mother has been replaced by Crazy Old Witch Woman, who we find out is called Fugasi. Anyway, she rips off her face and becomes a giant centipede attacking the Princess. The centipede is dispatched by Shino, Etsuko Shiomi, Daikaku, and Dosuto. They also score bonus points for each mushroom they’ve damaged, and one of them killed the spider and got high score! Please insert 25 cents. Princess Shizo touches their four crystals, and this injures Fujimoto and Tamazusa. Tamazusa bathes in a formula of blood and becomes young again (and we see some naughty bits!) The old man who stole Shino’s sister’s body has reanimated her and some other young women, and made them entirely poisonous. We know this because they breathe on a butterfly, killing it. But to be fair, butterflies deserve, flapping their wings, causing air vibrations that make hurricanes on the other side of the world. Stupid butterflies, your days of terror are numbered!

Shinbei grabs the Princess from her protectors, and on the way to claim his reward they pass through a city that hid the Princess the previous night, now it is destroyed and everyone slaughtered. While hiding, they see some soldiers running down children, and one of the soldiers suddenly gets one of the crystals. So to recap who has crystals so far: an almost dead Sonny Chiba, a Mama’s boy, an incest-craving family slaughterer, an assassin, and a child-slaying soldier. These people are chosen to protect the honor of a family where their daughter married and slept with a dog. Let the good times roll! Princess Shizu vows that no one else will die for her (a little late now!) and heads to the castle, but a mob appears wanting her head for the reward money. Shinbei protects her and they hide in a cave full of crazed people who the Princess soothes by playing a flute. The mob will not enter for the cave is cursed. It also contains two more of the people with crystals, a young kid and a big dude. That’s the entire story we’ll get on those two. The previous four crystal-havers also show up, and they decide to get rid of Shinbei since he doesn’t have a crystal. When they leave, they notice Shinbei following them, and Dosotsu orders him killed, unbeknownst to Princess Shizu who has taken a liking to him. Shinbei falls off the side of a cliff before he can be killed, and is captured by Motofuji’s men. It is then revealed that he is the son of Tamazusa (reincarnated, I believe, but it was not that clear). Shinbei rejects the truth, just like Luke, but is stabbed by Motofuji instead of getting his hand chopped off and jumping down a huge abyss in Cloud City. Motofuji orders his skin and blood replaced, but the soldier with a crystal steals Shinbei’s body and returns it to where the others are. Shinbei rises from the dead and tries to kill the Princess, falsely believing she ordered his death.

Shinbei is struck by lightning and is killed/reborn, and now has the eighth crystal in his hand, and a mark showing he was the son of Tamazusa vanishes. Within seconds he and Princess Shizu start getting their groove thing on and make love right there in the middle of the canyon. I guess the other seven people go somewhere else for a while, that’s not really explained, or maybe Princess Shizu gets off on public sex, especially to people who have been recently killed and struck by lightning. So this Princess is a freak like the one that fell in love with the dog she married. Excellent that there are no females in this movie that aren’t horribly screwed up somehow. The sex scene is very long for being so un-graphic (dang it!) and runs to the beat of one of the worst 80’s songs I have ever heard. It is bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad.

GIANT SNAKE ATTACK!!!!!!!!! The giant snake steals the Princess, and all the bad guy characters are on a nearby cliff laughing, and then they vanish. Were they also watching the Princess get it on? My Magic Eight Ball says “All signs point to YES.” Also, this reminds me of Jabba’s henchmen laughing at Han and Leia in Return of the Jedi, because I needed to make a Star Wars reference. The eight heroes, who I guess are the Eight Samurai despite the fact they are never called that and sometimes are called ninjas, put their magic crystals onto the foreheads of some statues, and receive a special bow that only the Princess can use to kill Tamazusa. (Thank goodness they haven’t let her be captured…Oh, wait.)

Final Battle Time, as the next bad 80’s pop/synth/crap song indicates. Motofuji is interrupted in stealing the Princess’s skin by the arrival of Our Heroes (probably alerted to their coming by the bad song.) The Giant Snake returns and separates Etsuko Shiomi so she is in a duel with the Assistant Guy who was keen on her. The Soldier Crystal Guy is killed by arrows, and the Cave Crystal Guys are turned into stone holding up a rock (you read that correctly.) Etsuko Shiomi the Assassin and the Assistant kill each other very overdramatically. At least the longer death scenes allow us more Etsuko Shiomi screen time. The Poison Women now enter, including Shino’s sister, they all get sliced up, and Shino’s sister and Shino also die in another very overdramatic death. Then everyone remaining but Shinbei ends up getting offed (even Sonny Chiba!!!) so he alone grabs the Princess and prepares to fight Motofuji and Tamazusa. While dueling Motofuji, Shinbei ends up stabbing him with the bow (bet he didn’t see THAT coming.) Tamazusa begins acting all drama queen instead of evil queen, so Princess Shizu aims the bow at the Evil Spirit, and Tamazusa jumps in front of the arrow, which kills her and makes her crash into the Evil Spirit, destroying it. This sets off the self-destruct button for the Secret Lair that all secret lairs have that when the boss is destroyed. We’ve all played Nintendo and know the score. The building explodes, so Shinbei and Shizu run out, and are fast enough to escape being buried under all the rubble.

Shinbei delivers Shizu to her uncle and then leaves to bury the others who died (since their bodies are burnt corpses lying under huge rocks in a destroyed underground lair, I wonder how, if ever, he dug them up.) After he sets up the tombstones, the ghosts of the dead start talking encouraging him to find happiness, though this is a sign of schizophrenia. Shizu has run away from her uncle looking for Shinbei, and the two meet and ride off together to the tune of the horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible horrible song that played during their public sex scene. Did I mention the song was horrible? It was. So horrible… The Ever-Loving End. The director Kinji Fukasaku went on to do Battle Royale and also made Battle Royale 2, which was so bad it killed him. His son finished up, and eventually directed Yo-Yo Girl Cop. As this movie was not good enough to justify seeking out a copy of the widescreen Japanese version, I will just passively look for it when out and about, who knows what other gold I will find when out stumbling around. I might even find another movie where a bunch of losers fight to save the honor of relatives of a princess married to a dog!

Rated 5/10 (Heads x2, Only Nixon could go to ancient Japan, Centipede x2)

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