Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), Japan’s most legendary swordsman, has a strong presence in Japanese pop-culture. His legend has been repeatedly brought to life in manga, novels, television-series, and films. Now, director/choreographer Yûji Shimomura, using a script written by Sion Sono, presents his own experimental take on the legendary swordsman.
The shame that Miyamoto Mushashi (Tak Sakaguchi) brought upon the Yoshioka school of sword-fighting (Yoshioka-ryu) by dishonoring their father, Seijuro, and killing his successor, Seijuro’s brother Denshiro, must be avenged. Knowing that Miyamoto Mushashi will target the new head of the family Matashichiro (Kousei Kimura) next, they decide to use the boy as bait to draw Mushashi out into the open, so the Yoshioka retainers can ambush the solitary swordsman and kill him.
Crazy Samurai Musashi is as much a throwback to pre-war samurai cinema, like Masahiro Makino’s Ronin-gai 1 (1928), as it is a one-take experiment that delivers one of the most magnificent and challenging physical performances in the history of Japanese filmmaking. That being said, Crazy Samurai Musashi does not really have the dance-like qualities of samurai movies of the past, but features a more down-to-earth and visceral approach to its sword-fighting action, much more in line with Musashi’s principle that technique is not to show off but to cutting down one’s opponent down in the most efficient way possible.
Yûji Shimomura’s narrative beautifully visualizes the main principle of Musashi’s way of the sword – efficiency over showing off, but also succeeds in evoking three other elements of Musashi’s legend. The first element concerns his ‘seme’, his fighting energy, i.e. the psychological pressure that a swordsman subjects his opponent to by his mere presence. It is not only spoken about by some of the Yoshioka retainers – the fear his face/gaze instills – but also visually represented before and during the fighting-sequence (Narra-note 1).
The second element featured in the narrative is his use of what some would call ‘cheap dirty tricks’. For Musashi, who strove to master strategy, doing things, like being late and ambushing opponents, where mere ways to manipulate mind of his opponent – a true master of the sword is also a master of his own mind,
The third element concerns the nitōjutsu sword-style. As consensus goes, he ‘invented’ this style of fighting on the fly while defending himself and fighting off the force the Yoshioka family had assembled. But here, Yûji Shimomura’s narrative seemingly takes some liberties and even deviates from common samurai iconography. In Crazy Samurai Musashi, Musashi is only armed with a single katana – where is the wakizashi? – and suddenly wields, in order to defend himself and to attack, with two katana’s and not, in accordance with Musashi’s teachings, with a katana and a wakizashi.
While Crazy Samurai Musashi visualizes some of Musashi’s fighting philosophy, the narrative is a dramatized account of an event that either took place – according to the Nitenki, a historical record written by a student of Miyamoto Musashi – or did not take place – according to the Yoshioka-den, an official record penned down by Michisuke Fukuzumi. The latter historical record states that Musashi, for his first duel, did not face Seijuro, but Yoshioka Naotsuna and that rather than breaking someone’s arm, he suffered a severe head injury. Musashi, as the record recounts, requested another duel, this time with Naoshige, but he failed to show up.
Crazy Samurai Musashi features a pleasing rhythm of violence, dynamically alternating moments of waiting with sudden bursts of sword-violence. There is, in other words, a rhythmical balance between awaiting an attacking move from his opponent and turning such attacking move into an another moment of waiting (defense) or into a precise and fast swishing response decimating one or several of his opponents (Narra-note 2). Many of Musashi’s devastating attacks are born from this tactical use of waiting, a tactic enabling him to use the movement and the momentum of his opponent to open his defense and cut him down. This pulsating rhythm is furthermore enriched by more inventive takedowns and pleasing one-on-one stand-offs, for example with Nanpo Yoichibei (-), Shishido Baiken (Akihiko Sai), Ueda Rhohei (Kazuto Nakamura), … etc.
What makes the rhythmical sword-fighting action so thrilling and visceral is the narrative’s extra-ordinary sound-design and fitting musical accompaniment. Yûji Shimomura fully understands that the visual dimension of the action-choreography can only become impressive, can only attain its power to impress, by way of its accompanying sound and music design. In other words, without pleasing sounds of clashing swords, metal hitting flesh, and spurting of (fake) blood, and the accompanying music the well-choreographed action-sequence would not have been able to become so awe-inspiring (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2).
Tak Sakaguchi’s performance is simply wonderful. Yet, it is not his acting as such that is noteworthy, but his physical presence and skill. It is, in truth, through his physical presence – by suffering more and more and by becoming increasingly exhausted – that Sakaguchi is able to portray or, in better words, to embody the legend of Musashi in a realistic and spectacular way and, as any great (old-school) action-film performance does, stir the imagination of the spectator. And Yûji Shimomura, he is able to show off his compositional skills, reaffirming Sakaguchi’s skill and presence and empower the impact of violence, with a sharply edited visceral finale.
Crazy Samurai Musashi is a great old-school samurai action film. What Yûji Shimomura and Tak Sakaguchi show in a very convincing way is that what truly stirs the imagination of the spectator is not shining special effects, but true skill and the physicality of the actor’s presence. Nevertheless, the 77-minute-long one-take experiment might be too exhausting for many spectators, especially if those spectators who are accustomed to flashier Hollywoodian compositions.
Narra-note 1: The mere event of one of the retainers running away while yelling that a demon (oni) is coming and that he does not want to die vividly evokes Musashi’s powerful presence (seme).
Narra-note 2: We should also note that Musashi often teases his opponents with faints, faux attacks, or swift deadly moves. In many cases, when Musashi leaves his waiting stance before his opponent’s attack, he does so to entice his opponents into attacking him or to open their defense so he can swiftly defeat them with a deadly strike.
Cine-note 1: The blood spurts are, for those who are wondering, added during the editing process. As a result, the natural lightning often unintentionally emphasizes the ‘fakeness’ of these blood spurts. The rain-effect, at the end, seems to be a combination between a practical effect and effect added at the editing board.
Cine-note 2: Attentive spectators will notice that many actors repeatedly come back (to life) in order to be sliced down multiple times by Sakaguchi. That, some might say, is a hallmark of a good spaghetti Western.