Crazy Samurai Musashi

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/21/20 05:15:51

"Saves the cutting for the other samurai rather than the editing room."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENING AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It probably won't be too long before someone teaches an entire course on action cinema using just "Crazy Samurai Musashi"; though there is some extra material on either side, roughly 80% of this is a single shot of a single samurai taking on a veritable army. It's not perfect - folks taking that hypothetical course will likely learn a whole lot about how editing and coverage can be pretty useful - but it's a fairly amazing achievement and a must-see-it-at-least-once for fans of the genre.

It opens, more or less, with a child watching a butterfly; Matashichiro is the heir to the Yoshioka clan and it is technically his right to challenge Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi) to a duel to avenge the killing of a fallen comrade. Neither he nor his grandfather will actually fight Musashi, of course; there are over a hundred samurai loyal to the clan and 300 mercenaries hiding in the woods around the compound, prepared to swarm on him should he get too close.

They may almost be enough.

Star Tak Sakaguchi and director Yuji Shimomura both got their starts working with Ryuhei Kitamura on Versus (Tak starred and Shinomura choreographed the action), part of a group of young filmmakers who had incredible amounts of enthusiasm, imagination, and style but who by and large never really figured out storytelling beyond the high concept or the ins and outs of studio filmmaking. By all appearances, Crazy Samurai Musashi seems to have taken this idea to its logical extreme, with the big 77-minute fight shot around seven years ago - Sion Sono is listed as writing the "original story", so right around when Sakaguchi was choreographing the action for Tokyo Tribe - with the segments on either end either clearly featuring an older Musashi or trying to keep him in the shadows. They came up with the fight, did an impressive job of shooting it, and then took years to scrape together the bare minimum amount of material to make an actual movie out of it - and even then, it doesn't quite fit, as Sakaguchi plays Musashi as kind of put-upon and righteous during the fight but the material around it portrays him as more an unrepentant killer.

If they're going to do that one thing more than anything else, at least they prove pretty darn good at it. Though they maybe tease how this sort of movie often has hidden cuts a minute or so into the action as someone backs into the camera to create a second of black, that's the last time, and what comes after that is some impressive work. Musashi moves around and the camera does a fair job following him through a series of mostly-open but occasionally tight environments, and though there's obviously not a lot of editing, Shimomura and company do a good job of building a little down-time in so that both Sakaguchi and the audience can catch their breath - I'm not sure whether it's more just plain smart or a clever meta-joke that Musashi has apparently dropped spare water bottles and katanas around the village beforehand so that he can hydrate and replace a blade that has gone dull from cleaving so many skulls during his retreat. On a more granular level, the filmmakers are conscious of the whole screen, so that you can see samurai trying to get in a good position in the background, or how they're herding Musashi into a position where his back is to a wall. There are lots of fun little moments where one can see a dozen ronin ready to strike but also not wanting to twitch too far in that direction lest Musashi focus his attention and sword on them. Moment to moment, there are a lot of great samurai swordfight bits, the sort where one appreciates that this sort of swordplay is about seeing a momentary opening and making a quick, decisive slash, and the choreography is solid enough that Sakaguchi and his colleagues can pull off some really nifty moves on a regular basis.

Of course, there are trade-offs for the amazing single shot, and the big one is that they don't actually have 400 stuntmen, so you are likely to see a lot of people being slashed at, staggering off the screen, and likely either quickly changing costume or counting on audiences to not really look too closely at the guys who don't announce their names. A lot of times a slash to the leg will look like it's just as fatal as one of those really nasty slices across the gut, and Musashi's go-to move of bringing his sword right down on the top of the head takes a while to register as fatal rather than a knock-out. The camerawork is fairly strong for the constraints they are operating under, but winds up spending a lot of time behind Sakaguchi in the early going, tracking him in a way that brings video games to mind more than cinema, although this may be somewhat intentional, keeping him mysterious for a while, akin to how the blood spatter increases and maybe gets a bit more of a CGI assist as the film goes on. For all that the long take impresses with just how many moves Sakaguchi and the rest of the cast are executing in sequence and without error, the action beats before and after the big fight make good enough use of Shinomura and his crew being able to set up for one specific shot and cut those shots together in a more aggressive fashion that it highlights how the other way isn't always the best.

It is a bit of a gimmick, after all, but one executed well enough that it's worth seeing at least once, maybe more if one becomes genuinely curious about how all of it got pulled off. This crew still hasn't really made a great movie yet, but they are extremely good at the pieces which are their specialties.

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