Fantasia 2020 Review: CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI, We're Going to Need More Samurai!
The Yoshioka clan has taken up a grievance with samurai Miyamoto Musashi and so they attempt to lure him into a deadly trap. Draw him in and the one hundred Yoshioka clan members and hundreds of hired soldiers will surround the famed samurai and end his life. That sounds like a good plan. What can one samurai do against a few hundred soldiers? Turns out, quite a lot.
Japanese action star Tak Sakaguchi, forever in perpetual retirement, reunited with director Yuji Shimomura (Death Trance and Re:Born) for an unprecedented feat, a single take sword fight between one man and a few hundred foot soldiers. Sakaguchi plays the role of the infamous samurai Miyamoto in a movie written by maverick filmmaker Sion Sono though honestly how much writing is required when you are bookending a 77 minute single take sword fight? So there is not so much to say about the story in Crazy Samurai Musashi. One samurai starts a fight with a few hundred soldiers and we are along for the ride.
With not a lot to talk about in regards to story all there is to talk about is the structure and execution. What we have in Crazy Samurai Musashi is a marathon, a marathon of action acting and directing that needs to be seen to be believed. Under normal circumstances a director will set up many shots to get the highest amount of energy of their actors at all times, or, set up long takes to limit the amount of setup time during production. Here, we get that marathon of acting where Sakaguchi goes seventy-seven minutes with nominal breaks written into the sequence so the poor bastard can catch his breath. It is a testament to his strength and perseverance. On the other side of the camera Shimomura and his crew have to stay on top of the action and not get in the way, of the actors or the elements, a feat they almost pull off without a single blemish.
We have to remind ourselves here the goal was just to be able to carry it out. It was already an unbelievable feat, a single-take one on hundreds sword fight. Just getting that done is fucking amazing! The amount of planning and coordination that had to happen must have been daunting. Still… one does not want to be critical when it comes to something this remarkable but I have to call it as I see it. Begrudgingly. Technically, other than accomplishing what should be, for the moment, the longest battle in cinema and tv history, there are going to be some flaws and unmet expectations.
There are moments very early on, as the Sun sets in the West, where you see the silhouette of the camera as it gets too close to the action. Yes, the fighting gets a little repetitive, broken up only by a rest period or the appearance of a Level Boss after every round. Stick around long enough and you start to notice patterns, you begin to recognize certain actors. Sakaguchi and Shimomura use a group of a few dozen stuntmen that rotate in and out of the picture. Make the group look as homogenous as possible and no one should really notice that they’re recycling the team in every wave. Yes, there are not a lot of bodies left in his wake after he's started ‘thwaking’ them on their heads or slashing their stomachs. Ah, there they go, staggering off camera. They must be headed off to go get medical attention. Hint, when the bodies do start to gather on the ground then it's almost time for Musashi to take a break, grab a flask of water he has hidden away in the surrounding village and grab a new sword.
Then you begin to realize certain soldiers are dying in a specific manner. That has to be for sake of Sakaguchi who has already dispatched a hearty few dozen soldiers before you begin to realize the pattern. For his sake it would be good to know, "Ah, here are the guys I can strike on the head, here are the guys I can strike in the leg. Ho ho, here are the guys that come running at me with their bellies exposed!"
And really now. How many waves of foot soldiers does it take before someone realizes, "Hey, whenever we run at Musashi with our swords held above our head he slashes open our bellies. Should we rethink our tactics?" Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. But three waves of soldiers running at him with their swords held high? Well, that's just poor observation skills right there.
Those used to Sakaguchi’s skill set and what he has contributed to action cinema and fight choreography may come away from Crazy Samurai Musashi not completely satisfied. Do not fret because Sakaguchi’s expertise and skills are shown off in the epilogue however; a final scene that is shot and constructed along conventional lines. It is a reminder that he is still one of the best action stars today.
However! We do not think anyone working in action cinema today can pull off extremely well coordinated and detailed fight choreography in a single-take of this unfathomable length. Choreographed action cinema is a series of moves and counter moves, numbering in the hundreds for lengthy, tightly choreographed cinema. This is not that kind of movie. Crazy Samurai Musashi isn't high art, but it is high entertainment. Crazy Samurai Musashi wasn't meant for precision, it was meant for volume. It is something that has never been done before.
There are some great single take dramas and thrillers out there but no one else has committed the time and energy to pull off a full-on action sequence that runs nearly the entire length of the film, in a genre as physically demanding as Chambara can be, in a single take. What else came even close to this accomplishment? The staircase fight scene in Tom Yung Goong (The Protector)? That was better choreographed but that was only four minutes long. Now imagine trying to do that over seventy-seven minutes.
Truly there has to be some kind of record set here. Though 588 confirmed kills is a staggering number that is not the highest body count in a movie. I propose that it is probably the highest body count created by a single person. With a sword. I think. I'd like to think so. All this hard work and nothing but a fun romp to show for it? That would be a shame.
The film page on the Fantasia web site strongly discourages turning Crazy Samurai Musashi into a drinking game. While part of us agrees that it would be an impossible task to complete, it is a surefire way to die of alcohol poisoning before the first wave of fighting is even finished, one cannot help but wonder what the safest way to play one would be. Say, every time there is a level boss? Every time Musashi stops for a drink? Every time Musashi gets a new sword? Every time he takes a swig and spits it on his hands and swords handle? Okay, those last three happen at once but at least the few times he completes that trio it is spread out evenly throughout the film instead of half a dozen head chops faster than you can blink! Can you imagine?
Head! SHOT! Head! SHOT! Head! SHIT! Head! The Hell? Head! Shtop! Head! Please, stoooooop! Head! Mommy!
Crazy Samurai Musashi is an unprecedented accomplishment for action cinema and everyone involved should be satisfied with having pulled it off. No one knew that this was a bar that needed to be held aloft but here we are. Another standard has been set.