Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation
Title: Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation
Genre: Action, Horror
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Kenji Sawada, Akiko Kana
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
I don't think I'd read the back of the box before I realised this was one that was needed for my collection. I had never even heard of the film but this schizophrenic “Lone Wolf and Cub meets Versus” style of action surely deserves to be better known; the same director who would go on to give us Battle Royale, meeting up with Sonny Chiba (The Street Fighter, Hattori Hanzo) and pitting him against Tomisaburo Wakayama (Lone Wolf and Cub), but this monolithic battle of Japanese samurai stars isn't the highlight of the film. Violent as only a film based on manga could be, the multiple interweaving story arcs and character motivations make this so much more than a simple story of revenge but a multi-layered tale of retribution.
Following the massacre of the Christian uprising against the Shogunate, Shiro Amakusa (Sawada), the leader of the Christian forces, is mysteriously resurrected as a devil by black magic so as to be able to exact his bloody revenge. Knowing the gravity of the task he must undertake, he seeks out out souls filled with regret at the end of their lives, wishing to reincarnate them as devils like himself so as to allow them to fulfil their desires and fulfil his own in the process. Beginning with Lady Hosokawa; a woman long since deceased and gone mad in the bowels of hell, tortured with the knowledge that the then shogun, her husband, allowed her to die and that God refused to hear her plea that she should die at the same time as her husband, she seduces the Shogun into being with her, clouding his judgement regarding the running of the country. There is another enemy to be faced however; Master Yagyu (Wakayama), the swordsmaster and his son Jubei (Chiba) will surely protect the sanctity of the Shogunate, and thus Musashi is resurrected, wishing only to defeat them and prove himself as the greatest living swordsman. Taking pity on Kirimaru, the last survivor of his village following a raid, he too is brought to the party, given the opportunity to exact his own blood revenge against the man responsible.
Despite the two well known stars, the show is stolen by the two leads in Sawada and Kana as the Christian leader and the delightfully insane Noble Lady. If not the most proficient swordsmen - this duty is left to the samurai masters - their presence always lends an omniscient touch to the proceedings; Amakusa is not as much a warrior as he a devious fabricator of diabolical schemes, charismatically manipulating those around him into unwittingly doing his bidding; and Lady Hosokawa's insanity lending an unrelenting unpredictability as she cackles and runs about like some sort of Japanese “Ophelia” (Hamlet) character. The costume designs on both characters are constructed so carefully that they become instantly recognisable whenever they arrive on screen (which is not to say the rest of the costumes feel lacking) and the backing music feels decisively more rock than other contemporaries, creating a powerful sense of aggression to contrast the more traditional Japanese overtones. The backdrops are no less the more fitting either, providing constant variation and using beautiful on-screen locations to maintain that grandiose feel of titans colliding.
It's two hours long but still feels cut short. There is so much on offer with the multiple devils and their own destructive desires that their past never fully gets explored, only the most basic of explanations for their motivations left on offer despite the near hour devoted to establishing the characters. Each back story feels like it could form the best part of a film unto itself and more must surely have been possible; the epic battle that opens the film and the past of Lady Hosokawa begging for elaboration, not to mention the motivation behind Musashi who at times feels left out of the plot for a greater focus the other characters, and the lack of development for the love story and the inner torment facing Kirimaru as his conscience battles the devil he's become. Even the many battle scenes feel trimmed and less epic as they easily could have been for sake of keeping a palatable run time. But at the end of the day, the fact my only criticism is that it's too short is not much of a criticism at all. Better than the best Lone Wolf and Cub has to offer and quicker paced than Zatoichi: this is one samurai flick that's going to be bloody hard to top.