• Legend Of The Eight Samurai (Adness) DVD Review

    Released by: Adness
    Released on: February 8th, 2005.
    Director: Kinji Fukasaku
    Cast: Sonny Chiba, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mari Natsuki, Keiko Matsuzaka, Hiroko Yakushimaru
    Year: 1984
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    Legend Of The Eight Samurai – Movie Review:

    Sonny Chiba is something of a god in exploitation flick circles yet he has never attained the respect a Bruce Lee or a Jackie Chan gets without hesitation from the larger pool of film buffs. Perhaps it is due to the fact that his catalog is poorly represented on these shores and his films are usually hacked up and badly dubbed when they do make it here. Thankfully, Adness, in the early 2000s, addressed this problem by releasing properly mastered, unedited Japanese-language versions of his films with subtitles. Often, this basic respect makes all the difference in the world.

    Case in point - The Legend Of The Eight Samurai. This one has had a negligible rep, even among Chiba fans, because it was erratically re-edited and given a spectacularly lame dubbing job. Some of the bad press might also have to do with the fact this isn’t a pure Sonny Chiba vehicle – he has a limited (but important) supporting role in the film’s ensemble. This restored edition is quite entertaining - flawed but not worthy of the out-of-hand rejection it has received over the years.

    The Legend Of The Eight Samurai was inspired by the 100 volume mythology epic Satomi Hakken-Den (the same literary work that also inspired Fukasaku's less entertaining, just plain weird Message From Space). It's got a very complex plot, as you might imagine, so here is the quick, reader-friendly rundown - the Hikita clan was wiped out years ago by the Satomi clan but managed to place a curse upon the Satomi clan before dying. Since then, they have returned as ghosts to bedevil and murder any living Satomi clan member.

    They have succeeded in wiping out everyone except Princess Shizu (Hiroko Yakushimaru). The Princess escapes and seems doomed to be captured until Dosetsu (our man Chiba) and his brother Daikaku (Minori Terada), the last descendants of her family's protectors, come to the rescue. They tell her of a legend about her ancestors that predicted eight specially-gifted samurai, each signified by their possession of a magical pearl, would unite to defend the last Satomi clan member in her darkest hour. Further complication is added by Shinbei (Hiroyuki Sanada), a young would-be samurai who first wants to capture Shizu for a ransom but soon discovers his ultimate fate is entangled with that of Shizu and her magical samurai.

    The films ‘gathering of heroes in a desperate time’ premise is a time-honored premise and the treatment it receives here is never dull. Unfortunately, the way it plays out is a mixed bag. The pressure of melting down a hundred volumes' worth of story has resulted in a story so dense that it ultimately becomes pulpy - the immense forward drive of the narrative leaves no room for characterization and the dialogue is burdened with a preponderance of exposition (it's necessary but it results in lots of scenes where we are told things instead of seeing them happen).

    The filmmakers also sought to modernize the tale for audiences - meaning that the two youngest characters are pushed to the fore and cast with two of the hottest young stars of the day. Both Sanada and Yakushimaru give solid performances but the fact remains that their characters are among the least interesting due to their youth and naiveté. Another unfortunate outgrowth of the film's pop approach is a synth-driven score that is often wildly inappropriate for the material, including two hideous pop songs guaranteed to conjure up one’s worst memories of Loverboy.

    And yet Legend Of The Eight Samurai is tremendously entertaining despite these problems. It may be over-plotted, but in a highly entertaining way - there isn't a minute in this story when something important to the plot is happening and the breathless rush from one big event to the next is endearing. I can only imagine how troubling a cut version of the story might be. Despite a limited amount of screen time, Chiba anchors the tale with his usual heroic presence and Chiba-flick regular Etsuko Shiomi steals a few scenes as a team member/former assassin/ tragic loner who is forced to fight the only man who might have loved her (of course, he works for the other side). Kinji Fukasaku directs with a confident grasp of the epic and his work is enhanced by an endless parade of stunning sets and costumes that dazzle the eye. He also caps his tale with a thoroughly rousing fifteen-minute fight finale that makes any prior missteps forgivable.

    In short, Legend Of The Eight Samurai may be flawed but it's also a helluva lot of fun. It delivers the romance, tragedy, palace intrigue, ancient curses, heroic journeys, valiant sacrifices and the swordfights by the dozen that a Japanese epic requires. Exploitation fans will also be happy to know it boasts giant centipedes, huge flying snakes, flayings, decapitations, scads of old-school optical effects and a sexy ghost who bathes au natural in a giant pool of blood. Don't believe the hype regarding the dubbed & edited version - this is a good time for anyone with an interest in Japanese cult cinema.

    Legend Of The Eight Samurai – DVD Review:

    Adness restores the film to its unusual 2.00:1 ratio in a nicely letterboxed and anamorphically enhanced transfer. The image is sharp, mostly free of grain and bursting at the seams with vibrant colors that suit the eye-popping visual style on display here.

    The audio sticks with the film’s original Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. It’s not as sonically action-packed as a modern remix might have been but it still delivers the soundtrack with plenty of clarity and punch.

    Extras are limited to the same collection of Chiba film trailers that come with every Adness ‘Sonny Chiba Collection’ DVD and a nice set of liner notes from Japanese cult film aficionado Patrick Macias. A featurette might have been nice but the liner notes do a good job of explaining the project’s origins and putting it all in context.

    Legend Of The Eight Samurai - The Final Word:

    An underrated effort finally gets a respectful, properly mastered release. It’s not a pure Sonny Chiba vehicle but anyone interested in Japanese fantasy or swordplay should find plenty to enjoy.