Back in 1981, the late great Kinji Fukusaku adapted Futaro Yamada’s historical fiction novel "Makai Tensho" into both a stage play and a feature film, the later featuring among others Sonny Chiba, Ken Ogata, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Hiroyuki Sanada. Since then, it was been adapted on several occasions, the most recently in 2003 by Hideyuki Hirayama. Despite the fact that the novels of Futaro Yamada are quite popular and have been adapted to TV, film, anime and manga sometimes more than once, is a newer version of "Makai Tensho" really needed after Kinji Fukusaku’s amazing version?
To those unfamiliar with the tale, Makai Tensho uses the Shimabara rebellion as its starting point. The rebellion (1637-1638) was led by the messiah like figure Amakusa Shiro, whom with his 37,000 Christian followers held off an army of over 125,000 samurai before being slaughtered. Before his death however, Amakusa Shiro forsakes his god and turns to the underworld, returning to the world of the living as a demon, and possessing the unholy ability to resurrect and grant eternal life to whom ever he pleases. He resurrects a variety of dead samurai, and recruits a few still living, seeking to overthrow the Shogunate. Of course it doesn’t turn out to be that easy, as popular samurai folk hero Yagyu Jubei and his clan stands in Amakusa’s way.
The tale is very intriguing, but has been told before. Where Hideyuki Hirayama to bring something new to the table, such as exploring the Christ like figure of Amakusa Shiro and the rebellion, making him a far more sympathetic character, this film could have been a morality play masked as a samurai epic. Instead, Hirayama seems content to present the story as is, and because of this it struggles for most of its entirety. But it’s not all bad. The opening few minutes, which depict the massacre of the Christian followers at the hands of the samurai is indeed epic, and is captured using some mighty impressive crane shots. Its obvious Hirayama had a fair amount of money to spend, and he had big plans to make a big film, but he just can’t maintain a cohesive cinematic structure.
The films two biggest failures are its use of SFX, and its lack of Chanbara mayhem. The SFX greatly undermines much of the spectacular cinematography that Katsumi Yanagijima, Takeshi Kitano’s regular cinematographer, creates. This is really sad, because he creates some amazing visual wizardry. If this was the V-cinema incarnation of the tale, "Reborn from Hell", the special effects would seem fitting, but here it seems like a cheap attempt at making the film contemporary and relevant. Where Hirayama to create the SFX in a far more subtle manner, instead of making them so blatant, then they could have been far more effective. He even recreates the vampire vaporization demise from the Wesley Snipes film "Blade", co-opting it for the death of the demonic samurai. It worked in the comic book film, not in this supposed dead serious samurai epic. When Kinji Fukusaku made his version, he adopted some of the theatrical imagery he used in the play to spectacular effect. If only Hirayama had taken a page from his book.
The Chanbara action is also not nearly as well done as it should be. But then again, you don’t have Sonny Chiba or Hiroyuki Sanada in the film. What’s most disappointing is the battle between Jubei and famed double sword wielding samurai Musashi Miyamoto. Musashi is arguably one of the greatest samurai to ever live, so you’d expect a duel worthy of that stature. Instead you some tremendous cinematic tension and movement, followed by a lame clanging of swords, which is sad because it apparently took them 4 days to film the scene.
Did this film need to be made? No, not really. It does try to bring a deeper, more epic nature to the tale, but ultimately fails on that front. Its only redeeming quality is that it does display a few scenes of moral tension as some of the living samurai, confronted by Amakusa (who by the way is played wonderfully by Yosuke Kubozuka) with the gift achieving sword mastery, struggle to decide the best course of action. But beyond that, you should just watch the Kinji Fukusaku film instead.