Saturday, March 5, 2011

REVIEW: Shogun's Shadow

将軍家光の乱心 激突 (Shogun Iemitsu no ranshin - Gekitotsu)

Released: 1989

Yasuo Furuhata

Ken Ogata
Sonny Chiba
Tetsuro Tamba
Hiroki Matsukata
Hiroyuki Nagato

Running time: 114 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Every now and then, you come across a film that makes you shake your head in amazement at what you are seeing on the screen and say to yourself with both gratitude and sadness as the credits are rolling, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” 1989’s "Shogun’s Shadow" is one such film. Set in Tokugawa-era Japan, it opens with a sudden assassination attempt at a peaceful spa directed towards Takechiyo (Ippei Shigeyama), the young boy who is next in line to become the shogun. It is swiftly revealed that a plotting minister (Hiroki Matsukata) would rather have the child’s younger brother become shogun so that he can install himself in the government as prime minister. To counter this plan, Takechiyo must be safely transported to Edo by the 15th of the month (in only five days) or he will lose the throne. Thus, he sets out with Gyobu (Ken Ogata), his loyal samurai protector, and six other expert swordsmen on a dangerous journey. Along the way, they are hunted by the ruthless warrior Iba (the great Sonny Chiba) and the hordes of men at his disposal.

Possibly the best way to describe "Shogun’s Shadow" would be “Akira Kurosawa meets Shaw Brothers.” Like the Japanese master’s films – particularly his later, large-scale, color epics - great effort is placed towards emulating a sense of period grandeur, especially through the considerable amount of horses, brightly costumed extras and props on display. Plus, the sense of hearty fun present in Kurosawa’s earlier samurai films can also be sensed here. It is probably no accident that there are seven samurai protecting the child on the way to Edo, and the film contains scenes of sincere humor, character and emotion that make the quest at hand (presented with a conciseness and economy that also wouldn’t be out of place in one of Kurosawa’s films) all the more worthwhile for the viewer.

Yet the Shaw Brothers factor kicks in loud and clear in the treasure trove of marvelous action sequences scattered throughout the film. Just the sheer amount of physical activity, stunts and show-off moments of derring-do is truly amazing to behold, to say nothing of their excellent quality. Inventive booby traps and surprise attacks are frequent occurrences, as are big, fiery explosions. Some of the challenges placed before our heroes include a long fall into a river, a vast canyon that must be hastily crossed by rope, waterfalls that must be scaled and hordes of formidable, unrelenting enemy troops. An elaborate rescue is carried out with fake bird calls and stealthy infiltrations. Best of all are the several fight sequences carried out both on horseback and on foot with arrows, staffs and swords.

Sonny Chiba himself choreographed the stunts and combat sequences, which explains their pronounced intensity. Just as intense is Chiba himself when he appears onscreen, his mustachioed Iba being a deadly, determined swordsman. In an attack on a compound of men, he mows down his opponents with astounding ease. With such a ferocious villain in place, it is only fitting that the courageous samurai are led by an equally formidable individual. Enter Ken Ogata’s noble leader Gyobu, whose conflict with Chiba easily warrants comparison to the one between two other legendary Japanese actors, Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, in Kurosawa’s "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro."

"Shogun’s Shadow" is fantastic action-adventure cinema, offering generous helpings of bloody, swashbuckling, rope-swinging spectacle. In fact, the film is so rousing and fun that I often found myself wishing the samurai were devoted to a more fitting cause like buried treasure instead of having to protect the somewhat bratty child heir. But that is just a minor issue of personal taste that shouldn’t take away from other viewers’ enjoyment of this grand, massively entertaining ride of a film. Both fans of old-school martial arts and samurai epics and those sick to death of the flat, empty CGI antics dominating so many screens today should seek out "Shogun’s Shadow" at the first chance they get.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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