(Aka, The Emperor’s Sword)
“A spaceship appearing in a historical play, how outrageous!”
You know that you are in for an interesting ride when a movie starts with a scene in which one spaceship tries to, well, eat another one.
Do I really need to mention that this one is a Japanese film?
It’s actually less abrupt an opening than that: after a bit of talk about a mysterious metal from space with incredible power, and the history of the Tokugawa dynasty in Japan, with plenty of hints that we are about to watch a Jidaigeki epic, with a princess on the run and a huge warrior bearing the ridiculously long sword of Alexander the Great, when all of a sudden, a spaceship crashes in the swamp and the next thing we know, we’re flashing back to that space battle.
Complete with a bit of campy and satiric fourth wall commentary from our unseen narrator, who announces, with obvious amusement;
“Just what is going on?
“A rare sight lately in our country…
“A big action adventure picture begins.”
I’ll be honest here. Many of you are going to hate this one. It’s a strange mix of wild-eyed action, a touch of horror, a dash of science fiction, and even a bit of magic. There are enthusiastic if not terribly realistic digital effects (which may be a deliberate choice) and even some moderately impressive model work for those battling spacecraft — including a complex “mouth” on one which looks as if it belongs on a Sandworm from Dune.
Now combining Chanbara historical epics with Science Fiction isn’t exactly new, but Taitei no ken does it with a lot of enthusiasm and a weird sense of humor. After all, this is a film which knows very well just how absurd it is.
It’s based on an equally absurd serial novel; by Yumemakura Baku, who is responsible for creating the novels behind Toho’s Onmiyoji films and The Legend of the Demon Cat. He gives us one of those classic (to the point of being cliched) epic fantasy storylines where everyone searches for the three powerful artifacts made from the mystical space metal orichalcum and the big bad guy plans to use it to gain ultimate power.
Yup. Saw that one.
Cliched or not, it does its job: it provides the opportunity for sword fights, political plotting, comic battles and ninjas. Of course, thanks to the aliens and the orichalcum, we also get superpowers, mutated monsters, lots of effects, and icky transformations.
We even get a bit of magic — both sleight of hand and real — courtesy of the Tsuchigumo Ninja (who are constantly described as “creepy”). They all have some very strange gifts — like controlling insects — which are clearly magical. This may seem out of place to us in our safe little corner of history. After all, we tend to think of Ninjitsu as just another form of martial arts. But you have to remember that historically the Ninja were seen as nightmarish creatures. They were commonly believed to be magical and there were lots of scary tales told about them which are almost as strange as what’s in Taitei no ken.
Abe Hiroshi, who stars as the towering swordsman, Genkuro Korozu, was the star of the Director, Tsutsumi Yukihiko’s series of Trick movies. He is one of the film’s strongest assets, projecting a genial and perhaps a bit simple-minded presence backed by an overflowing love of excitement. He handles the comedy effortlessly, his big face conveying a lot of emotion — and yet he somehow manages to make fighting with a sword as long as he is look (mostly) plausible .
Let’s see Tom Cruise do that!
Mind you, the occasional lightning effects and glowing blade do help a bit, although we also get what amount to 3-D X-Ray views of his body and brain as the orichalcum kicks into action.
This is a film which is inventive, imaginative and deliberately silly — even if all the fights and sword battles are serious and beautifully done. There is nothing subtle about it, but it is funny and adventurous and full of memorable moments (like the gross out gag when Genkuro finally takes a bath — followed by an even more memorable battle against one of his strangest enemies).
This is one of the best guilty pleasure films featuring sword play and aliens you’re likely to find. Heck, you’d have a hard time finding a better guilty pleasure film. This is the ultimate geek’s popcorn flick, with a bit of warped real history, some “secret history,” epic sword battles, ninjas, a jarring mix of genres — and, of course, subtitles.
Look, you know by now if this is your sort of film and it’s definitely worth the effort for those of us who love Japanese weirdness.
Best of all, you don’t even have to gather all three Sacred Treasures to see it:
It’s up on Youtube for free.