Legend of the Eight Samurai Review
The first words we hear in Legend of the Eight Samurai are a little unexpected. “I’ll never forget how we burned in the night” sings John O’Banion (in English no less) as he makes his way through the pounding MOR of ‘White Light’. Quite what the song is doing in this epic slice of fantasy isn’t entirely clear, but then it does signal the fact that Legend of the Eight Samurai is very much an eighties prospect. In this respect it may in fact be quite welcome as Kenji Fukasaku fans expecting something akin to either his numerous yakuza flicks or Battle Royale will surely need some preparation for a slightly different experience.
Indeed, Legend of the Eight Samurai’s reference points are to be found elsewhere. The title itself brings to mind Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the sleeve offers a quote from the ‘Japanese Cinema Essential Handbook’ describing it as “the Star Wars of samurai films”, and throughout we get an abundance of nods to sources as diverse as Romeo and Juliet, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon. What’s interesting – and of course welcome – about this is how seamlessly these disparate elements bland together, for Legend of the Eight Samurai, put simply, is a cracking piece of genre filmmaking which doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Understandably, if a film can recall so many other sources then there’s the likelihood that it isn’t good to be the easiest to describe. This certainly proves to be the case with Legend of the Eight Samurai, though essentially it concerns two warring clans, one of whom was eliminated 100 years ago. Now part of the undead, this clan plans to resurrect itself and fulfil a curse, but in order to do so require the skin of Princess Shuza. Meanwhile, eight men, each evolved from magical crystals, are slowly coming together in order to protect her, destroy “the ancient spirit” and finally lay the clan to rest.
Of course, three sentences – especially ones without spoilers – can’t hope to do justice to a two hour plus narrative and so Legend of the Eight Samurai also finds the time for incestuous villainy, a magical bow and arrow, familial revelations, a literal bloodbath and a mysterious tattoo. At its centre, however, the film mostly borrows its structure from Seven Samurai: a problem arises, the titular samurai come together one by one, and they combine their individual skills during a huge climactic battle.
Just as Seven Samurai is best viewed as a great action movie, so too Legend of the Eight Samurai needs to be seen in generic terms. It’s here where Fukasaku comes in as genre filmmaking was also his forte; it’s been said elsewhere, and on numerous occasions, that he never truly made his mark as a director until 1973’s The Yakuza Papers, a film on which he immersed himself in the gangster tropes and emerged with something truly individual. Much the same is true here as it is during the more hysterical (i.e., the most overtly action-orientated or fantastical) moments when the film comes alive. Watch the giant centipede attack whilst considering the clumsy exposition at the film’s opening and becomes clear where Fukasaku’s enthusiasms lie.
As such individual reaction is likely to be down to how much you stomach these fantastical elements. Despite the cribs from Star Wars, Legend of the Eight Samurai is far more inclined to the likes of 1980’s camp Flash Gordon and Krull. Indeed, the film is also lumbered with a cheapening synth score (though think a child’s Casio toy as opposed to Tangerine Dream) which many will find maddening, but then it could also find favour with fans of Ladyhawke. Of course, if you hadn’t guessed, this is a film which owes more to the fantasy genre than it does to any martial arts cinema, and as such could find far greater favour with fans of the former than it will with those tempted by Sonny Chiba’s presence.
Unfortunately, Legend of the Eight Samurai arrives on Region 2 disc as an NTSC to PAL transfer. As such the image is often soft, suffers from ghosting and the darker scenes are at time difficult to discern. That said, we do still get the original 1.85:1 ratio and an anamorphic presentation, though the picture quality easily fails when compared to Ventura’s other recent Sonny Chiba release, Ninja Wars.
As for the soundtrack, we are offered the original Japanese mono (spread over the front two channels) with optional English subtitles. Perhaps it’s a result of the cheap sounding score, but the mix often comes across as rather flimsy and muted. Indeed, whilst it remains clean throughout, there is a decided lack of dynamism which seems odd when you consider the kind of film Legend of the Eight Samurai is.
Sadly, disappointment is compounded with the scarcity of extras. These amount solely to original theatrical trailers for the film itself, plus two other titles from Ventura’s ‘Sonny Chiba Collection’, Ninja Wars and G.I. Samurai.