G.I. Samurai Review
Of the nine Sonny Chiba releases issued by Optimum to date, G.I. Samurai is the exception inasmuch as it hails from the eighties rather than the previous decade. That said, just as the seventies nature of the likes of Yakuza Deka : The Assassin and Golgo 13 were proudly proclaimed however inadvertently, so too G.I. Samurai positively revels in its mullets and MOR soft rock balladry. Of course, viewing the film in such a manner is hardly the most serious of approaches, but then this is, after all, a work in which a military unit – replete with helicopter, gunboat and all manner of artillery – go back in time some 400 years to the samurai era courtesy of some endearingly low budget special effects.
In hindsight, this places G.I. Samurai perilously close to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III in terms of plotting, yet this would be unfair. Certainly, the filmmakers have created a work which can operate simply as a piece of mindless entertainment, but then there’s also much more going on besides. Admittedly, this doesn’t mean we’re in for a subversion of the samurai movie – even if the juxtaposition between their banners and the modern technology does hold a certain fascination – though it does head off in some interesting directions.
For a start, the characterisation actually professes towards some depth. Indeed, compared to Chiba’s other early eighties’ fantasies - Ninja Wars and Legend of the Eight Samurai - G.I. Samurai is positively grounded. Of course, a number of characters are there simply to up the body count, but director Mitsumasa Saito does get plenty of mileage out of the militaristic dimension and the temptation some of the soldiers have to break rank. And of course, this also opens up some narrative avenues as some decide to mutiny and go on a rape and pillage spree, whilst another heads off towards a tentative romance with a villager.
Not that the science-fiction and fantastical edges have been ignored. Much like the Back to the Future movies or the Dominick Hyde television plays, we get the expected delving into time paradoxes and attempts to get back to the 20th century, albeit not quite as we’d expect. Whereas these western examples would pay special attention to the ramifications of someone’s death, this eastern equivalent has our military unit decide upon killing as many people as possible. The logic behind this is that they’ll anger the time god and go back to the eighties, though the more cynical would ague that a more likely reasoning is the need to satisfy a blood and beheadings quotient.
Indeed, it’s impossible to deny that G.I. Samurai has plenty to offer. As well as all of the above, we also see Chiba indulge in some helicopter dangling heroics à la Chuck Norris, the various political ramifications of rival samurai tribes (though these always conclude with more beheadings, so perhaps we shouldn’t take this aspect too seriously), some music video-style interludes involving a young woman looking forlorn in some 1980s railway station, and even a brief flashback to demonstrate just how dissatisfied a young soldier was with his marathon running career!
Understandably then, this amounts to a certain charm, though even at two-hours-plus, it often feels as though G.I. Samurai has bitten more than it can chew. The various elements never really blend into a coherent whole, but instead arrive in easily digestible episodic chunks. Certainly, they work in these small doses, though it must be said that this is mostly owing to the fact that they’re rarely fully developed. Indeed, whilst G.I. Samurai is hardly lacking in ideas, it’s a shame that it didn’t instead choose to focus solely, and more intently, on one or two of them.
Another of Optimum’s Sonny Chiba releases, G.I. Samurai comes to Region 2 DVD in the manner we’d expect by now. We get the original aspect ratio, anamorphic transfer and clean print with good colours, but still a handful of problems. In this case this means an image which errs on the soft side at time (most noticeable during the long shots) and instances of ghosting, but these are minor in comparison to the plus points. As for the soundtrack, this once again amounts to the original Japanese mono (with optional English subs), and one that demonstrates few technical problems. Indeed, the dialogue, explosions and MOR soundtrack are all handled with an equal ease.
As for extras, these follow the exact same pattern as all of the other Chiba titles. Thus we get a poster gallery (though one of G.I. Samurai isn’t included), the theatrical trailer, trailers for the other Chiba releases, and a three-page text biography written in the tiniest of lettering.