Miyamoto Musashi is a legend; a mix of fact and fabrication. The seventeenth-century samurai certainly existed. His surviving art and writings on philosophy he created in his later years prove that. His prowess in battle, however, is where the facts start to blur into myth. He is believed to have been a prolific warrior who never lost in over sixty duels, many of those to the death. That idea, coupled with Musashi’s thoughtful musings on life and combat in tomes such as “The Book of The Five Rings”, led to him being revered as the ideal example of a samurai warrior by popular culture in Japan and a cult figure among martial arts enthusiasts worldwide.
So naturally, embellished versions of Musashi have appeared frequently in Japanese film and television programs. Some strived for realism but frequently the Miyamoto Musashi presented on screen, with varying degrees of success, feels more myth than historical figure. Such is the case with the latest example from Japanese action star Tak Sakaguchi (VERSUS) and director/fight choreographer Shimomura Yuji (RE: BORN). That film, titled CRAZY SAMURAI: 400 VS. 1 (aka CRAZY SAMURAI MUSASHI), tells a highly fictionalized account of Musashi being challenged to a duel by the young head of a samurai clan only to be met by a potential ambush by all one hundred members of that clan and an additional three hundred hired mercenaries. All four hundred want just one thing: to see the famed warrior dead by their sword.
That brief synopsis is fully the extent of what CRAZY SAMURAI: 400 VS. 1 is about. With only a short prologue to set the stage and an even shorter epilogue, the film is centered around a one take, seventy-seven minute action sequence of Musashi cutting his way through the small army of men standing in his way. It is a feat of filmmaking ingenuity that is a showcase for Tak Sakaguchi’s stoic charisma and a punishing test of his physical abilities as a screen fighter.
Unfortunately, it’s also punishing for the audience during long stretches of the film. The battle features many moments where Sakaguchi swats at the various stunt performers with his sword defensively, allowing a well-placed sound effect or poorly rendered CGI blood spray to convey a death blow. This occurs repeatedly before a small flourish of variety in the strikes on display leads to a moment where the lead moves to another area to repeat the process over again with only slight deviations. It has the feel with its frequent fixed camera angles, often directly behind Sakaguchi or showing him at a distance cutting through throngs of similarly dressed attackers, of watching a friend play a video game that refuses to share the controller. It’s at times interesting, occasionally even exciting to witness, but mostly it drags along and leaves the viewer checking the clock to see how much time has passed.
There are brief breaks in the action even though the camera never stops though which helps ease the tedium. These include moments where Sakaguchi will strategically hide or take a sip of water from canteens around the battlefield, which allow for small character beats like Musashi trying in vain to determine exactly how many men are left or a brief exchange between two members of the clan searching for him that gives them a chance to reveal their motives for being there in the first place. Outside of those small moments though, which are clearly (and understandably) present to give Sakaguchi a much-needed rest from all the grueling physical demands of the role, there is not much else to CRAZY SAMURAI: 400 VS. 1. There are named adversaries that break away from the horde to have a short speech before they are quickly and unceremoniously cut down by the lead. This too, however, gets repetitive quickly and only adds to the feeling of the whole endeavor being a demonstration of a video game for an audience that isn’t allowed to play.
The film most comes alive when it really focuses on Tak Sakaguchi’s physical struggle to push through the ludicrously long sequence. When you can tell he is struggling to stand or even breathe and yet he still unleashes a vicious flurry or a sinister smirk it’s genuinely thrilling. He is a gifted physical performer and what works best in the film can be directly attributed to his Herculean efforts. Simply put, CRAZY SAMURAI: 400 VS. 1 would not exist without his singular presence. This is not said to discount the obviously complex work of director Shimomura Yuji and all the other actors and stunt performers here though. The camera work, endurance, and planning needed to coordinate it all is mind-boggling. The fact that the film exists is, in and of itself, impressive. Sometimes though just because something is there does not mean it is worth the time or effort to check it out and that is sadly the case here. Undoubtedly, some martial arts fans will enjoy the film. There are certainly admirable and interesting things about it. Most people though will wonder why they spent their time watching something that feels a little too much like an expensive live stunt show at a theme park. (2.5/5)
Stream Crazy Samurai: 400 VS 1 on Hi-YAH!