Just over ten years ago, fan favorite Tak Sakaguchi made headlines with director Sion Sono for an ambitious “super genre” action project which, for some reason or another, took on an entirely different identity than intially intended. Much of that project was shot in the space of seventy-five minutes in a single afternoon, only to be shelved for the next several years until it fell into the prospective hands of longtime friend and film cohort, Yuji Shimomura, back in 2018.
Together with executive producer Takayuki Ota, the race to finish what would become ultimately known as Crazy Samurai Musashi, is one that definitely required a strong blitz. The addition of actor Kento Yamazaki, one of the biggest film actor in Japan today, and the lead actor of one of Sakaguchi’s most recent credits, Shinsuke Sato’s Kingdom, is exactly what the doctor ordered to help get this film back on radar. The finished product is something of an acquired taste for its experimental nature, but also, it’s a categorically bold move in a genre that nary touches on the “oner”.
Crafting a story centered on the Yoshioka clan’s enduring rivalry with legendary samurai, Miyamoto Musashi (Sakaguchi), the film opens with Chusuke (Yamazaki) ferciously training with envisioned flashbacks of what looks to be Musashi killing Chusuke’s mentor and Yoshioka clan sword master, Seijuro. The intro cuts into a shot of the open forest as a butterfly flutters atop the head of Matashichiro (Kousei Kimura), the youngest and most nascent member of the Yoshioka clan who is quickly whisked back to reality as the masters of the Yoshioka temple stand guard, with mulitple men hidden in the shadows of the trees.
Matashichiro’s childlike innocence notwithstanding, Chusuke advises him to take the reigns as the head of the Yoshioka clan in the wake of the deaths of Seijuro and Denshiro, for the moment when the feared and repudiated Musashi is expected to arrive to what is supposed to be a strategic ambush. Another master arrives with the promise of at least four hundred more men committed to collecting Musashi’s head, and its far from what Chusuke expects from a duel as he’s forced to realize he’s being spared in favor of claiming the Yoshioka mantle.
What happens next is the ultimate game changer before anyone knows it, as Musashi’s swift and deadly arrival in front of the Yoshioka temple initiates the men to come out of hiding. Commencing the manhunt, the preeminent single-take starts just eight minutes and change into the film, and from there, it’s all Musashi, doing all the killing, all the time. With respite moments of rest in between, attacks from the Yoshioka clan and the hundreds of hired mercenaries in their midst persist in waves, from the neighboring forest and throughout a desolate village, and with Musashi parrying, thrusting and slashing, and even goading his victims every step of the way, including three main challengers.
The cinematography is pretty simple with some of the action choreography being hit or miss, with many of the hits stacked for the camera with the cameraman catching as much of the action as possible with appropriately-angled wide shots, and very few close-ups of Sakaguchi for dramatic effect. Percussion and string movements in the music score recur throughout at a pace ample enough to keep up with the storied energy and intent of the fight action, which is steadily performed and executed to suit the longevity of the performers involved.
The single take does suffer a little from the cameraman’s poor placement in front of the sun a few times, but the issue recedes mostly when the cameraman can avoid giving himself away, and often making use of the space in the shade to capture Sakaguchi in action. Rest assured though, with imaginably ludicruous rehearsals to match Sakaguchi’s audacious vision, it must have taken a certain level of management and coordination for the entirety of that hour and fifteen minute period with performers and crew roatating in different costumes, and making sure everyone was hydrated and ready to walk into the next shot.
Culminating the rest of the film following its extenuating body count is a smartly written finale that lends sustenance to the film’s shelf life, and an explosive ending that pays tribute to the kind of in-your-face finish that made Sakaguchi’s reputation as a “graphic novel actor” so lauded by cult fans all around. The difference from the oner, apart from the visual style and editing, is Shimomura’s discernible, polished touch as a director, having been behind the camera for more than fifteen years after getting his feet wet in stunts for close to twenty. To Sakaguchi’s benefit, he brings refinement to his work and has only grown stronger as a filmmaker, now taking Crazy Samurai Musashi as his own for a third directing credit, and thus, giving credence to a longtime friend and, ostensibly, one of the most underappreciated, albeit beloved stars in his field.
It’s true that nobody in film has ever learned something by not-doing. Indeed, quite the opposite rings true, and while both Sakaguchi and Shimomura have grown as influencers among stunt players to create their own teams – namely Sakaguchi’s Zeros and Shimomura’s U’den Flame Works – inarguably, the two are also forces to be reckoned with as a result. The scare that came of Sakaguchi’s presumed retirement in 2013 should have been a wake-up call for anyone who may have heard of the man and seen his work and never really knew what he was up to at that time, and it’s a relief that despite those initial unceremonial formalities, he’s managed to stay in the game and continue doing what he clearly enjoys most: making movies, and making moves at the same time, for himself, as well as colleagues.
Crazy Samurai Musashi is far from the usual, more conventional action film. Its got its stumbles, but as an experiment in jidaigeki cinema with much of the narrative drama abridged around the front and back of a single take action scene, it bodes as nothing short of dauntless. Concordantly, it’s as much of a love letter to the fans as from Sakaguchi and Shimomura, as was their previous paring for Re:Born, which, unforgettably, was itself announced as Sakaguchi’s exit from the genre. Whatever the case may be, film politics be damned, he’s done four movies since then, and it’s delightful to know that he’s still around.