I don't care much for films that try to sell themselves on technical achievements, film is an experience and when it gets too conceptual and/or technical, the overall quality often takes a hit. I'm not saying Yuji Shimomura's Crazy Samurai Musashi manages to sidestep that pitfall completely, look at it very critically and you'll find plenty of defects and problems. But Shimomura's core trick is so insanely cool that I really couldn't be bothered this time around. I still can't put my head around what he pulled off here, whether that makes it a great film is up for debate and greatly depends on what you want out of a film.
Crazy Samurai Musashi is the stuff of legends. Its elevator pitch is a simple as it is effective: one guy fights off 400 (according to the plot - 588 is another number that's doing the rounds) adversaries in one 75-minute long, no cuts, single take scene. It's a preposterous idea and even after seeing it for myself, I still have no clue how they got it done. I've seen excessive long takes before (One Cut of the Dead, Russian Ark, Irréversible), but never ever (ever!) one that was so elaborate and so ridiculously challenging.
Apparently this 75-minute centerpiece was shot back in 2011, but was shelved soon after. Actor Tak Sakaguchi got seriously battered during the shoot and vowed he was done with acting. Years later Sion Sono was brought on board to write the intro and outro segments, Sakaguchi's retirement never really happened and Shimomura was available to direct the remaining scenes. All of that resulted in the 90-minute film we have now. It sounds like a story you might hear in a bar right before closing time and I haven't been able to verify much of this information myself (so don't blame me if some of it turns out to be wildly exaggerated), but it's safe to say the marketing department didn't have a hard time selling Crazy Samurai Musashi.
The plot is … well. It may look cool to have Sono writing your screenplay, but the intro and outro segments are really just a bit of window dressing for the main attraction. A clan is trying to protect its newly appointed leader from Musashi, a legendary samurai. They're absolutely terrified of the guy, so they've hired a small army of mercenaries to help protect them. Musashi outsmarts them all and secures his kill in no time. The tough part is getting out, with 400+ men on his tail and himself fully exposed, he can only fight his way out of this predicament. And that's when it starts.
You can't finish a film like this without making a couple of compromises along the way. There's simply no way you can shoot a 75-minute scene and have it be a slick, stylish, contemporary action spectacle. There are no slo-mos, no stylish cuts and no repeats to emphasize cool moves, no fancy camera swoops to set the stage and only one or two staged poses. The visual flair is extremely limited for a contemporary action film, with just one camera trailing Musashi while trying to keep an acceptable distance from the action. There are a few moments where the camera's path is slightly more intricate, but they are few and far between.
The soundtrack leaves more room for creativity and Shimomura makes excellent use of that freedom. Even more striking than the music is the constant alternation between metal hitting metal and metal hitting people. It's trivial at first, but over the course of 75 minutes it turns into a soundtrack of its own, an intricate rhythm highlighting 400+ deaths that helps the audience slip into a trance. The music is mostly supportive during the first half, but becomes a reminder of the excessive length of the battle later on. One notable piece creates an emotional climax mid-battle, only to fade away while the battle rages on. It's immediately followed by another track that also runs its course and transitions into silence, the same fight still slugging along. It's a neat trick that bends expectations to put even more focus on the insanity of this undertaking.
Looking at the cast, there's really only one man who matters. Tak Sakaguchi's performance is astounding. I have no idea how he managed to memorize the entire fight (or how much of it he improvised), though I'm fairly certain not everything went according to plan. That said, I couldn't detect any obvious mistakes or flukes. Then there's also the physical aspect of the undertaking, which must have taken a big toll on him. The rest of the cast is just sword fodder, with some actors actually returning after a set amount of time to take on Musashi again (obviously they didn't hire 500+ actors for this film - it's quite funny when you start to notice earlier adversaries, even though it does break the spell somewhat).
The interesting thing about Crazy Samurai Musashi is that it's not really an action film at all. Or at least, not a film for fans of traditional action cinema. The action here is quite repetitive, boring even. If I'm honest, I wasn't all that impressed with this film 15 minutes in, but then it becomes more about rhythm and endurance. It's a constant onslaught of lethal, tightly timed and slickly executed moves which creates an almost trance-like state of mind. I know from experience that these qualities make it a bend-or-break type of film. Those who can stick with it will probably end up loving it, others will grow tired and bored and will eventually zone out.
That's why it reminded me more of a film like Miike's Izo, or the work of directors like Shinya Tsukamoto and Gakuryu Ishii, who are known to subject their audience to a similar kind of endurance challenge. In that sense, the marketing is deceptive as most people will sit down expecting a sprawling action spectacle, while in reality it's a rather tough, impenetrable and practically endless battle of perseverance. It's no surprise then that the film's been receiving its fair share of flack from the audience and critics alike.
Regardless of how you end up feeling about this film, if you love cinema then Crazy Samurai Musashi is at least worth checking out. There's no guarantee you'll end up liking it, it has quite a few technical shortcomings and it might even bore you out of your wits, but it's one of the craziest films I've ever seen. Sakaguchi's performance is stellar, the action is almost meditative and Shimomura's direction does everything in its power to draw the attention towards the implausible feat they pulled off. Just check your expectations before you watch this one, because it's a surprisingly harsh experience.