Dir: Masaaki Tezuka.Japan. 2005. 119mins.
A remake of Kosei Saito's1979 film about a military Self Defence Forces (SDF) unit that time travelsback to the days of the samurai, Samurai Commando: Mission 1549 hasalready attracted a flood of foreign rights offers for producer KadokawaPictures. Concluded deals totalled 31 at last count - a new record for alive-action Japanese film.
What director Masaaki Tezuka(Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.) delivers on the screen is not the camp-festimplied in the title, but a Japanese equivalent of Independence Day:full-bore, straight-ahead SF action with a nationalistic slant. Also, much ofthe $15m budget has gone to effects that may be more 1996 than 2005 but arestill of-the-line for a Japanese release.
Samurai Commando has become a solid hit in Japan following its June 1release, and internationally looks likely to draw the same teenage males whothrilled to The Last Samurai (if not the women who thrilled to TomCruise). Success, though, will depend on how much the international versionalso commissioned by Kadokawa, with its pumped-up effects and soundtrack, canreduce the original film's cheese factor.
The action starts with atop-secret test of a new magnetic shield - and a blunder by the secondlieutenant in charge, one Rei Kanzaki (Kyoka Suzuki) that sends an SDF unitreeling back in time.
The SDF brass covers up theincident, but two years later the space-time continuum begins to warp - andthey decide to dispatch a squad, coded named Romeo, into the year 1549. Their mission:rescue the missing soldiers - and save Japan (not to mention the Solar System)from being sucked into the void.
Squad leader Kashima (YosukeEguchi) is a reluctant warrior, as is his second in command, the stern-visagedKanzaki. But when they finally travel back to 1549 they discover that the unitleader, Colonel Matoba (Takeshi Kaga), has assumed the identity of a famouswarlord - and is planning to fast-forward Japan to world power status with theaid of a city-obliterating secret weapon.
Made with the co-operationof the SDF, Samurai Commando offers all the money shots of helicopters, tanks,and other hardware that military buffs, not to mention SDF recruiters, coulddesire.
It also skips boringexposition, plunging immediately into the action. Wave after wave of samuraiare blasted to writhing smithereens by modern firepower - but the survivorscharge on regardless. Meanwhile, the SDF troops take their share of deadly,realistically rendered CG arrows.
There are other neateffects, such as the SDF unit and all its hardware being whirled into the pastlike Dorothy's house in The Wizard Of Oz. But they cannot disguiseTezuka's pedestrian direction and the lack of emotional range, beyond grimdetermination.
Instead of expressing aweand astonishment at the sudden appearance of 21st century technology in theirmidst, Tezuka's samurai immediately and mindlessly go on the attack, like badguys in a computer game.
Meanwhile, the SDF heroesbarely notice their feudal-era surroundings; they are like Japanese salarymensent on business to a dangerous Third World country, whose only thought is tomake it back to the airport intact and on time.
Among the standouts in themain cast is Kazuki Kitamura, playing a samurai who time travels in theopposite direction and becomes a Romeo ally. After a long slog through thestraight-to-video underworld, Kitamura finally has a mainstream platform forhis Brando-ish looks, presence and acting chops. And his sword-fighting skillsare superb. Watch your back Ken Watanabe - you may not be the last samuraiafter all.
Nihon Eiga Fund