In Crazy Samurai Musashi, director Yûji Shimomura pairs up with martial arts star Tak Sakaguchi for their third collaboration, this time for a film that features literally 2-3 minutes of plot. How is the remaining 77 minutes spent, you may ask? Through an extended, single-shot action sequence in which Sakaguchi’s Musashi battles several hundred swordsmen in his attempt to tear through an entire clan. It’s a movie that asks, “What if we cut out all the bullshit and got straight to the fighting, which is why you’re all here anyway?” A bold move, but does it pay off?
The film opens with the targeted clan and a group of mercenaries bracing for Musashi’s arrival. Their task seems fairly simple: kill Musashi and protect a high-ranking adolescent boy within the clan. Most of the story is left for the audience to infer, as we get little in terms of exposition other than a character wondering if several hundred men against one isn’t maybe a bit overkill. As we all know, this type of thinking usually doesn’t end well for the person thinking it. The proceedings then kick off with something of a shock, as Musashi arrives and immediately cuts down the young boy, kicking off the film proper and initiating the extended, single-shot fight sequence.
As for why and how Musashi would an entire village worth of swordsmen, I believe Shimomura and company are counting on the audience to have at least some familiarity with the historical Miyamoto Musashi going into the film. Admittedly, I was not familiar with Musashi before watching the movie, but afterward I took a quick trip to Wikipedialand to find out that he was a renowned swordsman and strategist from late 16th/early 17th century Japan. Known for being undefeated in a lifetime worth of duels, Musashi’s history includes a story about killing two masters of a particular clan, and later fending off their remaining family whose de facto leader was a 12-year old boy.
Musashi’s status has taken on something of the mythological, as he’s known as a Kensei, or a sword-saint, and I think knowing a bit about his background would have helped orient me at the beginning of the film as I found myself questioning the “why” of everything and being too distracted to get into the rhythm of the fight sequence right away.
This perhaps highlights the need for some kind of narrative in a film, even ones we claim to be watching just for the action. The notion of losing all of the garbage and getting straight to the good stuff is enticing in theory, but I think we see here why including some semblance of story is so important. Without the above context or something that connects us to the situation, we’re not as invested in what’s playing out on screen.
Without the narrative investment, I actually found myself becoming more interested in studying how Shimomura crafted this epic battle. First of all, a lot of extended “single-shot” sequences usually cheat and sneak in well-hidden cuts, but I honestly don’t think that was the case here. It truly looks as though they started rolling and didn’t stop until the whole sequence was over.
I also think it’s impossible to choreograph a fight that long down to every single move, so it looks as though they gave Sakaguchi a handful of key moves that he’d use in different combinations as he plowed through waves of fodder samurai, with key opponents sprinkled in that required more intricate choreography. The action played out similarly to a video game, which can be both good and bad as it gives the sequence some semblance of structure, but anyone who’s played video games can tell you that sometimes having to wade through waves of minions can tend to get a little repetitive. Plus, without the ability to cut away, the movie is forced to pull the curtain back on the movie magic a bit as we see henchmen make some interesting decisions on how to fling their dying bodies out-of-frame.
Actually, one of the more clever tricks that Shimomura pulls off are the brief interludes with Musashi finding places to hide and take a breath. We get small hints at what’s going through Musashi’s mind, and as we notice he’s got water stashed throughout the compound we realize this is a well-planned attack. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Sakaguchi just has an effortless screen presence, imbuing Musashi with a mythological air while also acknowledging his humanity as he continues to get more and more exhausted through the film (although, after 77 minutes of stage fighting I don’t think he had “act” exhausted).
Ultimately, I think Crazy Samurai Musashi is an exciting experiment for a premise that produces mixed results in its execution. I was impressed by the technical effort that went into such an elaborate fight sequence, but I was reminded that I go to the movies to be told a story. Without it, watching Musashi tear through scores of swordsmen is kind of like watching a high-class sporting event between two opponents that you’ve heard are really good but that you don’t follow personally. Many people will likely enjoy the thrill of the craft, but some may miss the compelling narrative.