Some might shout: finally! Why? Because though Arrow and latterly Radiance have done a fine job of releasing Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza movies, which vary from the quite brilliant to the very good, with the obvious exception of Battle Royale, the UK really hasn’t seen much of his work in other genres, a thing that many observers have noted as missing.
So what a pleasure it is to see Eureka release his two-hour 1981 release: Samurai Reincarnation.
As the film opens, the Shogun declares Christianity illegal, causing Christians led by Amakusa (Kenji Sawada) to rise up and revolt, only to be slaughtered. Resurrected, Amakusa swears himself to hell in order to visit revenge on the Shogun, and begins to resurrect those that have died unfulfilled to his cause, including legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Ken Ogata). Only Jubei (Sonny Chiba), the son of the Shogun’s favoured Yagyu school of fighting, whose own father (Tomisaburo Wakayama) has himself been recruited into Amakusa’s ranks, can stand in their way.
I’m not sure I knew quite what I getting myself into, but Samurai Resurrection was a sheer joy to watch. There are aspects of Kinji Fukasaku’s work that we might recognise from his yakuza films, such as using still images from which the colour has been drained to tell flashbacks effectively and efficiently, and at times there are his trademark scenes of chaotic violence to enjoy, but the opening instead is a beautifully orchestrated colour saturated vision of hell. Dead Christians sliced and diced below horrified skies. It’s bloodily opulent and has a theatricality about it, a little like a beautifully constructed set for a play. This is matched with aspects of the storytelling and acting that are themselves nearly theatrical; yet there is a precision to it that flows over into artifice in the same way that the final shoot-out in Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera and I loved it. The artificiality of it all is so beautifully effective that it never feels stilted or ludicrous, instead you sense that Fukasaku is revelling in making another kind of film and shows us how easily he can move from gritty urban yakuza brutality to something far more heavily imagined and coated in glorious artifice.
But where the film really excels is in the pacing and arguably the writing (Fukasaku co-wrote the film). For a two-hour feature it is unafraid to allow itself to unfurl at the pace it needs. Intriguingly this means that much of the first hour follows Amakusa as he starts to collect his unfulfilled, sometimes vengeance fuelled demons. The brilliance of this is that each one of them has a reasoned motivation, something you hardly expect; these are not two-dimensional villains but rounded characters. In part this is no surprise when you think that you have actors like Ken Ogata and Tomisaburo Wakayama as part of the demonic fellowship, but it’s a pleasure to see them come to life. Moreover, Fukasaku manages to pace things perfectly, making this hour of introduction feel utterly necessary rather than plodding and procedural. It doesn't hurt that it always a visual treat too.
Then as Amakusa starts to initiate his revenge against the Shogun, whether through seduction or peasant uprising, each demon follows their own character arc so that each encounter is a fully fleshed out story of revenge taken to its (literally) fiery conclusion. Without this the film could easily have felt flaccid, action for the sake of action.
Consider that in the first half, we barely even get to meet our hero. But that barely matters - Chiba excels as the one-eyed Jubei, and as he enters the story he quickly becomes more than just a protagonist with a blade. He has his own clear narrative arc and is no mere defender of the Shogun; again there’s so much more to him that's interesting and deeply rooted. Also, I felt that Chiba has never been better (from those films of his I’ve seen) than here. He has a gravitas that is utterly fitting to his character and he sheds some of the (sometimes) more overly theatrical aspects that his performances can contain. Chiba is never over-awed by the illustrious cast, more than holding his own against his peers, but then there’s no attempts here at star turns, instead each performance works as a beautifully played piece, actors and characters complementing each other beautifully.
If anything didn’t quite work it would have to be the soundtrack that veered a little bit towards the dated, being part rock and part traditional. It's not bad per se, but it felt jarring at times. There I said it, the obligatory balance and necessary gripe.
But it didn’t for a moment take away from the wonderful visual experience that is Samurai Resurrection. I was maybe expecting a film that was a bit hammier, and certainly not as well constructed nor as well considered as the one I watched. Each fleshed-out character arc fits together so well that it's easy to neglect how hard this is to do; especially considering this is very obviously a chanbara, it has a touch of the depth that you might expect from a jidaigeki, but most of all it was a superbly entertaining film that shows, a little like Nobuhiko Obayashi in the recent Third Window Kadokawa boxset, just how skilled a filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku is across genres, and if anything left me wanting someone, anyone to please release more of his films, in as wide a series of genres as possible. This was a superbly entertaining piece of artifice, visually gorgeous and beautifully paced, and without ever a moment of dullness or a wrong-step. And when the action is there Fukasaku nails it, and the fiery ending, well, just watch it and discover all the joys that Samurai Reincarnation has waiting for you in this gorgeous 2K restoration.