Japanese action-fantasy pics have become big box office, thanks to CG effects sophisticated enough to lure not just the kiddies, but teens and adults. These films, beginning with Masahiro Shinoda’s 1999 hit “Fukuro no Shiro (Owl’s Castle)” and continuing to Akihito Shiota’s recent smash “Dororo,” use elements from Japanese folklore and history (including such historical figures as ninja). The later film also mixes in a monster or two that look to be straight from a special effects show for the kiddies and breathtaking wire-work stunts choreographed by Hong Kong veteran Siu-tung Ching.
These non-traditional bits do not seriously compromise its cultural and genre identity, however. “Dororo” is a distinctly Japanese film, whose roots go back to not only Osamu Tezuka — the creator of the eponymous manga — but the innumerable jidai geki (period dramas) about dynastic struggles or lone swordsmen on missions.
Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s “Taitei no Ken (Sword of the Great Emperor)” is far more of a farrago, being a mix of period swashbuckler, alien-invasion comedy and kiddie fantasy, including a man-monster that looks like a (not so) Jolly Green Giant.
This will not be new to fans of Takashi Miike, that master genre deconstructionist, who combined black family comedy with singing and dancing zombies to memorable effect in “Katakurike no Kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris)” (2001). Or to fans of scriptwriter/director Kankuro Kudo, whose directorial debut “Mayonaka no Yaji-san Kita-san (Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims)” (2005) featured two Edo-era gay lovers speeding down the Tokaido on a motorcycle.
“Taitei no Ken,” though, is not aimed at the cultists who worship Miike, but everyone from tykes (ones not easily shocked, that is) to adult fans of the serialized story by Baku Yumema-kura on which the movie is based. Also, its humor is less black than broad, while its story of aliens-in-the-Edo Period has all the depth of Eddie Murphy box-office disaster “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”
Which doesn’t mean it’s as excruciating to watch. Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (“Siren,” “Ashita no Kioku”) is a clever visual stylist, but not one who tries to cram his virtuosity down your optic nerves. Instead he focuses more on giving his characters, even the most two-dimensional, touches of comic individuality. He may be working with familiar genre material, but his approach is not generic. Not brilliantly warped, but not generic. Call “Taitei no Ken” Miike lite.
The owner of the title sword is Genkuro Yorozu (Hiroshi Abe), a tall, lanky, devil-may-care warrior. His weapon, which looks to be as long as a high jump pole, is made of an extraterrestrial metal called orichalcum that gives its user superpowers. There are two other objects made of this metal on the planet — a cross and a double-bladed dagger. The one who possesses all three will be able to rule the world. Genkuro is on a quest to find them and, an indication of his good-guy character, present them to someone worthy of them.
On his travels he encounters Princess Mai (Kyoko Hasegawa), on the run after her family castle was destroyed by the forces of Tokugawa — the clan that recently gained control over the entire country. With her is Sasuke (Kankuro Kudo), a weedy-looking ninja who is her sole bodyguard. Mai, however, is not all she seems, since she is sharing her body with an alien who has come to Earth in search of orichalcum.
Tracking her is an androgynous warrior (Meisa Kuroki) who has somehow guessed her secret. More formidable enemies are the Tokugawa agents, lead by a priest (Riki Takeuchi) with a ravaged face and a twisted mind. Last but not least is a bear hunter (Kenichi Endo), who has been invaded by another alien — the enemy of the one inhabiting Mai.
There is more knockabout action than deep-dish intrigue, much of it slapstick comedy, some of it aspiring to cool. Best known as a Hugh Grant-ish leading man in romantic comedies, Hiroshi Abe is surprisingly effective as Genkuro. First, he is tall and buff enough to convincingly wield his monster of a sword. Second, he can walk the fine line between playing the character for laughs — and treating it as a joke.
As Mai, Kyoko Hasegawa valiantly tries to play a tenderly raised princess one moment, an alien-inhabited tough girl the next — but the digital distortions of her face that mark the transitions are both ugly and distracting. As her fusspot guardian, Kudo plays his action scenes with a dogged determination. He is the Little Ninja Engine that could — just barely.
For the kids, however, Takeuchi’s evil priest will be the film’s biggest presence, literally and otherwise. He is a living, breathing cartoon, even more so once he is injected with alien glop. A decade ago, he and the rest of the cast would have been animated — but now, through the miracle of latex and CG, we can see him in all his leering, preening, monstrous glory. That’s progress, isn’t it?