“How many more are left?” asks Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi), pausing for breath about 15 minutes into the epic set piece that comprises the heart of Yuji Shimomura’s “Crazy Samurai Musashi.” The answer is: a lot, though it depends on how carefully you’re counting.
Shimomura’s film depicts a famous 17th-century feud waged by Japan’s most legendary swordsman, though the body count is hiked up by a few orders of magnitude. Its main selling point is an audacious continuous shot that lasts for 77 minutes, during which cult action star Sakaguchi slashes his way through a seemingly endless supply of bodies.
This frenzied feat was actually filmed nine years ago, and it’s awe-inspiring to read about, if rather less so to watch. Sakaguchi broke a finger during the first five minutes of shooting, and later managed to snap a couple of ribs and shatter his molars. By the time the sequence was done, he’d vanquished a total of 588 adversaries, by his count — and vowed to retire.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||91 min.|
The retirement didn’t last, but the footage sat around for years before finally being spun into a complete movie, in which it is bookended with some slicker sequences that add a dash of narrative detail. They also introduce a big-name actor: Kento Yamazaki, who faced off against Sakaguchi in last year’s “Kingdom,” but brings little to the fight this time except for his celebrity status.
The opening minutes sketch a threadbare pretext for the ensuing carnage. The Yoshioka clan is preparing to defend its dojo against Musashi, who is set to arrive for a scheduled duel with 9-year-old heir Yoshioka Matashichiro. It isn’t exactly a fair contest, so the clan has brought in some reinforcements: 100 of its own students, plus a few hundred more mercenaries.
That’s about it, story-wise. After Musashi makes his big entrance, the movie switches to a lower-resolution handheld camera, and Sakaguchi gets to work.
As an experiment in action filmmaking, “Crazy Samurai Musashi” isn’t without interest. The way its hero engages his massed opponents, favoring efficiency over elegance, is probably more accurate than the swordplay seen in many samurai movies — and certainly more repetitive. Slaughtering an entire clan is hard work, and Sakaguchi gets visibly exhausted as he goes on, sometimes fighting from his knees.
Yet the film’s attention to realism only goes so far. Musashi’s opponents may spurt CGI blood, but they never seem to stay dead for long. Even the least attentive viewers will notice that the same fighters keep coming back for more. During one particularly interminable stretch, Sakaguchi keeps clashing with the same half-dozen actors, presumably ad-libbing while the crew finishes preparing for the sequence’s finale.
“Crazy Samurai Musashi” is hampered by the fact that its marathon money shot is no longer as novel as it was nine years ago, but also that anyone who’s seen Shinichiro Ueda’s 2017 moviemaking comedy “One Cut of the Dead” will find it impossible to suspend their disbelief for long.
Ironically, the film’s most startling effect comes not during its 77-minute centerpiece, but in the coda, when the story skips forward seven years and we see Sakaguchi as he is now: older, considerably burlier and still as nifty with a sword. It’s a vivid depiction of the passage of time, just not the one the movie is advertising.