It occurred to me while I was writing my last post that if I start posting stuff that's all "serious business" on here, along with the amount of snotty disdain I show for so many in my other posts, I'll eventually have to write out my thoughts on things of actual merit or importance.
Instead, I'm writing a review on a movie whose main draw is Japanese guys in rubber suits.
It's not really a secret that the eighties and nineties were not kind to the "serious" Jidai-Geki (Japanese period film). Honestly, the seventies weren't either, and it currently isn't much better, if Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2003) and Dororo (Akihiko Shiota, 2007) are any indication. The expectation isn't necessarily fair, and at this point should no longer be an issue. By that, I don't mean that fans of movies that take place in Japan's historical past should stop expecting quality. I expect quality from films with exploding blood geysers and eight headed dragons, but it's quality of a different sort than what I hope to see in films about the reprecussions of the Shimabara Rebellion or the life of the samurai class during the turbulent Bakumatsu period.
So it is with Yamato Takeru, better known in the US as Orochi: the Eight Headed Dragon, frequent "Godzilla" series helmer Takao Okawara's 1994 attempt to bring the legendary prince of Japan's ancient history to life on screen. Of course, it was also his attempt to bring lazer eyes, magic swords, rubber suited dragons and giant metallic bird gods representing Amaterasu on screen, as well as adding a good dash of Hong Kong style wire work, strikingly stylized artificial set design, and a chaste romance between the boring male and female leads. "All things to all people?" That's what it wants, but does adding in a bunch of extraneous and often goofy genre conventions really help any film to reach more people?
In my experience it does not; however, I find that in Orochi, it really works. In fact, the way that it feels like "Ultraman" by way of Shingo's Challenge (Masuda Sadatsugu, 1961) kind of delights that part of me that still smiles when Luke blows the Death Star right to hell.
The story is taken from the legend of one of Ancient Japan's Emperors, who was reputed to have killed his older brother, lost his wife to a sea serpent that she sacrificed herself to, and subdued the leader of rebels after sneaking into his fortress by dressing up as a maid and serving at one of his parties. Orochi includes all of that, but generally ignores much of the less likable aspects of Takeru's personality (he died after needlessly blaspheming a local deity). In the film, Takeru kills his brother by accident after his brother is misled to think that Takeru caused the death of their mother. Takeru's inherent magical abilities kill his brother, making his father send him off to do battle with barbarians in the east. Along the way, he meets with a priestess of Amaterasu, whom he helps to retrieve a sacred relic. Unfortunately for the Emperor, Takeru, his girlfriend, and the land of Yamato, there's an evil adviser to the king who is actually trying to aid in the resurrection of the demonic Orochi, who plans to rule the world. Orochi is heading back to earth in a giant block of ice, and he plans to regain control of the Kusanagi sword that Susanoo fought so hard to deliver to the Imperial family.
Naturally, Yamato Takeru is not going to let this happen (ZOMG spoiler!), and that's a good thing, because as the movie goes on it gets increasingly confusing and muddled. Thankfully, the decently choreographed and staged fight scenes, wacky visual effects and giant robot samurai Takeru contribute quite a bit of morbid excitement that the rest of the film lacks. The characterization and acting isn't particularly strong, and while its clear that the film desperately wants to be beautiful in that carefully composed, classical manner that so many of the best Jidai-Geki were, it simply isn't. The sheer number of unconvincing matte shots, rubber suits and cheesy special effects don't help it to look any more like Kurosawa, even if they're a major part of what makes the movie so much fun. It also doesn't help that the whole thing is played with poker-faced seriousness by the leads. Only the rather dependable genre film staple Hiroshi Abe seems to be having fun with his character, the human incarnation of the eight headed dragon.
It's all predictable, following along the "Hero's Journey" plot line as it does, with magic swords pulled from stones, confrontation with the self/elder in an underworld, the reclamation of lost authority, and a final battle with ancient evil. With a film that's this much like Star Wars, why wouldn't you expect hokey dialogue and a bland leading protagonist? If all those fantasy and sci-fi films of the eighties taught us anything, it's not that you should expect bad writing and acting, but that that's all you really can expect from movies of this type.
And that's a problem: this is serious stuff, potentially. There are too few films that really deal with Japan's ancient history, and all of them have to fit it into some sort of generic mold -- a case of a round hole and a peg with a shape nobody's ever seen before. Does one try to pass it off as Harryhausen-esque fantasy, as Hiroshi Inagaki did in his film, The Three Treasures? (Toshiro Mifune as Yamato Takeru!) Does one make it into a knowingly modern fable, as Masahiro Shinoda attempted with Himiko? Is it best to strive for unerring period detail and historical accuracy within the necessary narrative fiction, as with Teinosuke Kinugasa's Yoso? All of these methods (and others) have been tried over the years of Japanese film, with varying success. Unlike the western counterparts of peplum and Biblical epics, these films never became a trend in Japan -- never becoming a genre with a set criteria and function of their own -- and thus, director Takao Okawara has an unenviable task in front of him with Orochi. He provides an ancient Japan as shaped by his experience as a director of Godzilla films.
Orochi was initially hoped to be the first in a series, and it feels like it. But it wasn't successful. The further adventures of Yamato Takeru were not to be retold with a giant, gleaming Mega-Zord Yamato bookending each film with a final battle as was likely intended. The Japanese film industry was really not well at the time, and was especially unkind to period and fantasy films (the nineties were like that the world over, except in Hong Kong, God bless 'em). Orochi hasn't received much kindness in the after market either. Reviews on kfccinema.com say that it "ultimately falls flat" and a retarded IMDb reviewer calls it "a rip-off of every genre in the last 20 years." In truth, it is a glorious failure, which obviously didn't do much for Toho, the studio that produced it. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed myself while watching it, and honestly wouldn't mind seeing another Kaiju-kung fu-special effects flick based on Yamato Takeru. Unfortunately, we're more likely to see a crappy anime or miss out on a middling Taiga drama that will never get released in the US. Orochi: the Eight Headed Dragon will do in their stead.
And honestly, how could anybody not like a movie that has a finale that goes from awesome...
...to more awesome...