FANTASIA FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘Crazy Samurai Musashi’ is a dazzling achievement that’s ambition is bigger than its execution

From 1917 to Birdman, the device of presenting a film as one continuous shot is a daring challenge for any filmmaker. Whether you consider it a cheap “gimmick” or an impressive conceit is entirely up to you. Our brains may have a tendency to spend much of the film attempting to ascertain where cuts were seamlessly blended together, which can tend to pull you out of the film. It’s a risky venture and one that doesn’t always dazzle like those that have captured Oscar glory.

When a film is pitched as “400 vs. 1 in a single take,” you best make sure you have a damn solid actor who can pull off such a feat. That’s the tagline for director Yûji Shimomura’s martial arts epic Crazy Samurai Musashi, a dazzling achievement that’s ambition is bigger than its execution. While it’s impossible not to admire what Shimomura has constructed and is elevated by a lead performer up to the challenge, the repetitive nature of this unique concept damages a final product that forgets a narrative is still needed to keep your interest.

Beginning with a brief prologue, Crazy Samurai Musashi tells of the Yoshioka clan whose two leaders have been slain, leaving a young child as the default new leader. If he too is assassinated, the clan will fall. To avenge their fallen clansmen and save the Yoshioka from collapse, an army of 588 samurai and mercenaries is hired to kill the man responsible for the death of the Yoshioka leaders; legendary Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi).

While Musashi arrives expecting a fair one-on-one duel, he is soon confronted by an ambush from the entire company in the tight confines of the woods outside the Ichijō-ji Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto. With the swarm fueled by their quest for vengeance, it seems the legend of Musashi is about to come to an end. However, the group quickly begin to realise Musashi’s unmatched talent with a blade is equally up to the task of despatching every last one of them.

What follows is an uninterrupted, one-take 77-minute sequence featuring Mushashi attacking, duelling, and defeating literally hundreds of hapless opponents in a recreation of the most famous battle of the samurai’s life. To craft the sequence in one single shot is a miraculous feat deserving of high praise. As you would expect, Shimomura litters his cinematic event with all the swashbuckling sword fighting and bloody death scenes fans of this style of cinema will be clamouring for.

It’s a staggering physical endurance test for the 45-year-old Sakaguchi, who barely takes a break over the entire 77 minutes. Shimomura keeps the camera tightly on his star throughout the entire sequence, with cinematographer Yasutaka Nagano often pushing in for tight close-ups to intimately capture the toll of an actor being pushed to his absolute limits. Whether it’s acting or genuine exhaustion, Shimomura looks absolutely spent by the end of this film, courtesy of one of the most physically demanding performances you’re ever likely to see.

The construction of the sequence plays almost like a video game, as the swarms of nameless hired goons occasionally give way to several more physically imposing “bosses” that challenge Musashi in varying ways. There’s even the occasional “cut-scene” to break up the monotony of the fight and, naturally, give Shimomura a chance to catch his breath and deliver a few well-placed arrogant lines of dialogue. But nothing injected here can ultimately break the repetitive nature of such a unique conceit, which begins to prove rather tiresome.

In a case of obvious budgetary restraints, the 588 assassins are constructed of approximately 40-50 actors and it’s impossible to overlook the fact there isn’t a giant pile of bodies by the end of Musashi’s rampage. Once an actor is slaughtered, they scramble off-camera, wipe the fake blood off, and return to die all over again. Keen-eyed viewers may even spot a few creeping out of focus in the background of several shots, which merely highlights the fact you are watching a piece of independent cinema.

It’s hard to criticise Shomomura for this decision, as the idea of hiring over 500 stuntmen and teaching each one intricate and individualised fight choreography just wouldn’t be logistically plausible. But it’s not just the actors reappearing that you’ll notice. In a bid to assist Sakaguchi with the exhausting nature of his performance, he and his fellow actors repeat the exact fight choreography several times throughout the 77 minutes. While it’s obviously a logistical decision, it ultimately means the novelty of this film wears thin rather quickly.

As a wild experiment in filmmaking, Crazy Samurai Musashi is an ambitious undertaking that has to be respected. While its one-take fight sequence becomes tediously repetitious, the execution of such an outlandish idea is incredibly admirable. We’ve never seen a cinematic battle quite like this and this film could very well inspire action filmmakers to up their game when it comes to scenes of combat. If Shimomura had placed more focus on crafting a fully-rounded experience with a strong narrative and character development, this could have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s simply an example of the endurance of one samurai and his sword.

Distributor: My Theater D.D.
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Masaaki Takarai, Akihiko Sai, Kento Yamazaki
Director: Yûji Shimomura
Producer: Ota Takayuki
Screenplay: Sion Sono
Cinematography: Yasutaka Nagano
Production Design: Yuto Ooba
Costume Design:
Music: Hidehiro Kawai

Editing: Mitsuo Nishio
Running Time: 92 minutes

‘Crazy Samurai Musashi’ plays as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 from August 20 – September 2. For more information and tickets, head HERE.