Pretty much everything you need to know about Yûji Shimomura’s latest actioner, playing as part of Fantasia’s Official Selection, is in the poster. The tagline reads: “1 v 400 in one single take.” And that is, for the most part, exactly what you get, with one single-take swordfight taking up 77 of the films 92 minutes as legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi) slices through dozens of enemies.
Before we get to that, though, there is a brief but entertaining scene (written by Sion Sono) where the Yoshioka clan prepares for battle, and we are given a sense of Musashi’s mythical abilities as a swordsman. That is until Musashi gatecrashes their preparation in epic style, and then after the title card, we dive into the action. If you are looking for anything else, then look elsewhere as that is very much all there is here. No character development, no plot, minimal score; heck, even dialogue is hard to come by, as there is almost as much in the preceding seven minutes as there is in the following 77.
There are clear pros and cons to the single take approach. On the positive side, it places the viewer right in the heat of battle. Also, there is a real weight to the action. You feel each blow and swipe of the sword. However, without the aid of edits, there is less flow to each sword fighting set-piece than you would normally get. The action scenes often come off as jerky due to the necessary stop-start nature of each exchange. This point is even extenuated by the movie itself thanks to an excellent, fluently edited action set-piece in the epilogue.
Furthermore, the martial art movie trope of large groups of opponents standing in a circle (or semi-circle) and accommodatingly attacking one at a time is taken to the extreme. It is made to look even more ridiculous than normal because it takes up the majority of the movie rather than in one or two sequences. Equally ridiculous is that Mushashi apparently had the foresight to store water bottles and extra swords around the village in which the battle takes place, which he stops to collect every so often (even if this is understandable from a practical standpoint for Sakaguchi).
Another issue stems from the character of Musashi himself. Quite simply, there is no character. He is a black hole at the centre of the film. There is little to root for or against, as the character appears to have no motivations outside of being an otherworldly swordsman who likes to win duels and take on ludicrous odds. Thankfully, this is offset by Sakaguchi, who is an incredibly charismatic physical performer and fine martial artist. Despite the absence of character, you end up rooting for Musashi just out of recognition of what Sakaguchi is going through, working his way through a seemingly never-ending supply of foes. Eventually, the whole film slowly morphs into an oddly fascinating exercise in human endurance.
The movie certainly offers a curious viewing experience; at once patience-testing, and fascinating. Patience-testing in that there is a sameness to a lot of fight sequences, despite the excellent fight choreography, that threatens to become interminable. But each time this happens, there is a sequence or moment to draw you back in, mostly the one-on-one duels with the clan’s grandmasters. Also, there is one particularly entertaining scene in which the squabbling of two samurai is suddenly and violently interrupted by Musashi.
Crazy Samurai Musashi is definitely a niche film. It is likely to be eaten up by certain action movie purists while leaving most others cold. By its end, your reviewer fell somewhere in between, having alternated continually between bored and captivated; never entirely convinced by this one-take exercise but simultaneously happy it exists.
Available on-demand as part of Fantasia Festival from Thu 20 Aug 2020