Sword, Sorcery and Dubious Theology in Feudal Japan

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A review of Samurai Reincarnation (Makai Tensho — 1981) by guest columnist Tenebrous Kate

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EDITOR’S NOTE: While Kinji Fukasaku’s version of this surreal epic, starring Sonny Chiba, Kenji Sawada, Akiko Kana, and Hiroyuki Sanada isn’t an outright ninja movie, between Chiba’s shinobi-pedigreed Jubei and the villains’ ninja-garbed masked henchmen there are enough tangents to merit this more than recommended movie’s inclusion on this site. Rather than repeat my typical lauding of the combat and stunts of the Japan Action Club and Star Wars-era effects Kadokawa brought to the table, I wanted the outré religious aspects of this flick explored by a more qualified voice. VN is delighted to introduce Tenebrous Kate to a largely new audience.

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Sometimes I wonder if being an American movie-viewer has made me a lazy audience member. As Americans, we have certain expectations when we watch action, horror, and fantasy movies—we’ll know who the good guys are, we’ll understand their motivations, and there will be a conclusion to the story in which the good guys achieve some measure of success. The opportunities for novelty within American pop entertainment movies lie in the visual presentation of material, not so much in the structure of the story.

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These expectations are why it can be so extremely disorienting to encounter a movie like Samurai Reincarnation, a 1981 Toei production by Kinji Fukasaku (a name familiar to many as the director of Battle Royale). Right from the opening frames of this movie, it’s clear that we’re in for a bizarre ride. This fantasy actioner begins by showing the gory aftermath of the massacre of tens of thousands of Japanese Christians at the hands of the shogunate. Samurai Shiro Amakusa is resurrected from the dead only to see the mutilated bodies of his fellow Christians. He might seem sympathetic but this changes pretty quickly when, seconds after his reawakening, Shiro renounces his faith and asks for the assistance of Hell in seeking revenge. This is probably the worst way for a religious person to go about righting great wrongs, and this formerly pious warrior is transformed into a bloodthirsty villain who uses a whip made of the hair of Christian martyrs to defeat his enemies.

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The newly devil-powered Shiro travels the countryside building a dream team of resurrected men and women who agree to accept new life from him (a perverse Anti-Christ figure) in order to pursue the goals that had been denied to them in life. This is an odd group, ranging from tragic characters (Lady Hosakawa’s horrible, unfaithful husband has her killed and young farmer Kirimaru dies during a raid on his village), amoral ones (Musashi Miyamoto dies unsure of his status as finest sword fighter in the land), and… well… then there’s Inshun, a monk who was unable to realize his dreams of raping and murdering lots of women and agrees to be resurrected only after he’s promised a glorious afterlife brimming with sexual assault. While each of the five undead tried, during life, to achieve a level of goodness, all inhibitions are out the window when they’re given a new lease on earthly existence. I’m no Bible scholar, but I feel like this story might be criticizing these people’s failure to “turn the other cheek” in accordance with the Christian faith.

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Meanwhile, the shogun and his men are busy exploiting the peasantry, raising taxes and imposing harsh punishments in spite of crop failure and general destitution. The shogun maintains a deliberate distance from the needs of his people and turns his attentions instead to getting it on with his mysterious new concubine, the previously pious Hosakawa in the guise of a courtesan. All is not just sexy job abandonment, however, and when demon-possessed Hosakawa accompanies the shogun on a hunting trip, she hypnotizes him into firing arrows into his own subjects and displaying their crucified bodies on a hilltop.

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At this point, if you are a sane human being, you are undoubtedly on #TeamNoOne. On one side, you’ve got a lapsed Christian martyr parodying his former faith and working black magic for revenge, but on the other side you’ve got a totalitarian government sadistically abusing and exploiting its subjects. This is a chaotic, cruel world, but there’s one man who serves as a symbol of rightness (or at least “traditional morals”—that’s about as good as we’re going to get here), and that’s Yagyu Jubei, a one-eyed samurai played by the legendary Sonny Chiba. Jubei is depicted as outside the Christian uprising as well as distanced from the corrupt government. He befriends the poor and has honed his skills as a swordsman independently after losing an eye while sparring with his father. Jubei seems fated to fight the demons: he was a friend to Kirimaru during his lifetime and his skills as a swordsman are envied by Musashi, whose demonic existence is dedicated to seeking out Jubei for a duel.

Jubei is among the first to realize the supernatural threat posed by Shiro and his posse, and his warnings are thoroughly ignored by everyone he attempts to inform. Jubei only manages to convince Murumasa, a forger of magical swords, of the reality of the threat after the sword-maker witnesses Musashi’s demonic nature firsthand. Over the course of many days, Murumasa dedicates his waning power to making a sword so powerful that if the wielder encounters God, “God will be cut.”

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And it’s high time Jubei gets his hand on a God-cutting sword, too, because Shiro has used that aforementioned hilltop crucifixion to incite a full-scale peasant assault on Edo, the seat of government power. Honestly, this is not a terrible plan, given that the shogun and his men have demonstrated a level of viciousness towards the populace that warrants some serious backlash. People get uncomfortable when peasants start putting heads on pikes, and it’s up to Jubei to make sure order reigns and the farmers get back to a proper acceptance of their lot in life (besides, prohibitions on Christianity would be lifted eventually, over two hundred years later in the latter half of the 19th Century).

Samurai Reincarnation is a movie that applies Toei’s fantastical, special-effects-reliant style to telling a pretty damn dark story. The sets and costumes used throughout the film are lavish, creating an immersive atmosphere. Characters don sumptuous brocade kimonos, elaborate wigs, and colorful eye makeup in a manner characteristic of Japanese historical dramas. Exploitation movie staples like female nudity, geysers of blood, and hacked off heads and limbs are a constant reminder that we’re watching a horror fantasy story. The use of thick fog to signify the presence of demons is and effective and moody visual. Long spans of time are spent establishing character motivations and story elements (there’s a whole subplot involving Jubei’s father that I haven’t discussed above, to cite one example), so the pacing can be a bit on the slow side. When action sequences do occur, they are highly stylized and athletic, with plenty of the leaping, cloth-flapping, sword-clashing pageantry one expects from Japanese action dramas. Of particular note is Jubei’s final showdown with his enemies, which takes place in the fiery remains of the palace and appears as if it was legitimately dangerous to execute.

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A swashbuckling adventure and supernatural thriller, Samurai Reincarnation is also a story of how people sacrifice their humanity in pursuit of revenge and other unattainable goals. The fact that the peasants are portrayed as a devil-possessed mob suggests that even their just cause is seen as a hopeless one. An ambiguous ending further underscores the overall darkness of the movie.

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While the Shogun Assassin-meets-Sign of the Cross-with-an-added-helping-of-nihilism combination of Samurai Reincarnation might seem strange, the story is incredibly popular in Japan. The 1981 film is the first screen adaptation of a 1967 novel of the same name by Futaro Yamada, which is itself based on events of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 – 1638. It doesn’t stop there, though: four other movies that take the novel as their inspiration, to make no mention of the multiple manga and video games. The line-up of Shiro’s demon gang changes among these stories, but the themes (and the presence of hero Jubei) remain the same.

What gives Samurai Reincarnation its magic is the fact that it is a uniquely Japanese movie. Combining historical fact and traditional morals with flashy genre-style movie making, it’s a pop entertainment product of its culture.

 

About the Author:

Tenebrous Kate is a New Jersey-based writer and artist whose work explores her longstanding fascination with all things dark, fantastical and forbidden. The creator of the webcomic Super Coven and the editor of various zines under her imprint Heretical Sexts, Kate has also written for publications including Ultra Violent Magazine, I Love Bad Movies and Occult Rock Magazine. She has appeared in New York-based comedy variety shows including Kevin Geeks Out, Meet the Lady and Bonnie and Maude, and Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire is her long-running blog where she writes about psychedelic cult films, bizarro art, throwback forms of heavy metal, and all manner of other esoteric nonsense.

 

Ninja Star-Struck!

Sonny Chiba made his American convention debut the last weekend in March at a show called Monsterpalooza in Burbank, CA. This once intimate, now massive, gathering of visual effects artists and Monster Kids is known for making history with guests from Japan — original Godzilla stuntman Haruo Nakajima’s US debut being a standout.

I was pretty jazzed to meet Chiba, as publisher of this site, and outright fanboy. He has generational fan bases — to many he’ll always be Terry Tsurugi from the 70’s Streetfighter films, newer fans only know him from those Kill Bill! flicks, but for me… well, I can’t even remember how many times I watched Iga Ninpocho (aka Ninja Wars) during the mid-80s when it ran on cable (and subsequently worn out on VHS).

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Chiba sold 8x10s and signed autographs like all celebs do, and gave a talk to dozens of fans, discussing movies old and new. He spoke some sardonic smack about Quentin Tarantino — chiding him a bit for being a weird stalker when first given a tour of his home video collection, even commenting on him being a copycat director weaving together remakes of his favorite scenes from other directors’ films rather than creating his own vision. It was all done through an interpreter so who knows what exactly was said and with what tone, but still, absolutely priceless!

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Enthused as the crowds were, it seemed Chiba himself had the real ‘fan’ moment when long-time VN supporter Dustin de Leon showed up in full Hattori Hanzo costume from the latter seasons of Kage no Gundan — aka Shadow Warriors. Dustin was known for his Sub Zero outfits at cons around SoCal, but a few years ago he fell in love with older Japanese ninja movies and TV and he an a small group of like-minded shadow-souls now stand out in convention crowds of robots, zombies, superheroes, gaudy anime girls and 8-bit icons by sporting down-to-earth retro-shinobi gear!

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(Keepin’ it real in a world of Narutos… members of SoCal’s Shadow Warriors cosplay group including
Dustin, Matt Todd, Xanthe Huynh, Christine Bae and Mark Todd.)

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Chiba was absolutely blown away that anyone in the US (outside of Tarantino the Stalker) even knew of his 80s show. (And I’ve asked this forever on this site but WHY WHY WHY wasn’t such fare released over here during the height of our craze?!?!?!?) He called Dustin up on stage with him for photos, and even invited him to dinner where the kid got to meet Chiba’s sword-slinger daughter Juri Manase.

It was great to see this ninja-fandom dream-come-true for Dustin, well done man!

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I, meanwhile, was turned down for an interview by his U.S. handlers, but that bitterness doesn’t belong in these celebratory pages, so ignore my sad self right now and check out these props Chiba-san had on display at the show!

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Don’t know how vintage any of this was, or if it even came in from Japan (kinda hard to get throwing spikes past TSA nowadays), but it was a cool spread nonetheless.

AND… in the end, I did an end-around, circumventing Chiba’s US peeps and getting my info right to his Japanese management, so that interview may just happen in the future…

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Or I’m just a big nerd.

But so what, I met Sonny Chiba!!!

 

Chiba in Burbank this weekend!

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You have a chance to meet Hattori Hanzo, Jubei Yagyu, Golgo 13 and Terry Tsurugi this weekend at Monsterpalooza in Burbank, CA!

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An ultra-rare appearance by Sonny Chiba, and at the country’s best horror convention to boot… AND… I myself will be there as a vendor selling vintage toys, lucha libre stuff and even some select pieces from the VN swag collection! [Table 175, outside hall]

How can you not go?

Kick-ass pressbook stills of Sonny Chiba’s Jubei in MAKAI TENSHO

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There are plenty of versions of Makai Tensho (aka Samurai Resurrection, Samurai Reincanation, and more), but my absolute fave adaptation is the 1981 Kinji Fukusaku-directed Kadowkawa effects epic.

Spanning the decades and various actors, Jubei Yagyu has been portrayed as a heroic shinobi-skilled espionage overlord, a wandering secret agent on the lam, a vengeful son trying to take down his own corrupt clan, a beyond-villainous government pawn, and even a fully credible military leader and sword instructor. He’s saved shoguns and assassinated shoguns, hunted ninja and protected ninja. He’s been as multi-purpose as Billy the Kid.

Sonny Chiba played Jubei A LOT, with a wider variety of incarnations than probably any other actor, but in ’81 he took the character to new heights of surreal mysticism and outright EXTREMENESS!

Battling the wizard-ghost of the rebellious Christian samurai Amakusa Shiro and his squad of resurrected legends of the sword (including zombie Musashi!), Chiba takes the familiar black-clad tsuba-eye-patched swordsman motif he previously established on the big and small screens and adds completely amazing protective spell body art for a look so f’n devastating it will make your soul poop.

Do not watch this film with your girlfriend. Fertile women can become impregnated just by being in the same room as Chiba’s digitized awesomeness. I once fell asleep while this DVD was on in the background and when I woke up the next morning my house was a pile of kindling and I was somewhere in Kansas. You’ve been warned…

I’ll probably do a full write-up on this genre-bending flick in October for Monsters and Masks Month, until then, get in a ninja suit, wear a soul-diaper, and paint yourself up with a Sharpie  for protection against The Amazing Hellbound Graffiti Chiba…

NINJA WARS press book

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It was one of the few Japanese ninja movies that actually made it to U.S. shores in the 80s, and what a weird choice. Full of fantasy special effects, bizarre super powered evil monks, sadism and rape and decapitated girls walking around, it was an exploitation feast for teenaged cable addicts, even if there was nary a black hood to be seen. It was Kadokawa’s big budget Iga Ninpocho, known here as Ninja Wars.

And this was the US press press book from 1983:

This painting was the U.S. poster and sometimes VHS clamshell package. Painted in 1982, it's still pretty 70's.
I could never quite make out this detail back when I had the VHS.
Back cover of the book featured Henry Sanada over the more familiar in the U.S. Sonny Chiba.

Sanada and pop-star Noriko Watanabe in her first film were BANK in Japan.
Chiba had a small but important role, and his Japan Action Club was responsible for fights and stunts galore.
Mikio Narita as the evil wizard Kashin Koji was our fave character. The dubbed English voice was over-the-top sinister and we used to imitate it all the time.
The "Devil Monks" had surreal super powers and/or signature weapons. They were downright monstrous, and this film bordered on the horror genre at all times.
Pro wrestler Strong Kobayashi as Kongo dwarfed the rest of the cast.

Ninja Wars didn’t get a whole ton of traction during the craze, mostly because of the lack of black hoods in both the film and its marketing. HBO even pushed it as a surreal Japanese art film rather than a martial arts exploitation movie, which wasn’t that huge a stretch…

If Ninja Wars was ‘art’ then it was a demented piece of fantasy art painted on the side of some oversexed pervert’s conversion van. Mutant super monks, bat shit-crazy wizards, undead hotties with transplanted heads, fat chicks on aphrodisiacs gettin’ nekkid, flying gags and crazy stunts, acid barf of doom. Wow…

Ninja Wars may be to 80s shinobi cinema what Lucio Fulci’s Conquest was to Conan knock-offs – the weird bastard stepchild that does and doesn’t belong to the genre, and who can tell if it’s brilliant art or a total piece of shit lost in its own pretension and trying way to hard to shock?

The 2005 Adness DVD of Ninja Wars was the first time it was released uncut, widescreen and in Japanese, and it’s well worth seeking out on the secondary market. But I’ve also kept a public domain DVD and an old clamshell VHS just to have that godawful dub I so loved as a craze-era teen.

Happy Birthday Sonny!

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A bit late here, but Sunday was the 72nd birthday of Sonny Chiba, a man who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for maintaining the 80’s ninja craze.

I really want to know what insidious anti-ninjite super villain blocked Kage no Gundan from getting international distribution back in the day. I would have traded a kidney in the mid-80s for the DVD library of his weekly ninja exploits I have now…

So happy birthday, and many more, to the man we’ve loved as Terry Tsurugi, Mas Oyama, a few space and sea-faring heroes here and there, and many more. Never mind giving us the definitive Hattori Hanzo’s and Jubei Yagyu’s of a genre packed with versions of these characters. Well done sir!

Chiba as Hanzo by Marusan

Retro-styled like a kid’s vinyl toy from the 60’s, this 10″ figure of Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo from Kage No Gundan (aka Shadow Warriors) is absolutely BOSS! I’m not a big fan of boutique vinyl and the high-end collector market, but when I saw this Marusan limited piece on eBay a couple years ago I had to jump.

I’m blown away by how the Marusan sculptors skirt the fence between fealty of portrait and the sensibilities of children’s toy design. The anatomy is cartoonish, but the accuracy to the property is dead on.

Japanese toy companies like Marusan, Marmit and Bulmark have produced these weird kiddie-styled figures of obscure or adult-oriented properties over the past decade. Guess the idea is to produce the toy you would have had as a toddler if the licensing mentality of today existed back then. No one in their right mind would have licensed Zombie Michael Jackson or Angry Red Planet or myriad R-rated action properties to a vinyl toy line back in the day, but now we can enjoy the ‘what-if’ figures that never were. Limited edition runs mean they can hone in on some beloved cult properties never viable for mass-produced merch, like Matango or the scuba-creature from Atragon, or, yes… Hanzo from the decidedly un-toddler-friendly Shadow Warriors.