Shogun’s Ninja (1980)
Shogun's Ninja is an awesome Japanese samurai and ninja film by Toei Studios action division. Released in Japan in November 1980, it made some yen and furthered the careers of some quality actors. I found it on ultracheap DVD in a box set from Saint Clair Vision, put out in 2004, long after it had fallen into public domain status.
The digital image transfer was poorly done, made worse by the brutal pan-and-scan which removes probably 15% of the original picture frame. This is especially noticeable during the numerous fight scenes where occasionally the actors were on the edges of the screen facing each other, but the pan-and-scan cut them out completely. The sound is clear, if overbearing, and the dubbing is about what can be expected. Quite lengthy, it clocks in at 117 minutes, but feels at times much longer.
This movie has a lot of familiar and classic movie themes in it, with tastes of Robin Hood, Ulysses, and even The Godfather. It also has bit of Tolkien woven throughout it's storyline. In fact, I think I will write this review with a Lord of the Rings slant to it, if for no other reason that to keep the very large cast straight. The total lack of subtitles (which would have helped), plus the paucity of info about this movie on the internet, has made it tough for me to match actors with roles, so don't expect a lot of that.
Every review I've read of this movie, long or short, has railed on and on about the horrible soundtrack. And yes, it is indeed insanely bad, a mutant mixture of contemporary Japanese hair-band ballads, Burt Bacharach instrumentals, and 1970s porn movie music. After a while you get used to the crazy music, so I won't pile the firewood up any higher.
And now on to our show...
First off, this movie takes place in feudal Japan, back when Shoguns and Princes vied for control of a fractured and violent landscape of dirt-poor peasants and wealthy landed gentry. In many ways it was a similar time to Medieval Europe, but with some important cultural differences.
At its core, our movie is the story of two men. One an evil manipulative Shogun and the other an idealistic young warrior. Locked in combat of one form or the other over a ten year span, these two men will drive the plot and action of the movie.
The Shogun (which roughly equates to a military general in western terms) is played by 41-year old Sonny Chiba, one of the world's best martial artists and a damn fine actor to boot. As I've mentioned before, he was Jet Li before there was Jet Li.
The young warrior is named Takamura, though, to begin my Lord of the Rings theme, he will be "Aragorn", due to his role in restoring his clan's heritage and his smoldering good looks and flowing over-styled hair. More on him later.
Our story begins in the year 1581, when Aragorn was just a child of about eight, the son of the Momochi Clan‘s king, important bigwigs of this part of Japan. He leads a privileged court life, doted over by his mother and a host of relatives and royal retainers.
Over in the next region is another, more powerful, clan kingdom. This clan is led by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, played by 49-year old Asao Koike. Let's just call him "the King". The King has big plans to unite all of Japan under his enlightened jackboot, and his first order of business is to eliminate the rival Momochi Clan. Hideyoshi Toyotomi is a real historical figure, who ruled much of Japan for about 15 years at the end of the sixteenth century. He invaded Korea and China and imposed strict constraints on the Europeans and Christians in Japan. It's truly a neat trick to base our fanciful movie around a real historical event.
The Shogun (who is not a historical character at all) actually works for the Momochi Clan, but is in secret dealings with the rival clan. The Shogun betrays his patron the Momochi King, murdering him in a temple with his own hands. The King proves himself a tough kill, but he's outnumbered and his fate is sealed.
What the Shogun is really looking for here is a certain short sword that the King was supposed to be carrying. It's said that on this sword is engraved a map to the secret gold mine of the Momochi Clan. If the Shogun can get this sword and the map, then he can set himself up as a powerful man on his own. However, the dead king doesn't have the sword on him!
Word of the killing makes it to Aragorn's mom, who is quite saddened. Realizing that little Aragorn is now in mortal danger (if you are going to kill the King, most likely you're then coming after all his male heirs), she calls in the boy's uncle and tells him to take the child away to safety immediately. She also has the aforementioned sword with the map on it. She gives it to the boy and tells him to never let it go, and to come back one day and avenge his parents.
His mom, following some asinine ancient code, has little choice but to kill herself now. Just a few seconds after her child is pulled away, she takes up a dagger and without much debate, plunges it into her stomach. Her death scene is dramatic and bloody, and made even more distressing by Aragorn running back to see his mom die badly. That's got to scar you for life.
"Run away, boy, mommy's going to stab herself now."
The Shogun and his bevy of light-grey clad ninja arrive then, just missing the boy but finding the dead mom. Pissed, the Shogun orders his men to find and kill every member of the Momochi Clan ruling family (especially the boy, the heir) and to find that sword.
Young Aragorn is whisked out of danger by his uncle in the dead of night. Entering a wooded area, they meet up with a group of children and adults, who are hiding there. These are the surviving kids of the royal court, sons and daughters of the various princes and princesses of the Momochi Clan, many of them blood relatives of Aragorn. Several of these kids will survive and grow up to be important characters in the second half of the movie.
Suddenly, they're ambushed by the Shogun's ninjas! At least eight ninjas assail them, easily slicing through the few men present to get to the women and kids. In a quick battle, we see one Momochi man, three Momochi women and one Momochi child killed with swords and throwing stars. One ninja falls to the defenders, but the massacre is getting ugly fast.
Aragorn's uncle desperately fights his way to the water's edge (presumably the Sea of Japan, as later references suggest). Pursued hotly, he clutches the boy tightly to his chest and jumps in. Of note, when Aragorn was carried away from the battle, all the ninjas followed (they were after him most of all), which allowed the other kids to escape.
A short interlude tells us what happens next. The next year, in 1582, the King unites all of Japan in a series of bloody battles against other rival clans (shown to us in snippets of stock footage from past movies about this sort of thing). There's some confusing stuff about double-crossing and betraying, but all that matters is that in the end, the King and the Shogun are the last ones standing and all of Japan is under their thumb.
Fast forward now to ten years hence. We see a young man in an open boat, crossing the Sea of Japan from China to Japan. This will prove to be Aragorn, all grown up and returning home to reclaim his heritage and avenge his parents.
The adult Aragorn is played by 20-year old Hiroyuki "Henry" Sanada, a protégé of Sonny Chiba and one of the best martial arts actors working in the early 1980s. I've recently reviewed another of his action movies, 1982's Ninja Wars. As the genre died down in the 1990s, Sanada branched out into dramatic acting, and was good enough to get a gig with the Royal Shakespeare Company (the first Japanese actor to do so). He's recently had some juicy roles in the Japanese versions of The Ring series and Tom Cruise's epic The Last Samurai.
Still dressing in a Chinese-style shirt and pants, Aragorn goes into the city of Kyoto, the seat of imperial power and home to the King, where he stops in to see a girly stage show. On stage four girls, way over-dressed in about five layers of cloth each, do a choreographed dance number and occasionally kiss each other (calm down, it doesn‘t get any racier than that).
The audience is mostly nice folk, but there are some rowdy off-duty policemen (identified by their distinctive striped pants) in the group and they start to get a little impatient. I guess they want the dance show to become a striptease, because several of them jump onto the stage and start to try and get the girls to make out with them. Aragorn, not one to pass up damsels in distress, steps in to save the girls.
And so we get the first of many (many) fight scenes where Aragorn shows what a super stud kung-fu fighter he will be. And he is indeed very skilled, showing off some excellent body control and impressive physical dexterity. This is one of the better fight scenes in the entire movie, taking advantage of Aragorn's abilities and some neat film techniques like slow motion and high angles. The nine policemen are thumped, and Aragorn never even has to draw his sword.
Aragorn kicks some ass.
Just then, who should arrive but the Shogun! Staring down the foreign man, he spies the Momochi sword in his belt and instantly knows that this is Aragorn returned from China. Ordering him caught dead or alive, the policemen regroup and attack again. Aragorn easily escapes, however, leaping onto roofs and running away like the thief in Aladdin.
Ok, during the fight, these four young men (about Aragorn's age) in the crowd notice the Momochi sword also. They follow Aragorn and I guess help him escape, because in the very next scene they're all five together somewhere out in the country (an old ruined building, perhaps even an old Momochi Clan structure?).
These guys will prove to be Aragorn's long-lost cousins! These were kids who also survived the great purge of the Momochi Clan ten years ago, and have been hiding from Shogun ever since. Imagine the odds!
These guys have formed a band of thieves that, to borrow from an old story you might have heard, steal from the rich and give to the poor. They're also hiding from the Shogun, who is still determined to track down the last remnants of the old Momochi Clan. They have taken on the collective persona of "Ishikawa Goemon", a popular bandit hero. The police think that this Goeman is a single person, but it's really five guys working as a team. The character of Ishikawa Goeman is an actual semi-historical figure in Japanese history who was made popular in Raizo Ichikawa's Band of Assassins films from the 1960s.
All right, the four cousins are really hard to keep separate, as they all look kind of alike and the lack of subtitles means I barely know their real names let alone their stage names. I think they're named something like "Monta", "Kawagiri", "Muskigi", and someone else. Just to keep with my LOTR theme, however, I will refer to them as the four Hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.
The Hobbits! Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin (and no, I don't know which is which).
There's also a fifth guy who shows up a bit later, also a former Momochi kid, but perhaps not one directly related to Aragorn. This is "Ishiba", though I think he will now be "Boromir".
Boromir! (see, that damned pan-and-scan causes this kind of crap...)
When he first arrives, Boromir has to engage Aragorn in some testosterone-fueled ju-jitsu and kung-fu sparing before he will accept him into the band. This is also another well-paced fight sequence, really showing off some impressive moves by both men. In the end, Aragorn proves his Chinese-style fighting to be most wicked and Boromir gains respect for him and will follow him faithfully the rest of the movie.
Ok, the new characters are coming in fast and furious here, so keep up. We also meet here the ninja thief "Natoshi" (I think, that's what it sounds like) and his band of "Spider Ninjas". This group and their leader seem to be at least affiliated with our bandit heroes, thought their exact relationship is unclear. They will eventually pledge allegiance to Aragorn, but their reasons for doing so are suspect. The leader Natoshi seems to have been known to Aragorn from ten years ago, suggesting that he was somehow allied with the Momochi Clan before the massacre, and he now sees Aragorn as his master. He might be his uncle's son. Do to his role in our movie, Natoshi will be called "Faramir" from now on.
The Spider Ninjas need some explaining. These are Faramir's trained ninjas, who specialize in being able to scuttle up trees like spiders, thanks to years of training, these neat spiked bands on their hands and feet, and copious use of wire-fu, of course. They're all dressed in camouflage bodysuits, which rather anachronistically appear to be late 1970s NATO forest camo-patterned commando coveralls.
Back now to Kyoto, where we see the King and the Shogun talking. Recently the King invaded the Korean peninsula and is thinking about moving into China. This actually happened in real life, as the King conducted war overseas.
Risk!, ancient Japanese version.
He says that "war is so expensive" and he's running out of gold for his military plans. He reminds the Shogun about the fabled gold mines of the Momochi Clan and he sure wishes he could find them. Note how the Shogun doesn't say anything, even though the other day he saw Aragorn with the sword in Kyoto. This is a clear sign that the Shogun has his own plans on the gold, and they don't involve giving it to the King.
Ok, back now to Aragorn and his merry band of thieves. Just to recap, the band now consists of Aragorn, the four hobbits plus Boromir, and Faramir and his two dozen or so Spider Ninjas.
Aragorn tells them about being picked up at sea by a Chinese merchant ship ten years ago and taken to China. He was a poor man there, lost in a foreign country, and had to turn to thievery to survive after his uncle died when he was 14. he was pulled from a life of crime by a Shaolin Kung-fu master who taught Aragorn how to fight in the Chinese style. With his scofflaw energy thus diverted into attaining a new level of buffness and inner peace, Aragorn grew up to be a fine specimen of honorable living.
He also tells them of a girl named Airen, the daughter of the Shaolin master. Along the way, he fell in love with her. Airen is played by 25-year old Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi. Another of Chiba's star kung-fu pupils, I just reviewed her in 1974's Sister Street Fighter, where she had the lead role. She's not the most attractive woman, but she sure can kick ass. We see her in a flashback saving Aragorn in a street fight, and she does have some skill. This is not one of Sue Shihomi's best acting performances. In many of her scenes here and to follow, she seems to be acting the clown, though the humor does lighten up what is a pretty dark film at times. Due to her relationship with Aragorn, I think I will refer to her as "Arywn".
Off now to Mount Suzuka, to the house of a rogue ninja named Hanzo Hattori. Hanzo is played by 40-year old Isao Natsuyagi, who I just saw as Doctor Nakanishi in 1980's Virus. And yes, the name "Hattori Hanzo" was swiped by Quentin Tarantino for the character that Sonny Chiba plays in Kill Bill (irony!). I'm going to call him "Eomer".
Eomer is a strange dude. It's never stated with any certainty what he does for a living (other than brooding and frowning) and his allegiances seem to sway from one side to the other based on which side is winning. He seems to be out for little more than his own good, though at several times he takes risks to help Aragorn and his mates. The Shogun (and presumably the King) wants him dead, though we don't know why, and he's once said to be working for a rival military general who wants the Shogun's job. We later see that he has a band of skilled warriors that he can call up for the final battle, but we never learn where they came from or what their role is in the large context of Japanese society. The Rogue Warrior archetype is fairly common in Japanese action movies, and Eomer is one of the best.
Eomer has a sister named Otsuu, played by the stunningly lovely Yuki Ninagawa, a petite fine-featured girl in her very first movie role. Otsuu was once a member of the outlawed Momochi Clan, but was taken in by Eomer during the killing spree against the Momochis. Why he took her in and raised her as his own sister is not said, but Eomer is a pretty complicated dude so anything is possible. Otsuu was a childhood friend of Aragorn's, and we saw her present at the massacre when most of the royal kids were killed. Even though they last knew each other when they were just little kids, they both have always kept a simmering attraction that will blossom again soon. As she's Eomer's sister (albeit just a foster sister) and she has a thing for Aragorn, I've no choice but to call her "Eowyn".
Eomer tells Eowyn that Aragorn is back in Japan (he was in the city and saw him fight the police). You can tell from the shocked and excited look on her face that she still has the mojos for Aragorn, but she doesn't want to upset her brother by saying so out loud. Eomer understands their bond, but doesn't like it, and asks Eowyn to go to Aragorn and meet him. He then wants her to "steal his sword", as he knows it has the gold mine map on it. Eomer would dearly love to have all that gold, either for himself or for whatever patron he works for.
That night, Aragorn is out doing some soulful thinking when he's surprised to hear beautiful flute music coming from a nearby bamboo grove (well, really an obvious studio lot that looks like a bamboo grove). Lured as if by a siren, Aragorn approaches the handsome young woman who is playing it.
Much to Aragorn's surprise, he recognizes the girl as Eowyn! They exchange some tearful remembrances of the past and catch up a bit. While Aragorn is overjoyed at this seemingly chance meeting with the girl he had a crush on ten years ago, Eowyn is less than enthusiastic about the same. She's clearly having some emotional issues with her brother's request to steal Aragorn's sword. She leaves soon after they begin talking, but assures him they will meet again.
Eowyn and her flute.
The flute she holds either belonged to Aragorn's mother, or was a gift (she calls it a "keepsake") from her to Eowyn. As much screen time as this particular flute gets, I figured that it would somehow play a larger role in the ending, perhaps it had a map on it as well. But, the flute remains just another MacGuffin in a film full of MacGuffins, from the flute to the mapped-swords to the King's plans for invasion, they all serve little purpose in the way the story ends.
Anyway, one of the cousins (Merry, I think, I've lost track of who's who) has a pretty young wife (who knew?) and she's none too happy with his lifestyle of robbing and banditry. One wonders why she married him to begin with, knowing the kind of life he leads. She comes to him one night and admits that she just alerted the police to the band's hideout! She tosses to the floor some thin metal disks, which I assume pass for thirty pieces of silver in this part of the world. Through tears she claims she did it for them, so they could run away and raise babies and have a house and all that stuff. Merry is understandably torn, but seems to choose to let the police raid happen and as such is not present during the coming battle. This is a strong character scene for these two actors.
Ok, out now to the band's hideout, in the ruined building out in the forest. It's dawn, it's quiet, and the Shogun is personally leading a large force of both policemen and his ninjas, maybe 50 guys altogether. We see that Aragorn is up early, out in the woods away from the hideout doing some stretching and work-outs. Dude has some seriously heavy exercise regimens, no wonder he's in such great shape. As such, he will miss the first stage of the raid, though he will get involved later.
The police raid on the compound is fast and brutal. The policemen storm the building, while the ninjas lurk in the nearby treetops to pick off anyone who escapes. Our heroes wake up quickly and a vicious fight develops. The Spider Ninjas also get involved, and show us a new weapon, a apple-sized grenade (!) that explodes with mostly smoke and fury. I'm not sure how historical this is, but I assume that gunpowder bombs were being used by this time.
The first phase of the raid is lengthy and ends with Sam, Pippin, and Frodo captured by the police and led off tied up in ropes (remember that Merry was absent, off with his wife). Faramir, Boromir and an unknown number of Spider Ninjas are all that manage to escape the ambush. Left on the battlefield are the bodies of eight of the Shogun's ninjas and eleven of the Spider Ninjas. Oh, and a dead chicken, too.
While all that was going on, Aragorn is still oblivious to everything, out in the woods doing his work-outs. Suddenly he's attacked by the Shogun!
Might as well do this here. The Shogun has two personal bodyguards which are never far from him. These are highly trained murderers who are fiercely loyal to the Shogun, who has raised them from children to "have no fear" and to be an "unbeatable team". They also are mute, deaf, really short, and have Amish bowl haircuts. They have this signature move where they stand on the Shogun's shoulders (!) and form a three-high tower. From that stance, they leap off with blades flashing. It looks damn silly, but it's definitely unique. The Amish Twins kind of remind me of the Albino Twins from The Matrix: Revolutions.
The Amish Twins!
The Albino Twins!
Five Spider Ninjas rush out of the trees to help Aragorn, but all are cut down quickly. Aragorn alone now faces the Shogun and the Amish Twins. He and the Shogun yell at each other a bit, and let the other know that revenge and vengeance is in the cards.
Aragorn gives it the old college try, but he's clearly outmatched by the Shogun. Down on his back with a sword point at his throat, it looks like the end for our young hero. Suddenly, who should show up in the nearby trees but Eowyn! Aragorn tosses her his sword (!) and she runs off with it.
You know, it's hard to run in a kimono. The Amish Twins pursue her and corner her. Just when it looks ugly, her brother Eomer comes swinging in on a rope like Tarzan to lift her off to safety! Wow!
Ok, Aragorn is thus captured and taken to Kyoto with Sam, Frodo, and Pippin. They will be interrogated by the police.
In a cell (oddly inside the Imperial Palace) Aragorn is tortured by the Shogun's minions, trying to get him to give up the locations of other holdout Momochi Clansmen. Torture scenes like this are typical in these types of movies, but I've never had much use for them. I find cinematic depictions of torture in any circumstances to be abominable and I see no need to encourage this sort of thing. The Shogun himself gets into the act, grabbing Aragorn's balls and squeezing (!!!!). Despite all this mistreatment, Aragorn doesn't talk (tough guy, grab my sack and I'll squeal any secret I have...).
A quick cut now to Eomer and Eowyn. He has the Momochi sword now and he checks it out. He realizes quickly that the sword only has half a map on it! There must be another sword out there that has the other half on it.
Eomer has some harsh words for his sister, accusing her of still holding onto her Momochi roots. He seems to be trying to convince her that she's no longer part of that clan and she should do what she says. There's not really open hostility between the two, but you can tell that Eomer is the dominant member of the family. Pretty rotten of Eomer to use his sister's emotions against her like that, but he's blinded by his lust for the gold mine.
Eowyn is stunningly cute, did I mention that?
Back to Aragorn. Left alone, hanging upside down from the ceiling of his cell by a rope, Aragorn hatches a daring escape plan. Using a candle placed too close, the physics of a swinging pendulum, and abdominal muscles that would make most mortal men blush with envy, Aragorn escapes his cell.
He goes running through the castle looking for an exit, killing one and injuring three guards on his way. Taking a wrong turn, Aragorn accidentally stumbles into the King's personal chambers! Whoops! There are no armed guards here (for the King's own safety probably), but his bevy of beautiful concubines prove to be more than capable of defending their sugar daddy. They rush at Aragorn as he tries to flee, arming themselves with nagintaas (long poles with knife blades on the end, favored weapons of the bad guys in this movie).
Unarmed himself, but with fabulous hair, Aragorn manages to deflect, block, parry and flee from the blades. Without seriously harming any of the girls, he escapes unscratched (damn hard to run in kimonos...).
Teenage girls love me!
Hounded by the swarming security forces, Aragorn is soon trapped out on the roof of the palace, which is conveniently near a wide river. In one of the movie's best and certainly most dangerous stunts, a stuntman who looks a lot like Aragorn jumps from the palace roof into a balloon safety bag probably two hundred feet (!) below. Well, ok, in the movie Aragorn jumps into the river and swims away, but seriously, that was an awesome stunt freefall jump.
Ok, recall now that Sam, Pippin and Frodo were also captured with Aragorn during the police raid. Some time later (maybe the next day) these three guys are to be publicly executed for banditry. They're taken down to the river bank (on a wide gravel bar about fifty-feet wide) where a cauldron of boiling oil (!) is set up under a big wooden gantry. The bandits are to be boiled alive, which seems pretty cruel, but I guess it keeps the crime rate down. The Shogun is here, with a large body of policemen to make sure everything goes to plan.
Now, watching this will be a large group of local citizens, held back from the gantry by a fence. As our guys are somewhat the folk heroes in the region (for robbing the rich and giving to the poor, of course) the general mood in the crowd is one of disappointment. That said, there do seem to be a number of people who are just here to see some people die horrible deaths, I guess those types are in every town.
Just as Sam is about to be tossed in the cauldron, from out of the crowd rushes Merry! Where he has been all this time since the police raid is unknown, but he surely has been wracked with guilt for allowing his wife to tip off the police and then doing nothing to try and save his cousins. Overcome finally by this guilt by seeing Sam about to be executed, Merry dashes in to take Sam's place. He pushes his way through the guards and leaps into the cauldron himself (!), thus redeeming some of his face by dying honorably. His wife is also here and she runs to save him, but is cut down brutally by the Shogun, dying without either honor or grace.
Concerned who else is in the crowd of townspeople now, the Shogun orders everyone there to get on their knees and present their faces to be inspected. We that in the crowd are Eowyn and Boromir, though the Shogun doesn't notice them. Somewhat satisfied, the Shogun orders the execution of Sam, Pippin and Frodo to continue.
At this pivotal moment, who should emerge from the shallow edges of the river but Aragorn! His entrance here is awesome, coming up out of the water at full tilt, chest bared, a dagger held between his teeth, nostrils flaring, a very Rambo-esque shot if there ever was one.
What develops next is another rollicking, ultra-violent set piece where virtually everyone gets into the act. On one side is the Shogun, a bunch of policemen, some archers and some musketeers. On the other are Aragorn and Boromir, the three remaining cousins, plus Faramir and the rest of his Spider Ninjas (just three left by now), who show up at the right time to join in.
Some of the highlights include the Spider Ninjas who most improbably burrow (!) under the rocky sandbar to burst out of the sand to do battle (hey, it's a ninja movie from the ‘80s, give them a break), and Boromir blocking arrow volleys with his sword (predating Jet Li in Hero).
The musketeers are also an interesting addition to the movie, showing a blending of traditional Japanese weapons and recently imported European black powder muskets. European-style muskets were first imported to Japan in the 1540s, but by the time of our movie (1590s) they were being mass produced locally. The real-life King (Hideyoshi Toyotomi) used them extensively in his military campaigns during this period, so seeing them in our movie is a neat bit of historical accuracy.
The first phase of the battle is quick, and ends with three dead Spider Ninjas, Faramir dead with numerous musket balls embedded in him, and Boromir equally dead with six or seven arrows in his chest (looking a bit like the real Boromir there at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring). As well, two policemen and two musketeers lie dead on the sandbar. The survivors (Aragorn, Sam, Pippin and Frodo) are trapped under the gantry, most improbably dodging arrows and musket balls at close range.
At some point, a stray musket ball hits and kills a woman in the crowd of townspeople (who before this had been just watching the battle). Enraged by this, they start to throw stones at the policemen and yell nasty insults about their mothers. The Shogun is pissed and orders a musket volley fired into their ranks, which kills four civilians.
Just then who should arrive but Eomer and Eowyn! Riding in on horseback, they tussle with the police for a moment before tossing lassoes at the fence holding back the townspeople and pulling it down. The Shogun and Eomer lock eyes for a second and you can tell that there's no love between them. Some sort of backstory on these two would be nice, but we never get anything more than scant tantalizing hints to their past relationships.
The citizens rush at the police, providing a distraction to allow our heroes to make a run for it. Poor Pippin is too slow and takes about six musket balls and goes down fountaining blood. Aragorn tries to save him but he's too late and must leave his dying cousin. So, wow, that was a doozy. In the end, Aragorn, along with Sam and Frodo escape back into the woods.
The battle over, the survivors regroup at some unnamed location and lament their losses. It's night and a large bonfire is lit, and into the fire are tossed wooded planks with what I assume are the names of the fallen on them (don't read Japanese so don't know for sure).
Now we come to the movie's most lame-ass moment, as Aragorn breaks into an interpretive dance number (!) to express his grief. Well, in his defense, he seems to be doing some sort of flexing, grunting, bending tai chi sort of thing that just happens to morph into an energetic Flashdance number. I'm sure the teenage girls in the audience loved this scene when it first aired. His shirt is off, he's got a gallon of baby oil slathered on him, and he's channeling an early Patrick Swayze sort of thing as he gyrates and flexes about the bonfire. Got to admit, though, Aragorn has some fancy footwork here, he could give Mario Lopez a run for his money on Dancing With the Stars. Not that I watch that...
The next day, they all go to somewhere...it's a bit unclear, but it seems like this is the old ruins of the Momochi castle. Ten years ago this place was torched by the Shogun and holds a lot of unpleasant memories for Aragorn. Eowyn is here with them, playing a mournful tune on her flute, which bookends nicely with Aragorn's mom playing a similar tune on her flute in this very building at the beginning of the movie. The menfolk cry and gnash their teeth, lamenting their bad run of luck that has seen just the three of them still alive. Aragorn cries stage tears to tug at our heartstrings.
While grieving, they're surprised to see a solitary figure way up on the ridgetop overlooking the ruins. Suddenly, the man tosses his staff over the edge and then jumps after it (!). Inexplicably, he lands on his feet unharmed after a hundred-foot fall (another damn fine impressive jump by a brave stuntman), catching the staff on its way down in an artful bit of machismo.
This is Tozawa, a legendary master swordsman and fighter played by 58-year old veteran actor Tetsuro Tamba, himself a legendary martial arts actor. His relation to the Momochi Clan is unclear, but he certainly is well-known by everyone there. I get the impression that he has been missing for the last ten years, so his sudden appearance here shocks and amazes Aragorn and his cousins. While he really looks like Tim the Enchanter, my LOTR theme dictates that I refer to him as "Gandalf" (he really does look like Gandalf also, with a long flowing beard and craggy face and carrying a staff).
Tim the Enchanter!
Gandalf is pretty ticked off at Aragorn for giving up. He tells Aragorn, "I will beat any defeatism out of you!" and he means it. They then go with Gandalf into the wild and rugged Kiso Mountains to (what I assume is) Gandalf's secret dwelling. There the old master will teach these young pups how to fight like men!
And now we have yet another overly-long training montage, backed up by a catchy 1980s-style pop tune. Aragorn, Sam and Frodo train hard and train tough, but come out of it as human killing machines. The only problem with all this is that Aragorn wears some really tiny shorts while training, which for anyone who isn't a 15-year old girl is just icky.
Once Gandalf is satisfied by his progress (which seems to take a long time) he calls him in to show him something. Ten years ago, Aragorn's father gave Gandalf a short sword to hold before he was killed by the Shogun. This is a matching sword to the one Aragorn himself has had for the last decade. And yes, it has the other half of the map to the Momochi gold mine on it.
That night, our guys are sleeping peacefully when Eowyn sneaks into their quarters and steals the two swords (!). Off she runs into the night, presumably to her brother Eomer. Aragorn is roused and catches sight of her fleeing and gives chase. He catches up quickly (it's freakin' hard to run in a kimono...).
Once caught, Eowyn melts down into a blubbering mess. Betraying Aragorn was already weighing heavily on her and now that she's been confronted, it's too much for her. She tells him about her brother and her torn loyalties. She begs Aragorn to kill her for her betrayal, and for a second it looks like he might, but his emotions get the better of him and can't do it.
Look quickly, this is the most skin you see for our female cast.
But Gandalf can. Showing up out of the gloomy forest, Gandalf orders Aragorn to kill Eowyn! He won't and the two men get into a wicked death fight over the girl in a driving rainstorm, Gandalf trying to kill her and Aragorn trying to save her. We see that Aragorn has perfected what will be his signature style for the rest of the film, using both short swords at once in a flurry of swings and parries. In the end, the student has learned much and defeats his teacher. Mortally wounded, Gandalf says "Well done." and stumbles back into the woods, oddly proud of Aragorn's skills.
Eowyn goes back to Eomer and admits she couldn't do it. Eomer goes nuts and starts slapping her around, furious that she chose love over family bonds. For a second it looks like there's going to be some fratricide, but Eomer calms down. This is a complicated scene as it brings out so much emotion in these two characters. Eowyn conflicted by her uncontrollable love for Aragorn and her equally strong loyalty to her brother, and Eomer momentarily forgetting about his own strong love for his sister while blinded by rage and lust for the gold. The rollercoaster interplays between these two have been a continual highlight of this film.
Ok, this bit I'm putting ahead of sequence but it really works better explained her. Guess who should show up now but Arwyn! Remember? The hot Chinese girl whose father taught him kung-fu when he was a kid? Well she's come to Japan to find her man Aragorn. One wonders how their ending went, if she came all the way here to find him. Did he even say good-bye before he left? They say some love-stuff to each other and both seem happy. Sadly, she is the "new love" and Eowyn is the "old love", and we know who is going to win that one.
Arwyn has brought along what here seems to be a porter or a coolie, but who later will prove his worth in battle. This quiet Chinese man might as well be called "Haldir" the elf warrior (Arwyn was an elf, duh).
Back now to the Imperial city of Kyoto, where we rejoin the King and the Shogun. It seems that the King is dying of some unnamed disease and is lying in his deathbed (on a very uncomfortable- looking square pillow). He says dejectedly, "Even I, the most powerful man in Japan, have no defense against disease."
The King tells the Shogun that he needs to deliver some message to one of his generals or someone who is a long distance away. The actual message or the recipient is really unimportant, as later events will tell, but just know that the Shogun has a several-day ride by horseback ahead of him.
Also completely unimportant to the rest of the movie is a five minute discussion between the King and the Shogun about the King's young son and heir. As the boy is just a child, the King needs someone to act as his regent until he comes of age. The logical choice is the King's brother, which is in line with Japanese customs at the time. The Shogun, however, sees an opportunity to gain more power and petitions the King to act as the boy's regent himself. The King doesn't seem too happy about this, but, realizing that the Shogun has served him faithfully for a decade now, relents. When the Shogun returns from his mission, the King will officially announce him as the heir's regent. Again, all that is pointless as the movie ends long before any of that can come to pass (and with the Shogun dead anyway).
As the Shogun leaves his King's side, we see that out in the foyer are all those pretty concubine girls (the ones that gave Aragorn quite a tussle earlier). One of them gets a Significant Zooming Camera Close-Up, showing us she's not your ordinary palace girl.
Sure enough, we see this young girl now sneaking a note to none other than Eomer! While we never see this girl again, we can assume that she has been working for Eomer for a while, feeding him inside information on the King's dealings.
Eomer recognizes that the Shogun's cross-country trip outside the unbreakable walls of Kyoto will provide a wonderful opportunity to ambush and kill him. Knowing that Aragorn is itching for revenge, he tells his sister Eowyn to go tell Aragorn. Eomer has prepared a map of the Shogun's expected route (which is a really detailed work with lots of artistic embellishments and rich colors).
So Eowyn hops a horse and rides out to meet Aragorn with news of the Shogun's trip. She arrives just after Arwyn, and the two women exchange some funny looks, each as if to say, "Who is this chick?". I kept expecting some sort of jealous catfight between Eowyn and Arwyn over Aragorn, but it never comes to pass. If anything, the two women end up fighting side by side and seem to have no ill feelings for each other. That said, it's also unclear whether Aragorn ever actually tells the girls about how the other one feels about him.
Eowyn has brought the map and they all gather around to look at it. While some of the men are reluctant to trust Eowyn (understandable as she earlier tried to betray Aragorn), it's Arwyn oddly who casts the deciding vote to trust her. Aragorn agrees and they start to work planning an ambush in the thick woods where the road will have to pass through.
That's a pretty fancy map for an ambush.
Now the Shogun doesn't travel alone, of course. His flying column consists of contingents of soldiers, archers, musketeers, and his personal guard, everyone mounted on horses. As well, the Shogun's ninjas are following the column, though taking their own path. To attack such a large group of well-armed men is an audacious task, especially for such a small band as our heroes and heroines.
They have several days before the trap is to be set, however, allowing them time to carefully scout the ambush point and set up a number of ingenious booby traps and lures. They must have worked night and day on this ambush, and the end result shows that.
Ok, two days pass and out now to the forest road, where we see the Shogun and his men pounding along on horseback. Seeing fleeting forms in the woods to either side, the Shogun wisely stops the column and orders the men off the road.
Suddenly our heroes attack with a number of catapults, looking for all the world like the Ewoks mauling the stormtroopers on Endor. The catapults hurl handfuls of sharp pointy stars and spiked balls about the size of a grapefruit. In short order five men and three horses are killed before the rest of the column takes shelter and the firing stops.
And then, hanging from a rope swing, appears Aragorn! Trading insults with the Shogun, he does some gymnastics routines on the rope, earning a bronze medal and an endorsement deal with a shaving cream company.
The Shogun, not being a gymnastics fan (he prefers NASCAR), orders his archers up to shoot Aragorn full of arrows. The poorly-paid non-union extras playing the archers are clearly not professionals as you watch closely some of them struggling even to notch their arrows. Spinning like a top on the rope, Aragorn bends space-time around him (I guess) causing all the arrows to bounce off him (!).
My hair is awesome.
Annoyed now, the Shogun orders his musketeers up to give it a try. They fire into the bushes as Aragorn jumps into them. Rushing to check, the Shogun's men find not Aragorn but a couple of shot-riddled ninjas! What the hell! I guess the point is that the Shogun's personal ninja squad is lurking around the area as well, probably along the flanks of the column. They really should have been running point, maybe then they would have found all those booby traps before the column arrived. This entire movie is full of horrible tactical mistakes by the Shogun, making you wonder just how he has managed to keep his job this long.
To reset, out in the woods are our six heroes, Aragorn, Sam and Frodo, Eowyn, and Arwyn and her porter Haldir. They show themselves now, popping up at a distance to draw ill-aimed fire from the Shogun's men. This just a waste of ammo, the Shogun orders them to stop firing and break into six squads, each one to go into the woods and hunt one of the attackers.
So now it breaks down into a series of one hero versus one squad battles, all intermixed within the general framework of the ambush. There's a lot of ebb and flow in the individual battles, and trying to keep track of everything that is going on is a daunting task.
I think what I will do is give you summaries of the actions of our six heroes up until the second phase of the ambush, which I will detail later.
Haldir: For being a nobody until five minutes ago, Haldir gets more screen time that you'd expect. Armed with this set of long sticks chained together, he gets some licks in before being stabbed to death by the Shogun and his nagintaa.
Arwyn: Armed primarily with twin sets of bright red lacquer nunchucks, Arwyn puts on an amazing display of close-combat weapon skills. She really gets pissed after Haldir dies, and just goes nuts. Doesn't seem like she really kills anyone with the chucks, but he sure does leave a lot of bruises and broken bones in her path. She gets one kill with a thrown hairpin (really) at the end, but she takes three or four musket balls to the chest and dies in Aragorn's arms. Her death scene is overwraught with forced emotion and lasts way too long. Eowyn was vastly more attractive anyway, so we are glad to see her go.
Eowyn: The only one who seems scared at the thought of armed combat, Eowyn nevertheless proves her worth in battle. While handicapped by that kimono, she puts up a good fight with throwing stars and a sword, killing three men with vigor and spite.
Sam: Really here more for comic relief than anything, and is the first to die, killed quickly by two ninja without really doing anything productive. Every Japanese movie ever made has to have a portly funny-man for a sidekick.
Frodo: Always the second banana to Sam, straight-man Frodo finally gets to show his abilities. Pairing up with Eowyn for a while, he and his sword prove dangerous to the enemy. Six soldiers die by his blade before being dramatically killed by the Shogun's own sword.
Aragorn: The star of our show, Aragorn and his twin blades of slashing death holds his own against swarms of soldiers and ninjas. In this first phase of the battle he claims a whopping 19 victims (!). Notice those sandals he's wearing while running through the brush, his feet must be tough as leather.
Sheer numbers are working against our heroes now. But just when we start to get worried, Eomir shows up, leading a band of black-clad Rohirrim warriors! These highly-trained soldiers descend with flashing blades upon the exhausted and wounded soldiers of the Shogun. We never really see the final outcome, but we can assume that the Rohirrim reinforcements sweep the field of the Shogun's remaining men.
Eomir arrives, battle over.
Alright, lets wrap up the first half of the ambush and get to the next phase. To recap, we're now down to Aragorn and Eowyn, plus Eomer and his ninjas. Against them are just the Shogun and the Amish Twins.
The final phase is the one you've been waiting for all movie long, the duel between Aragon and the Shogun (plus the Amish Twins). The Shogun, realizing his forces are defeated now with the arrival of Eomer's ninjas, makes a personal strategic withdrawal. Jumping on his horse and tucking the Twins up on either flank, he beats it down the road.
Aragorn jumps on a conveniently placed horse and gives chase. The hot pursuit lasts a bit, much longer than you might image what with the Shogun's horse being so overloaded and all. Eventually all involved dismount in an open scrubland and face each other down like Godzilla monsters.
First Aragorn must dispose of the Amish Twins, which he does with surprising ease and quickness. He mortally wounds both (cutting off one's arm in the process!) and leaves them wallowing in the dirt. I was really hoping that part of the battle would last longer, after all the props the Shogun kept giving the Twins.
And finally it's just Aragorn and the Shogun, facing each other down across the dusty plain, swords drawn and music rising to a crescendo. They swing, they hit, they glare menacingly, they mess their hair up, and they insult each other's manliness. Despite the movie-long work-up to this fight, however, it's over pretty quick, ending with one of Aragorn's swords embedded in the back of the Shogun's head.
The Shogun's demise is just around the corner.
Our last scene shows Aragorn at the shores of the ocean, waves lapping against the rocky outcropping he stands on. Disillusioned by all the killing and the ugliness, Aragorn tosses the two swords into the sea, and along with them the secret of the Momochi gold mine, which has caused so much suffering. He then rides off into the surf with the beautifully radiant Eowyn, off to make babies and sign recording contracts and print deals with shampoo companies.
Written in February 2007 by Nathan Decker.
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