Chambara films have evolved much through the years since the days of Kurosawa, Kobayashi and Gosha. Yasuo Furuhata’s “SHOGUN’S SHADOW” (aka. Shogun Iemitsu No Rashin: Gekitotsu, 1989) is a film quite different from other chambara films because of its rather anime-like, manga-inspired execution that makes it almost like a live-action comic book but somehow, it fits the script written by Hiro Matsuda and Sadao Nakajima perfectly.
An order is given to the young shogun heir, Tachechiyo to embark on a journey to Edo to participate in an initiation ritual that will mark his passage to manhood. A band of seven mercenary swordsmen must protect the heir from an evil minister who seeks to assassinate the boy. The mercenaries headed by Gyobu Igo (Ken Ogata) are charged with the task of delivering the young heir to his destination within 5 days. Along the way, they must fight their way through the army led by Iba Shoemon (Sonny Chiba), an expert swordsman who is a vassal of the ailing Shogun. But is there more to the boy than anyone is telling?
The film has the usual elements of camaraderie, duty, loyalty and honor as with the chambara film produced through the years, but the influences of anime is definitely omnipresent this time around. Hundreds of flying arrows, a corrupt authority, ninjas, blood-splattering swordplay, the high-flying action sequences--all carry a somewhat exaggerated manga-inspired feel but curiously, it doesn’t hamper the film from its main premise. The style itself fits it perfectly and what results is an entertaining action-packed chase film. True, they may not be as great in today’s CGI-enhanced standards, but it was obvious that this film’s action sequences had inspired Ryuhei Kitamura’s fantastic Azumi or the end sequence that seems to carry a lot of similarities to “Young Guns”. The action sequences prove to be the film’s main draw.
The film is riddled with action and stunts, that the film is NEVER boring. What makes it more unique is the fact that each of the mercenaries have their own brand of style of fighting. One uses small daggers, one uses gunpowder, and one even has this monkey-like martial arts style who carries a Bo Staff that looks like a character from “Ninja Scroll”. Now, these heroes aren’t your well-mannered group of samurai, they are rough and edgy but honorable in their own way. Their character development come from their style of fighting that leaves them rather a bit underdeveloped. The characters of Ken Ogata and Sonny Chiba are a bit cardboard, but both actors do perform admirably well to express the needed emotions.
The film does have its share of an effective twist and the past between Lord Abe and Gyobu is interesting enough to add some zest to the film’s simple plot. The film is essentially an action film so the plot is built around the action sequences to build up to its inevitable climax; and what exactly does make this film’s climactic fight special? The final encounter between Gyobu and Shoemon (played by Ogata and Chiba) is something to look forward to. The film spends its time building up their skills so the viewer will definitely look forward to the unavoidable swordfight between the two. The swordplay is nicely choreographed by Sonny Chiba; the fight is nicely paced and very exciting.
Despite all the fun factor one can derive from the film, the film does have its flaws. The rock and roll, Japanese style soundtrack may hamper the film a little. A few intense sequences were a little ruined by the film’s music, that the end result seemed to be a little out of place. The scene itself is good but the music just destroys its mood completely on some parts of the screenplay.
The film’s final act may also prove to be its flaw as it proved to be a little overlong and a little too melodramatic. I commend the director for trying to put everything together but the final act is a out of my place for the film’s action-packed pace. I rather wished it would have ended 10 minutes before its final act. The end result is that the film lost its “punch” and settled for a rather predictable finale.
Overall, the film is a good one and proves to be surprisingly smart and fun. The film had enough action to keep one entertained and may well be a good introduction to Sonny Chiba. Recent Western audiences will no doubt know him as “Hattori Hanzo” from “Kill Bill. Well, even though he doesn’t play the lead role in this film, Chiba proves a worthy nemesis for Ken Ogata. Pick this movie up when you can; it has a great cast, loads of action and an interesting plot. “Shogun’s Shadow” may not rival any of Kurosawa’s or Kobayashi’s work, but it is a cool ride!!
Recommended! [3 ½ + Stars]
The Dvd from Adness sports a nice anamorphic widescreen (1.78 ratio) with 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track. The English subtitles are excellent.