Sunday, 16 June 2013

GI Samurai

Director: Kosei Saito
Writer: Toshio Kamata
Producer: Takeshi Motomura
Cast: Sonny Chiba, Jun Eto, Hiroyuki Sanada
Country: Japan
Year of release: 1979
Reviewed from: UK VHS

Have you ever been watching a film and found yourself repeatedly saying “Holy moley, this is awesome!” as the movie just gets better and better? No? Well then presumably you’ve never seen GI Samurai. Even in what is very evidently a heavily cut-down version, this amazing, action-packed epic stands out as a strong contender for the title of greatest sci-fi/war movie of all time.

Also known as Time Slip: The Day of the Apocalypse (the full title is both on-screen and on the box of this British VHS release), Sengoku Jietai cost a fortune, features vast numbers of extras and packs a punch that combines science fiction and samurai films into a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts. All this - and it stars Sonny Chiba too!

This is a time travel film and there are of course two sorts of time travel stories. Some, like Back to the Future, Retroactive or the marvellous East German comedy Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea, play with the idea of time travel and the complications it can create. Others, ranging from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to Life on Mars, simply use time travel as a device to set up a culture clash scenario. The Terminator is an unusual example of a film which falls into both camps.

GI Samurai is firmly in the Connecticut Yankee mould, with a very simple premise that is never explained because, frankly, it doesn’t need to be. A gaggle of military personnel from Japan’s Self Defence Force travel back in time about 400 years. Presumably they’re starting from what would be the present day - late 1970s - but there is no indication of what happened except that every soldier’s watch has stopped at 5.18. (Actually, there are some weird polarising effects and suchlike which presumably is the time slip itself but this is after everyone has spotted that their watches are kaput.)

There are about 20-30 troops all told and between them they have a jeep, a half-track armoured personnel carrier (both equipped with a heavy machine gun), a light tank, a lorry full of ammo, a helicopter and a motor patrol boat. They rendezvous on a beach somewhere; we’re not told where and we’re not told why. They’re clearly still in Japan (as will quickly become clear and in any case the SDF was not supposed to operate outside the country) but they seem to be on active service rather than just manoeuvres. I think it really doesn’t matter.

The point is that once the lorry, the chopper, the MPB and the convoy of jeep, tank and APC (initially introduced in darkness as part of a much larger convoy) have introduced themselves, they spot three samurai warriors on horseback who take a look then turn and ride off. Before you know it, a hail of arrows rains down on the soldiers from a row of medieval archers atop a nearby cliff and they have no defence except to cower behind their vehicles.

This is the crux of GI Samurai: 20th century weapons and techniques against those of the 16th century. It’s not as obviously one-sided as you might think.

The soldiers repel another attack but also establish an alliance with a rival lord who turns up to investigate what is going on. He realises that, with the assistance of these strangers and their amazing weapons he could defeat his enemies and rule the whole country.

We don’t get to really know any of the soldiers, at least not in this cut-down version, apart from Lt Yoshiaki Iba, played by the legendary Chiba-san. Some small amount of characterisation is evident in scenes that they share with some of the non-combatant locals: a young woman, an old lady, some kids. There is probably much more of this in the full version. But the bulk of the film is two battles, one small one and one very big one.

Initially, Lt Iba’s men attack a castle and have little difficulty in beating the defenders, delighting their new-found samurai allies, but then they progress to a pitched battle against a very large samurai army and this long, thrilling, sometimes horrific sequence constitutes the bulk of the movie in this edit. It’s terrific, absolutely terrific.

Yes, the 20th century troops have automatic weapons, heavy machine guns, grenades and a damn great tank but they are outnumbered by several hundred to one. What use automatic firepower when you are facing literally thousands of warriors, highly trained and completely fearless, willing to lay down their life for their lord? The soldiers-vs-samurai theme is much, much more than just a high concept, it’s a fascinating examination of how different styles of warfare deal with each other, demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of each. Most war films, by their very nature, pitch against each other enemies who are roughly equivalent in terms of technology and tactics. GI Samurai is in some ways more like a western with Lt Iba’s men as the Seventh Cavalry and the samurai as the Cherokees, fighting by their own methods and on their own territory.

Two films jumped into my head as precedents while I watched this. One is my favourite film of all time, The Man Who Would Be King, in which two 19th century British soldiers successfully conquer an Indian mountain kingdom by supplying one local warlord with Martini-Henrys and the training to use them. But the comparison breaks down because although Iba allies himself with one of the local warlords, his men fight alone. A better comparison might be, well at first I thought Zulu but then I revised that to Zulu Dawn. The Japanese soldiers, like the British at Isandlwana, grossly underestimate the abilities and tactics of the local ‘savages’ and pay the price for their hubris in a terrifying and bloody confrontation.

But there is another film that stands comparison with GI Samurai and what makes it particularly interesting is that it was produced a few years later. That film is Return of the Jedi.

The Ewok attack on the Imperial forces in that film is remarkably similar to the samurai attack on the SDF forces in this one and when we consider that the Ewoks were originally going to be Wookiees, we can see an even closer comparison (there used to be fan art and fan fiction about ‘Samurai Wookiees’ back in the 1980s but I don’t know whether that had any direct derivation from canonical Star Wars material). The medieval army in GI Samurai use traps and knowledge of the terrain to the full extent just as the Ewoks would do four years later. Most specifically there is a sequence where they attack the vehicles by rolling logs down a steep incline. If you can watch that without thinking of Endor you’re a better man than I am.

It is well known that George Lucas is a long-time fan of Japanese movies. He has acknowledged the debt that Star Wars owes to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and Darth Vader’s helmet has clear Samurai origins. I would be genuinely surprised if Lucas had not seen GI Samurai before making Jedi (or if not Lucas, maybe Lawrence Kasdan or Richard Marquand). The comparison is obvious, this film was a major production promoted internationally and it would be a big coincidence if there was no direct influence.

What the samurai have that Ewoks don’t, of course, is spectacle. Many samurai movies concentrate on individuals or small groups so it is jaw-dropping to see hundreds of men, each with a tall, fluttering war banner sticking up from his back, charging across a hillside. You can feel the fear of the SDF soldiers, facing this enemy which charges so brazenly and so relentlessly. Like the Terminator, a samurai army “can’t be reasoned with, can’t be bargained with and it absolutely will not stop.”

There’s wave after wave of attack and gradually the soldiers lose one vehicle after another. Eventually only a handful of survivors make their way to a wooden building where they are met by the warlord whom they befriended earlier, and so the film culminates in a bleak and shocking ending.

There are some loose ends and obvious gaps in the non-battle parts of the plot, due to losing so much footage. The original version apparently runs 140 minutes but this VHS tape is only 88 minutes so the best part of an hour has been cut. That extra time may help the film by allowing us to know these soldiers as people or it may drag it down by spending too long on character and dialogue with no action. I’ll need to see the full length version to comment on whether or not it’s as good as this edit, but I’d love it to be even better.

The medieval soldiers have no idea what they’re fighting and they don’t care. There’s a great shot where one of them repeatedly jabs his sword down the barrel of the tank’s gun, believing that he is attacking it in some way. But what stands out among the carnage is Lt Iba and his decision to fight back against the samurai on their own terms, to which end he mounts a horse and grabs a sword, a bow and a bunch of arrows. The film constantly hammers home that one method or level of technology is not inherently superior to the other and that war is a brutal, cruel business however you do it.

GI Samurai is based on a novel by Ryo Hanmura but virtually the only information I can find anywhere on this author - apart from birth/death dates of 1933/2002 - is that he jointly won the Hayakawa SF Competition in 1960 and later won the Naoki Award for best popular literature by a young writer. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction cites one other title by Hanmura: Misaki Ichiro no Teiko. Toshio Kamata (Legend of Eight Samurai) wrote this film’s screenplay and it was directed by Kosei Saito who makes a much more exciting and coherent job of things than he managed with the awful Ninja Wars.

Sonny Chiba is probably best known to ‘the kids’ now for playing Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill Vol.1 and Uncle Kanata in The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift but he started acting back in the late 1950s and by the time he made GI Samurai had already established a global reputation in The Street Fighter and its sequels (including one of my favourite films, Sister Street Fighter) as well as The Shogun’s Samurai, Message from Space, The Bodyguard and Gangster Cop. His other notable films include Battle Royale II, Sure Death Revenge, Samurai Reincarnation, Dragon Princess and, um, Aces: Iron Eagle III.

Other cast members here include Jun Eto (Godzilla X Mechagodzilla), Kenzo Kawarasaki (Parasite Eve and a 1997 TV version of Ring), Asao Koike (Baby Cart in Peril and a couple of Zatoichi pictures), Masao Kusakari (ESPY), Noboru Nakaya (Kwaidan, Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld), Miyuki Ono (Evil Dead Trap) and the legendary Hiroyuki Sanada (Ring and sequels). Executive producer Haruki Kadokawa (Samurai Reincarnation, Ninja Wars, Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus and heir to the Kadokawa publishing empire) gave himself a role too.

Info on the crew is harder to come by. The only credits on the English language version are a cast list (differentiated only into ‘soldiers’, ‘samurai’ and ‘others’) plus director Saito, musical director (Kadokawa giving himself an extra credit), fight director (Chiba) and, for some reason, sound recordist Fumio Hashimoto (Angel Guts: Red Classroom). If the IMDB is accurate, the art director was Hiroshi Ueda who also designed Incident at Blood Pass, Samurai Banners and The Birth of Japan, while the music was composed by Kentaro Haneda who scored a lot of anime including Barefoot Gen and Robotech: The Macross Saga.

Sengoku Jietai was remade in 2005 as Sengoku Jietai 1549, accompanied by a manga adaptation. This was directed by Masaaki Tezuka - fresh from three Godzilla pictures - and although it was quite widely publicised the film appears not to have had an English language release (although the comic was translated and published in the USA). Much less well known is a 2006 TV series based on the same story, Sengoku Jietai: Sekigahara no Tatakai directed by Kosei Saito again under his other name of Mitsumasa Saito.

The full 140 minute version of Time Slip is now available on DVD in the UK under the GI Samurai title from Optimum both singly (HMV has it for a fiver, as I type this!) and as part of the three-disc Sonny Chiba Collection Vol.2 (with Bullet Train and Golgo 13). The US DVD is deleted but a two-disc special edition is planned for April 2008 release. I’m sorely tempted to invest in one or other of these because I want to see the full version of this completely brilliant movie.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 27th January 2008

No comments:

Post a Comment