Fantasia Review: Crazy Samurai Musashi

Hour of swordplay sound fun? Have we got the bloodbath for you!

There's been an argument for years that modern samurai films have got too flashy. Too much CG blood, too many whipping swords, too many opponents. Crazy Samurai Musashi takes a different tack: Amp up all those elements, then slim them down to their most elegant incarnations, then just film the longest sword fight ever.

If the 37-minute zombie attack in 2017's beloved One Cut of the Dead was a challenge, then director Yûji Shimomura undoubtedly picks up the gauntlet with a 77 minute action sequence, in which the only cuts are from the perpetually swinging blade of lone warrior Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi).

The script (yes, there is a story) by Sion Sono takes the uncategorizable filmmaker back to the samurai tale - a genre he hasn't touched since he co-directed Kenkichi with Sakaguchi almost a decade ago. For this, much as his arguable forebear Takashi Miike did with 13 Assassins, he reaches into the history books. The real Musashi was one of the great philosopher-swordsmen, his battles and duels the stuff of legend and the inspiration for dozens of books, plays, and films (including the Samurai trilogy, starring Toshiro Mifune). The battle that elevated him up the ranks of his single-handed destruction of the Yoshioka School, including its three heads and dozens of students. In Crazy Samurai Musashi, the dozens become hundreds, after Musashi assassinates 12-year-old Yoshioka Matashichiro, the final head of the school (if that sounds rough, it's worth remembering that Musashi was 13 when he won his first duel).

Contrary to the idea that this is a 77-minute single-take movie, it's actually closer to 75 (an absurd quibble, true), and there's actually eight minutes of set-up and a vital closing scene, shot as a conventionally shot and edited final fight. But what fascinates, and the real reason for watching, is that epic sword fight. That's all it is, and if that sounds dull to you then don't even start this.

But if you're intrigued, then Crazy Samurai Musashi gives exactly what it promises, and more. If you look at it as a self-indulgent experiment in choreographing 400 fighters across a series of terrains, than that's exactly what it is. But if you're looking at the nuances of a master of violence using minimal energy for maximum lethality, then it's an insight into the mind of a warrior.

It's the perfect intersection of writer, star, and director for a near-impossible project. Sono's script is designed to build and flow, to explain Musashi's thinking at any one moment, as he makes a measured flight for survival (the real Musashi was an expert on only taking fights on his own terms, as needed, and then winning them). Shimomura utilizes what is provided to lean, efficient effect, keeping up with Musashi in the fights before hiding with him in between buildings for water breaks, or even breaking away to supporting characters at vital moments. Meanwhile, Sakaguchi, back out of semi-retirement, is a portrait of gruff control: the sheer fact that he could put together this impossible feat of cardio and choreography will leave you more breathless then even he is at his most ragged. Of course, it's utterly self-indulgent filmmaking, but like the saying goes: It ain't bragging if you can back it up.

Crazy Samurai Musashi is screening as part of the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Aug. 20-Sept. 2,

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Fantasia 2020, Fantasia, Crazy Samurai Musashi

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