One of the highlights of my movie-going year is the Japanese Film Festival that plays in Melbourne, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It always has a diverse mix of movies and while the quality can be pot-luck, there are always a few gems in there. This year I saw two movies, The Magnificent Nine and Sanada Ten Braves, the latter of which I’ll talk about today.
I’ll say straight up, this movie was quirky. It was like a cross between a typical samurai period movie and the anime series Naruto. It had this bizarre almost playful sense of humour throughout and right from the start I was expecting it to be crap – but I have to say overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Japanese love to propose ‘what if?’ scenarios to their period movies. I’ve seen many movies and drama series that have turned history on its head, exploring often ambiguous themes from slightly different angles. For example one tele-movie had the infamous Oda Nobunaga as a woman – and rather than being assassinated by Akechi MItsuhide – ran off in love with him!
This movie focuses on the famous general Sanada Yukimura – noted for his amazing defence of Osaka castle against the overwhelming forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Sanada clan – former Takeda retainers, were not powerful but were particularly crafty and known to have many ties with ninja. Through skilful negotiation and subterfuge, they managed to avoid getting crushed when literally trapped between the vastly more powerful Hojo, Uesugi, Tokugawa and even the Oda.
This movie has Yukimura as a coward whose entire life was a lie. All the great battles in which he was famed – he wasn’t responsible, it was his ten ninja retainers known as the Sanada Ten Braves. The reoccurring them is about lies – in that, if a lie is believable enough to everyone else then that lie becomes genuine. So essentially the question is – can General Sanada become a genuine hero?
The movie opens with an introduction to the first 9 of the braves and is done in a quite effective anime. The tone for the rest of the movie is established when a message pops up on screen, “This is not an anime, the actual movie will start shortly!”
The ten braves were over the top ninja’s and warriors – literally as if they were plucked from the ninja anime Naruto. As is often the case, translating these kinds of characters to reality often looks like bad cosplay – and in the case of Kirigakure Saizo (also a famous figure from Japanese history / mixed media) – he has that long sweeping forlock and slightly feminine cast which is so popular. Actually he reminded me of Miyamoto Musashi’s flamboyant rival Kojiro Sasuke.
But these characters were fun! There were some genuinely funny moments throughout but what sealed the deal for me was the combat, beyond the ninja combat high-wire type fighting, there was some seriously enjoyable and large scale feudal Japanese combat as Tokugawa Ieyasu launched his massive army against the defences of Osaka – primarily the fortress manned by the Sanada where Yukimura made his name, known as the Sanada Maru.
After the final conflict was resolved, there was a scene in a storehouse that caught me by surprise – it was just the perfect ending, followed by a slightly slapstick epilogue type scene and this bizarre hand drawn series of comics detailing how the surviving members went on to form a performing troupe.
It was bizarre as hell but highly enjoyable and in parts, surprisingly emotional. Highly recommended but don’t go into it with any expectations.