Samurai Reincarnation

June 28, 2023 · 0 comments

The late Kinji Fukasaku is most fondly remembered for his hold-no-bars yakuza flicks, characterised by their hard-as-nails anti-heroes and brutal action. However, in the late 1970s, the director began to expand his cinematic palette, first by dipping into the jidaigeki genre with Shogun’s Samurai (1978). Also known as The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy, the film starred semi-frequent Fukasaku collaborator Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, who took the role of famed Edo-era samurai Jubei Yagyu. Three years later, the pair reunited for another dive into Jubei’s legend, this time adapting Futaro Yamada’s 1967 novel Makai Tensho. The resulting Samurai Reincarnation (1981) has gone on to be one of Fukasaku’s most beloved works outside of the yakuza genre, blending fantasy, horror, and history in a way that only the great director could.

Set in the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion of the 17th century, the narrative concerns the resurrection of the recently slain Shiro Amakusa (Kenji Sawada), the young and fair-faced leader of the Christian revolt. Denouncing God and intent on revenge, Amakusa puts together a band of revived rebels and warriors with the aim of slaying the shogun. The only man up to the task of putting down Amakusa and defeating his demonic followers is Jubei Yagyu (Shinichi Chiba), the legendary one-eyed swordsman.

Right from the off, it’s clear that Samurai Reincarnation is a period drama with a different flavour. The gruesome opening takes us through the grim aftermath of the siege of Hara Castle as we pass over a sea of dead rebels, Shiro Amakusa included. The wild resurrection sequence that follows sets a precedent for the rest of the film, as the rebel leader respawns in a violent fit of rage before assembling his undead followers. It’s a fitting outset that perfectly sets the tone for Fukasaku’s distinct vision for a period film. Samurai Reincarnation flies along at a brisk pace for the entirety of its two-hour runtime, bombarding us with a wealth of Japanese history fused with thrilling fantasy. Fukasaku has little time for the traditions of jidaigeki, instead marrying his penchant for action with a chaotic time period to deliver a samurai flick that feels more modern in its presentation.

One of the film’s strongest aspects is its action, which doesn’t disappoint. Minus the intense emotion behind Jubei’s duel with his undead father – played by The Lone Wolf and Cub series’ Tomisaburo Wakayama – the fiery finale is still a stunning spectacle and arguably one of Fukasaku’s most impressive sequences, certainly from a production standpoint. The director swaps the tight urban environments of his yakuza films for the wide-open spaces of Edo-era Japan, utilising the width of the frame to full effect. There’s no better example of this than during Jubei’s beachside showdown with the legendary Musashi Miyamoto. Away from the chaos inland, Fukasaku presents an archetypal duel between two historic swordsmen set against the serene backdrop of the ocean.

The linchpin of the film is Shinichi Chiba’s one-eyed hero, Jubei Yagyu. The character was one familiar to the legendary action star, having played him several times throughout his career on both television and film. Here, Chiba channels the great Toshiro Mifune with a grizzled performance, bringing a jaded quality to the terrific swordsman. Yet, while Jubei is the undisputed hero, it’s Amakusa and his demon followers that steal the show. Kenji Sawada’s unusual casting proved to be a stroke of genius at the time, and his full-throttle performance as the effeminate Christian leader has aged wonderfully. Ken Ogata is always a welcome sight, here playing the discipline-driven but zombie-like Miyamoto, while Akiko Kana takes on the role of femme fatale Lady Gracia Hosokawa. Keen-eyed viewers will also recognise a very young Hiroyuki Sanada, a graduate from Chiba’s Japan Action Club who has gone on to have a flourishing career in Hollywood. The strength of the cast overall has undoubtedly lent itself to the film’s lasting appeal.

Samurai Reincarnation’s popularity has spawned everything from belated sequels to several stage adaptions, the first of which also stars Chiba. Unsurprisingly, Jubei’s plight has also touched the anime scene, with Yamada’s novel being adapted for Yasunori Urata’s short-lived Ninja Resurrection (1997-98).

Only two episodes of the anime were produced, ending on a cliffhanger that would never be resolved. The video takes a narrative approach that leans on the history surrounding the Shimabara Rebellion, as a narrator guides us through the decisive battles surrounding the Christian uprising and introduces us to some of the key figures from the period. The plot itself is almost entirely fantasy-driven, with the resurrected Amakusa being joined by a handful of other undead warriors to unleash hell on Earth. The anime’s extreme violence is excessive in parts, although some of the more grotesque visuals harken back to Fukasaku’s film, particularly the bone-chilling aftermath of the Hara Castle massacre.

In part, it’s Ninja Resurrection’s violence and subject matter that has led to it being confused with another anime feature, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s seminal Ninja Scroll (1993). Aping off the success of Kawajiri’s film, Ninja Resurrection was marketed to appear as though it was related to the 1993 cult hit – both feature a warrior named Jubei and share similarly styled title cards. This clear case of deception has somewhat tarnished the video’s reputation in the West, but it’s certainly a title with merits, notably in its dark presentation of the harsh Edo environment and Masamichi Amano’s epic score.

Through Eureka Entertainment’s new release, Samurai Reincarnation can be enjoyed with an audio commentary from Japanese cinema specialist Tom Mes. The author, who has contributed to several Fukasaku home releases over the years, gives his insight into the director’s unlikely samurai adventure. He provides some informative historical context on the Shimabara Rebellion and discusses the famous figures from history that Amakusa resurrects along his path to vengeance. Mes’ scholar-like insight is always a bonus on these releases, and here he offers further trivia on the film’s cast, production history, and related projects.

Eureka’s release also features a new interview with Kenta Fukasaku, who reminisces about his filmmaking father and talks about growing up around the movie business. The director, now the same age Kinji was when he made Samurai Reincarnation, speaks frankly about his father and shares some heart-warming anecdotes about his experience on set and his relationship with “second father figure” Sonny Chiba. Rounding out the supplements is a booklet essay from Jonathan Clements, who touches on the various incarnations of Yamada’s source novel and dives into some of the surprising production issues that plagued Fukasaku’s film. The author also presents an overview of the numerous examples of the Shimabara Rebellion and Japanese Christianity in modern media – a subject that’s further explored in Rebecca Suter’s Holy Ghosts: The Christian Century in Modern Japanese Fiction.

For those unfamiliar with Kinji Fukasaku’s work outside his yakuza films, Samurai Reincarnation will surely be a wild and unexpected ride. The director puts his unique stamp on the typical samurai film, bringing a flair and pace that’s unusual for the jidaigeki genre. Despite numerous remakes and sequels across multiple forms of media, Samurai Reincarnation remains the most thrilling and iconic adaptation of Futaro Yamada’s now classic novel.

Samurai Reincarnation is released in the UK by Eureka Entertainment.

Tagged with:
, , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The latest news, articles, and resources, sent to your inbox weekly.

© 2020 Anime Ltd. All rights reserved.