The swordsman and author Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is as central to the Japanese samurai movie as, say, Wyatt Earp is to the Western. He appears as a lead or supporting character in many films, including Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy with Toshiro Mifune in the lead. Here, director/fight choreographer Yuji Shimomura – working from a script credited to Sion Sono that could easily be written on the back of a beer-mat – and star Tak Sakaguchi dramatise a particular tall story about Musashi, in which the lone samurai takes on 588 opponents in a single take action sequence lasting 77 minutes.
Top-and-tail sequences shot in conventional style give some sort of set-up for the fight … Musashi has killed two clan leaders and is set to fight a duel with the next head of the faction, a child of about six. Loyal retainers and hired mercenaries have been brought in to make sure the boy isn’t harmed, but Musashi isn’t deterred by that. It may well be a problem for some that the pre-credits sequence establishes the ‘hero’ as the sort of guy who drops out of the sky to murder a) a butterfly, b) a small boy and c) a little old man without hesitation, then kind of expects us to be on his side simply because he’s putting up a fight against an overwhelming number of enemies. There’s not much dialogue, but we do get a few cynical, exhausted remarks about the hypocrisy of claiming a way of life distinguished by mass murder is all about honour and duty – though the odd strategy of not attacking Musiashi from behind is as much to do with the practicalities of filming and stuntwork as it is an acknowledgement of the way of bushido where 588-to-one is considered a fair fight, but using archers would be not playing the game (NB: the one time the real Miyamoto Musashi took part in an actual battle rather than a duel, he was knocked off his horse by a rock thrown by an untrained peasant and lay unconscious for the rest of the fight).
Early in the battle there’s a moment like the tell-tale cuts in Rope where a character’s back blocks the screen and the canny viewer suspects a little cheating – but this never happens again, and our engagement with the non-stop (and repetitive) action is always (as in 1917) tempered by a growing wonder at all the behind-the-scenes stuff we know must be happening (Musashi naturally gets battered and bruised during the fight, so makeup must be applied to him somehow) but also that a degree of illusion is involved because some things aren’t happening (he doesn’t get bloodied, no matter how many CGI vein-gushers or blood pack bursts he inflicts on enemies – and there are no severed limbs or heads, which would have required the sort of elaborate special effects that don’t often work on the first take).
Sakaguchi obviously stays on his feet and play-fights for the full length of the shot, which seldom leaves him. It’s a feat of performance – after a while, it’s as impressive that the star got through it without severely injuring any stunt men as it is that his character has killed so many of his enemies (quite a few crawl out of shot to die and piles of corpses are repeatedly tidied away – probably because the stunt men needed to come back as fresh sets of mercenaries). Shimomura couldn’t have known while he was working on the film – the main set-piece was shot a while ago and the seven-years-later wraparound is relatively recent – is that Shin’ichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead would make audiences much more aware of what goes into making single-take cinema.