David G. Hughes on Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1 (Yûji Shimomura, 2020, Japan).
Throughout my life, I’ve gotten into a grand total of two fights. Both were schoolyard scraps, so never serious. But I remember them in vivid detail chiefly, and most obviously, because violence leaves an indelible impression, but also because the affair was, and still is, deeply embarrassing, and felt absurd even as it was occurring. There is adrenaline, for sure, but also a discomforting self-consciousness; you’re worried how you look, you’re negotiating what’s proportionate or “allowed” even as you’re in combat, and what will escalate or deescalate the situation. It’s a strange zone somewhere between instinct and real-time analysis and, as any bystander will attest, it’s striking how graceless and scrappy a fight is, how devoid of technique or splendour. You need only YouTube search for some instantly available examples. For the most part, violence sits outside the realm of human comprehension (PTSD, for example, is characterised as an excess of experience over understanding); it’s a deeply complex and, therefore, fascinating topic. It can be random or premeditated, ritualised, aestheticised, or made a spectacle, and it often gets involved with abstract notions like right and wrong, what’s justified or not. Violence is a uniquely ethical business, and a uniquely messy one.
I had these thoughts and recollections of inelegant school scrimmages while watching the ignoble spectacle of Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1 (Japanese: Kurui Musashi, 2020). It’s a movie about a samurai parrying katana strikes for 77 minutes and bonking his own blade on an opponent’s head, or slicing their abdomen, 400 times over. As the marketing tagline is zealous to highlight, it’s a single-take action pageant, absent of character or plot, as the camera tails Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakagucho) defending himself against an onslaught of 100 samurai warriors and 300 mercenaries. The opening five or ten minutes of the film establishes its slender story with conventional cinematic grammar (establishing shots, shot reverse shot, close up, etc). We learn that Musashi has been victorious in a dojo duel, leading the losing Yoshioka family to plot an ambush. Once the conflict begins the film uses its title card to transition into a roving, hand-held camera that will become the sole, unbroken perspective through which we witness the ensuing fight. With its crummy digital footage, steadfast attachment to a philosophy and aesthetic of absolute verism, and wide-angle lens, the film can be described as a melange of Dogme 95, The Revenant, and an Isaac Florentine action flick.
It’s an enticing prospect but an awfully tedious experience. For the most part we watch Musashi from behind, denied access to his face and humanity as if we are playing a video game and he is our avatar. It’s the first parallel to the medium of video games, which become more obvious as the film progresses. The pre-title scene begins to feel more like the cut-scene before the transition to player-controlled combat and, as Musashi hacks his way through endless waves of anonymous opponents, each new variant of setting brings a fresh batch to take on with the convenient reprieve in-between. And there’s usually a “boss” who introduces himself in belligerent, grandiose terms at each stage. “I am one of the grandmasters of the clan, Nanpo Yoichibei!” wails the first before being effortlessly dispatched. “Long time, Musashi!” announces another, larger boss as he swings a ball-and-chain flail, “Time to settle the score!” This is dialogue one expects from a corny arcade game, and its reference to a score feels apt. In Japan they call these hack and slash games “Musou”, in which a single hero faces waves of enemies, like with Dynasty Warriors (a film adaptation is scheduled).
Despite these presumably intentional video game references, at no point does Crazy Samurai attain equal credibility as an aestheticised experience of ultra-violence. Which is, perhaps, the “point.” (It’s worth saying that, as a cinephile and one-time gamer I have no qualms about the aestheticisation of violence; I dare say it’s an incomparable pleasure ingrained in the history of art the world over, so why clutch pearls about it?). Instead, director Yûji Shimomura has harnessed the camera’s ability to record in a matter-of-fact fashion and couch it, somewhat bizarrely, in the conventions of ultra-stylised video games. Watching Crazy Samurai gives the impression of travelling back in time to 1604 and filming a legendary samurai encounter on your 2010-era iPhone 4 (the film was shot ten-years ago), showcasing none of the aesthetic expectations one expects of a competent samurai picture. Contrary to video games, its production values are low, the world dry as dust, and the fights resolutely unspectacular. It’s all terribly unexciting. In the pantheon of magnificent-looking samurai media, Crazy Samurai is the genre’s unflattering angle.
It’s rather easy to imagine how one could shake things up to add flair and dynamism. Far removed from the pyrotechnics of an action director like Yeun Woo-ping or Sammo Hung, actor Tak Sagaguchi resorts to recurring, unglamorous, and colourless techniques of combat (a single, opportunistic smack on the cranium, usually). It doesn’t compare to the balletic acrobatics and showboating that we’re used to from the genre. There is no new trick suddenly revealed at the right moment, no panoply of novel skill, and this feels entirely realistic. Would an expert in combat suddenly decide to experiment in the moment? Probably not. It’s more likely that a skilled swordsman would stick to monotonous dependability. Sparse on dramatic music, absent of quick-cuts and artificial lighting, we are left only to hear the shuffling of feet, the clinking of swords, and the chirping of birds.
It is, then, the movement of objects in space that is the object of curiosity. There is little to no context involved, no character psychology to justify or understand the character’s actions, and is therefore completely amoral. There is no honour to be found, or glory, and there’s no larger meaning. This is a cold world that resists narrativisation. There’s certainly no cinema magic. And as with slow cinema, we are given plenty of time to scrutinise and reflect upon the facts of it (“the case”, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase) in a world devoid of context. The result? We see the rather pitiful sight of men killing over a vague and insignificant sleight and it all looks a tad absurd. What’s continuously fascinating, and frustrating, is Shimomura and DP Yasutaka Nagano’s refusal to engage. They sit back as dispassionate observers, refusing involvement or thrill. As a result, the chest-thumping, red-blooded declarations about honour, revenge, and clan land flat and feel ridiculous on the face of it. It’s just a bunch of people doing things. By refusing to engage in rituals of masculine violence, there is subtle subversion without the voice of a hectoring ideologue.
At this point, it’s worth knowing that Miyamoto Musashi is an historical figure, celebrated in Japan as a a folk icon and Kensei (“sword saint”). His Wikipedia page states: “He seems to have had a rather straightforward approach to combat, with no additional frills or aesthetic considerations.” How true to life Crazy Samurai is then, both in the nature of its central character and the reality of no frills combat (it gets the job done). While Musashi is celebrated and immortalised in monuments, movies, graphic novels, and, yes, video games, Shimomura’s tedious approach to action, and tracing it back to its source, works to unglamorise the legend and the tradition of aestheticised violence that such legends inspire. It’s the monotonous scrappiness of Crazy Samurai—its anti-aesthetic stance—that encourages the audience to see absurdity in the spectacle. The film cuts through as a statement on the pointlessness of violence.
Incidentally, this doesn’t mean Crazy Samurai is better or worthier against, say, Akira Kurosawa’s many epics, a stylish Takashi Miike film, or a Hollywood-infused samurai spectacle like The Last Samurai (2003), which are effective because of romanticism, storytelling dexterity, and visual majesty. Which is to say, one can appreciate myth and reality at the same time and acknowledge the boundary isn’t so obvious anyway. Besides, in a climate of people-pleasing mercenaries, it’s worthwhile appreciating a filmmaker happy to displease, someone who performs a bait and switch on the unsuspecting viewer expecting a rollicking good jidaigeki.
There is a union of form and subject here; not dissimilar to Musashi’s commitment to unspectacular sword technique, Crazy Samurai really does commit to the single long-take. It’s worth saying one or two things about this trendy sub-genre of long-take films. First of which is that I am, for the most part, against it. As a writer whose north star is more often than not that Movie tradition in film criticism, which emphasises the invisible hand of formal technique and innovation, the virtuoso long-take has long made me think of V.F. Perkins critique of formal strategies that make themselves known and leave the audience “too busy noticing”. There’s little doubt in my mind that, for all its technical dexterity, the continuing oneupmanship of long-take fetishism is an egoistic, smug, and gimmicky trend, done under the expectation that audiences will no doubt congratulate its daring virtuosity. For a medium in which the cut is half the art, I am continually perplexed by the desire to remove or conceal it. This is the case within the action genre in particular, observable in recent projects like Extraction (2020). A long-take often feels incongruous to the whole and is therefore noticeable and distracting. More than that, they are oftentimes imperfect, for there’s almost always a mishap in choreography that breaks the illusion of reality, an inevitable result of the long-take’s extraneous demands on its performers.
It’s absolutely the case that Crazy Samurai is, up until now, the pinnacle of this undesirable and artless trend in single-take action filmmaking. It displays very little authorial shaping of reality. Yet its sui generis excess wore me down and then won me over; in the exhaustive experience of it all, and in the philosophical synthesis of form and subject, I felt something of an intimation of elevation. Had the film rested on its laurels as a treatise on the banality of violence it would be of limited interest; we could place it neatly alongside other alienating, Brechtian works like that of Haneke or von Trier. It may be politically convenient to declare violence banal, and such a statement may get you a standing ovation from an inculcated class, but it’s based on a lie, and good art cannot come from a lie. Is it not invariably so, and self-evidently the case, that violence is exciting? One is hardly bored when in a fight. And by the time we’re ready to slot the film into a moral category, Crazy Samurai begins to transcend any simplistic or intellectually superior rejection of violence.
As Musashi fights and fights, we are given brief moments of respite as the character—and most certainly the actor—recovers his breath. At one point, in disbelieving incredulity he pants the question, “How many are there?!” It’s a moment of intense alignment between exhausted protagonist and viewer, who are almost certainly asking the same question. So when we encounter a new horde of fighters, we are now groaning with Musashi and not at the movie. By bearing extended witness to Musashi’s trial, and aligning ourselves with him on a physical level, gradually a new meaning beings to emerge: that heroism may not be about motivation, skill, or morality (As William Munny once observed: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”) but it does exist and is something. And if we can call it anything we call it endurance. We begin to root for the anonymous central character whose done nothing to win us over other than by the evidence of his Will—an enviable commitment to animalistic survival and the bonding sense that we’re suffering together. For this reason, Crazy Samurai goes beyond Brechtian alienation to become a deeply human and empathetic film, more self-effacing than “virtuoso” works like The Revenant, and less hectoring in intention than films from art-house favourites like Haneke.
It’s difficult to call this a “good” movie. But it is a bold and original one. By the time we’ve come to our own conclusions about the film—if indeed we’ve made it through the onslaught—the film makes its inner philosophy explicit in a closing epilogue. Older now, and with his legend established, Musashi sits beside a lake in peace. That is until he’s challenged by a group of upstart samurai. Accused of having no honour, Musashi responds, “Honour? Who cares? I just want to win.” A fight breaks out and the film returns to a traditional, hyper-stylised action film sequence, with fast cuts and complex choreography. There’s an element of cheeky playfulness here, as the film finally gives the audience “what they came for.” It’s also a clear statement that the prior 77 minutes was a conscious choice of limitation and juxtaposition. And we’re now deepened by the insight of what a legend is built on: not kinetic acrobatics or aesthetic beauty, but dogged determination. In his The Book of Five Rings, the real Musashi makes the point that technique matters not compared to getting the job done. What is philosophy or beauty if you’re not around to experience it? Survival is the art, so do what needs to be done, endure, reject death, and you’ll reap the benefits of life lived. — David G. Hughes
Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1 (Japanese: Kurui Musashi)
Director Yûji Shimomura
Writer Atsuki Tomori
Cinematographer Yasutaka Nagano
Editor Shinichi Fujita, Yûji Shimomura
Cast Tak Sakaguchi, Kento Yamazaki, Yôsuke Saitô
Duration 91 minutes