Region: 2 - UK
Length: 72 minutes
English 5.1 Surround
Japanese 5.1 Surround
Miyamoto Musashi is an instantly familiar name to any Japanese citizen, a legendary swordsman who has become part historical figure and part romanticised hero of myth. In addition to writing one of the key texts on Japanese samurai tactics and philosophy The Book of Five Rings he is also famous for inventing the Ni-Ten Ichi Ryu style of fighting with two swords, perhaps the most obvious, internationally recognized visual trademark of the samurai. But even with so much academic study dedicated to Musashi's life, so many books written on him and an almost infinite number of movies, anime and manga stories inspired by his legendary exploits and teachings, still questions remain unanswered. Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai attempts to answer one of these in particular what motivated the great warrior to adopt and perfect his dual bladed style?
Not a sequel to that Tom Cruise film, in case you were wondering.
I am always surprised about how much I can hate something. My mother has always said that it takes a lot to hate something or someone. OK, so maybe hate is too strong a word. I dislike Mamoru Oshii. I don't like his preachy, pushy attitude towards film. I don't like how he seems to think that we should all be philosophy majors just so we can keep up with his amazing insight into the human condition. A condition where we all own basset hounds. In an ideal world, Oshii would be allowed to make as many films as he wanted where today's lesson is that life is terrible, short and full of reasons to quote Descartes and Socrates. I've read some of these philosophers. Now itís possible that Oshii is more well versed in dead French guys than I am but nevertheless I'm insulted by the idea that he seems to think that by blind siding us all with slo-mo shots, single pages of action in a 90 page script and endless, absolutely endless, conversations we'll be stunned into applause. Of course he's never say that he's in it for the fawning fans but hey it's a perk, no? The fact that people keep giving him money amazes me. I think people keep thinking that he'll make another Ghost in the Shell or Urusei Yatsura. But he's not interested in that. He just wants to the anime equivalent of Andrei Tarkovsky. Talking about the human condition endlessly. At least Tarkovsky has the good grace to change the background once in a while as he explored the human condition.
This brings me to the current title I'm reviewing. Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai attempts to do something different. It's a documentary. An animated documentary. I am sure there are other animated documentaries out there but I have never heard of anime doing this but I stand to be corrected. To boil it down to it's essence, it's about the famous swordsman and warrior Musashi Miyamoto who was prevalent throughout the 16th century. A basic foot soldier, Musashi wanted to something more. A man of good standing. He wanted to be a horse cavalry rider but they were men of privilege. So you can see the problem in Musashi's way. And so he dedicated his life to the pursuit of the ultimate warrior ethic. He wrote about this ethic in his book, The Book of Five Rings (still widely read), and developed a two swords fighting style called Ni-Ten Ichi Ryu. But as with most things in life, truth becomes legend, legend becomes myth and myth becomes distortion. At the turn of the 20th century, Musashi had all but been forgotten. But a dramatic novel written by Eiji Yoshikawa made the legend, rather than the truth about Musashi, come alive for Japanese people. Soon books, plays and movies were touting the "true" events of Musashi's life. So, recently, research into his life has started to show more about the duality of his quest. He wanted to be a man of social status but didn't want to settle for less. He was an honourable man, but he wasn't adverse to doing whatever it took to win. So Mamoru Oshii decides to do a documentary . But he's writing it. And now, I've had an epiphany. Mamoru Oshii does great writing. And he does great writing when he's not writing in the present day. This way, he can't have the characters spout Voltaire and Plato because they haven't become known to the characters. And do you know what? I'm not getting the same blood pressure problems. I'm happy to watch this movie.
I think why it works for me is because the mix of live action plates, animation, CG and fake kino cinema reels draws you in and disguises the fact that you're being given an info dump while being entertained. The film is presented by an "expert" and his assistant as they take us through the facts of Musashi's life. We are given lessons on European knights, Sino-Russian wars and national pride issues with equal aplomb by director Mizuho Nishikubo. The character designs by Kazuto Nakazawa for the animation was excellent and showed the ferocity of the fighting. There are some great 360 rotation shots but the fact that the film uses cel animation sparingly means that flashes of talent like this are not overused. This also goes for the opening animation being done as if itís like an old film reel that's been dug up from the 16th century or a turn of the 20th century re-enactment. The violence that Musashi uses in his exploits is quick, fast and often times, bloody as hell. The off screen narration is quick to remind us that Musashi did whatever it took to win his duels and the film doesnít shy away from telling us that as well. Showing us that we're still in a documentary the narration is ongoing with 2D RPG style animations, diagrams and on screen Hiragana the expert Kiichi Inukai and his assistant, Miss Iori (completely silent for the whole film), are around to show us more hands-on examples. The music is a great mix of modern music, Western classical, classic Shamisen, Rōkyoku and a ballad by Shigeru Izumiya. It really does draw you in further and further.
The voice cast, as you can imagine, is very sparse and the cast do an excellent job. Full marks go to Manga for assembling a great English cast who keep the documentary tone neutral and even. Extras include an hour long documentary with a good few interviews with the director, head of Production I.G. and Oshii himself with Shamisen musician Takeharu Kunimoto. These are very boring, in my opinion. There's some insight to be gained but I've got to make it through Oshii droning on and on. The best parts are the interviews with the staff at I.G. and with the director, head of I.G. and Kunimoto. I like Shigeru Izumiya doing some of the interview with Oshii as he's really funny.
All in all, I know there are some people who just won't buy this. I understand but I urge you to give a try. If you can rent it or buy it, youíll get a great history lesson. For those who love Oshii, yay, more of him to go round. For those who don't like him, this has all of the pluses and none of the minuses. Heartily recommended.
This review is of the DVD edition of Mushashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai.