Last night I watched Makai tensho, better known in the United States by its English title Samurai Resurrection. For those of you who have never heard of it, it is a 2003 film directed by Hideyuki Hirayama. It is set in the early days of the Tokugawa shogunate, not long after the Shimbura uprising, in which Christians rebelled against the Tokugawa governmnt's ban of the religion. Samurai Resurrection convincingly blends history and folk tales together. Indeed, the movie plays as a cross between costume drama, samurai movie, fantasy, and horror.
At the heart of the movie are two historical figures, both of which we known very little. One is Yagyu Jubei, a master swordsman of whom many folk tales are told (many of which involve his battles with demons). What we do know about Jubei is that he was an attendant to the 2nd Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada, that he followed the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, that he later served the government in some sort of capacity as an inspector, and that he took over his father's domains before retiring to the village in which he grew up. The very fact that not much is known of Jubei has made him ripe fodder for novels and movies, in which he is traditionally portrayed as a one eyed swordsman dressed in black. The other historical figure pivotal to Samurai Resurrection is Amakusa Shiro, the supposed leader of the Shimbura uprising. What we know of Shiro is that he was Christian, that he was only 15 when he purportedly led the uprising., and that he died during the uprising. There are many tales of Shiro's miracles, including walking on water, healing the sick, and so on. In parts of Japan he is regarded by many as a saint.
In Samurai Resurrection, however, Shiro is anything but a saint. Many years after the Shimbura uprsing, Shiro returns from the dead with a thirst for revenge. He begins raising samurai from the dead to accomplish his goals, many being important historical figures (including Inshun Hozoin, reknowned for his use of the spear, and Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in the history of Japan). It is up to Jubei as a master swordsman to stop Shiro and his demon horde of resurrected samurai.
Samurai Resurrection is simply an amazing film. The script combines actual Japanese history, Japanese folk tales, and modern fantasy in such a way that it is hard to tell where the truth begins and fiction ends. The characters are all well developed, with their own motivations and their own hopes and dreams. This is particularly aided by the performances of the cast. In particular, Koichi Sato convincingly plays Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi (although he does seem more than a tad reminiscent of the great Toshiro Mifune...). Yosuke Kubozuka also does well as Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, quite ably playing a young man who has gone far away from his original beliefs and values.
The movie also has an incredible look. Director Hideyuki Hirayama and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima fashioned a realistic recreation of early Tokugawa Japan. Not only does the film look historically accurate, but it also looks beautiful. There are a variety of impressive shots in the film, from horses galloping across the Japanese country side to sword fights in the pouring rain. The incredible look of the film is helped a good deal by the movie's music, which lends the movie even more of an epic quality as befits its subject. Of course, in any samurai movie, great fight scenes are a must. Samurai Resurrection has more than its great share of sword fights, including an impresive battle between Jubei and legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi).
I cannot recommend Samurai Resurrection more highly. Anyone who loves samurai movies, high fantasy, or horror movies will probably love this film. Indeed, I would recommend the movie even to those who are not particularly fond of those genres. Samuari Resurrection is simply one great piece of film making.