Heaven and Earth (Ten to Chi to, 1990)
104 mins, color, Japanese (English subtitles and narration)
If it weren't for the elaborate costumes and the massive battle scenes, this would have been a below-average B movie. On second thought, even with the elaborate costumes and massive battle scenes, this is a below-average B movie. The plot is superficial, totally unrealistic (even with my limited knowledge of 16th century feudal Japan), full of continuity holes, logical inconsistencies, and is just plain stupid and unbelievable. The movie takes itself way too seriously, from the hilariously ponderous English narration (courtesy of Stuart Whitman) to the pseudo-strategic battle sequences. The acting is atrocious, the editing amateurish, and the music... there are no words to describe THAT abomination. Even Kurosawa's somewhat dubious musical tastes appear like Mozart to a crazy monkey at the keyboard on a broken organ. Surely nobody does jidai-geki like Kurosawa, but they should at least try.
I won't dwell too long on the story because there really is none. Like the two lords, Kagetora (Takaaki Enoki) and Takeda (Masahiko Tsugawa), who spend most of their time maneuvering complex formations on an empty field but never really fighting, the movie meanders aimlessly forever without bothering to engage the audience. Most of the plot is actually told by a voice-over narration, presumably because neither the director nor the actors could pull it off. There's the utterly inexplicable love story that sort of appears and disappears without consequence. There's also the unexplained defection of one of Kagetora's most faithful vassals.
My favorite pinnacle of ridiculousness has to be the following. At one point, we are told that the two armies occupy two opposite mountains for six days without engaging each other. Takeda wonders why Kagetora is not attacking him. He has a revelation: there's a castle nearby with 20,000 soldiers in it (this, by the way, equals the TOTAL manpower of Takeda's force), so he concludes that Kagetora is waiting for reinforcements. How far away is the castle? Two days' ride. That's it, he's waiting for reinforcements! FOR SIX DAYS. What a dumb commander. Takeda decides to preempt the imaginary reinforcements immediately.
Ok, I lied, this is just a minor annoyance, the film is full of them. The worst offender have to be the supposedly epic battle scenes. The director does not skimp on the numbers: there's hundreds of soldiers running in all directions, horses galloping, lancers prancing, and musketeers firing. Some people also fall to the ground. But nary a drop of blood is spilled in the entire film, not even when someone throat is apparently sliced open. Nothing. I am not bloodthirsty, and I certainly think that you can make an engaging battle scene without gallons of red sauce, but Kadokawa certainly can't do it.
The attempts at inner drama also flounder miserably. The Shinto priest Kagetora is supposedly torn between his vows and his love for Nami (Atsuko Asana), the daughter of the traitor Usami (Tsunehiko Watase). Except we don't see the conflict. Also, his rival Takeda is supposedly only driven by his lust for power, yet he seems to have had genuine affections for his slain (in a very cowardly way) Yae. Anyway, we never care about the characters enough to keep track of who lives and who dies. In the end, I sort of hoped that both Lord drown in the two-inch deep river where they fought their epic, but naturally inconclusive (as the entire film), duel.
Skip it. Most definitely skip it, unless you happen to like red, black, and blue, and many people running aimlessly around, with or without horses.
The Takeda side of the story, by the way, is told better by Inagaki Hiroshi in his SAMURAI BANNERS starring Toshiro Mifune. That's the one you want to see anyway.
March 24, 2001. BLS