Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai
Suitably for a film written by Mamoru Oshii, Musashi is alternately beautiful, intriguing, enlightening, impenetrable and frustrating. As with his earlier film, Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast-Food Grifters (2006), it’s a type of animé unlike any I’ve seen before. While Tachigui was a fictitious drama made in the style of a documentary and animated in a unique way, Musashi is an animated documentary with dramatised scenes, mainly narrated by a Chibi-style CGI professor. Occasionally, the narration is sung and the animated set-pieces taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries are contrasted with live-action footage of the same locations in modern times.
In addition to the simplistic style used for the narrator, reminiscent of early Pixar short films, the animation style varies from chapter to chapter as we are told the story of Miyamoto Musashi, writer, artist and samurai who lived from approximately 1584 to 1645, and given lessons in the history of sword fighting in the East and the West, army tactics and the development of chivalry. You might have guessed that a film trying to cover all these topics and more in its brief 72-minute running time would feel a bit rushed, and as an educational tool, it would possibly work better as an extra on a box-set of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-1956), which starred Toshirô Mifune as Musashi. The excellent animation used for the various scenes of the samurai at battle only leaves the viewer wanting more, as while we’re told how brilliant and innovative Musashi’s tactics were on the field of battle, it’s better to show rather than tell - particularly in animation - and excised from a greater narrative, the fight scenes don’t give us particular insight into the character as a real person.
Allowing for the frustrating nature of the film, there is still much to enjoy on screen. For a film made by a single director, it’s intriguing how many different animation styles are used, from monochrome, sepia-toned pencil work used to evoke silent movies, to stark black and white with a splash of red, and more caricatured line work depicting the cruelty of some of the foes Musashi meets in the field of battle, rendered in the style of Peter Chung. This anthology approach recalls an earlier Studio I.G. production, Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), which assigned a different director to each segment, and given the number of commentators and disparate films on Musashi’s life there have been, suits the material well. The film’s director, Mizuho Nishikubo, is an old colleague of Oshii’s. They both started their careers on the TV series Gatchaman II (1978-79), the sequel to an earlier show, better known in the West as Battle of the Planets (1978-85). This makes me wonder if the two men now use opportunities like Musashi and Tachigui to make films that are experimental and willfully obscure, their bulletproof reputation built on three and half decades in the industry permitting them to take on projects that wouldn’t be commissioned otherwise.
The film’s excellent visuals are accompanied by a terrific soundtrack that mixes Rôkyoku singing, funk, ambient and Western classical music, let down only by a dreary power ballad that accompanies the end credits. Although the film is short, a 45-minute edit without the CGI professor would be better still. But while not quite a good enough project in its own right, Musashi is a great introduction to both the character on screen (10 films so far, plus cameos elsewhere) and animated samurai cinema in general. If nothing else, this film made me want to track down Mizuho Nishikubo/Project I.G.’s TV series Otogi Zoshi (2004-5), about five folk heroes who save Kyoto from destruction during the Heian period, and their reincarnations in the modern day, which at a total running time of 626 minutes, unlike Musashi, presumably won’t suddenly be over just as it feels like the plot has begun.