Samurai Commando

Original title
Sengoku Jieitai 1549
Japanese title
  • 戦国自衛隊1549
Alternative title
  • Samurai Commando: Mission 1549
Running time
119 minutes
25 July 2005
Samurai Commando Samurai Commando


Kadokawa Pictures is apparently celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. And as film studios are wont to do on such an occasion, it is marking the event with a high profile film release. Usually such a film sums up everything the studio is about, or rather how it would like to see itself, resulting in some sprawling would-be epic that is the textbook example of producer's cinema. No better example exists than Shochiku head of production Kazuyoshi Okuyama's much publicised hijacking of The Mystery of Rampo, the film that marked the centenary of the oldest company in Japan's film business in 1994. (As anyone with some knowledge of film history and a rudimentary grasp of mathematics can tell, this means that the birth of Shochiku predates the invention of film - a peculiarity explained by the fact that it started life as a production company for the stage; it didn't add cinema to its roster until after others had paved the way, including Japan's true oldest film studio, Nikkatsu.)

Kadokawa's self-esteem must not be all that high if the film with which they intend to fete themselves is a remake of Mitsumasa Saito's cheesy 1982 high-concept wannabe-blockbuster Time Slip (a.k.a. G.I. Samurai), the story of a military unit that accidentally gets sent back in time to the 16th century and has to do battle with an army of samurai. The Sonny Chiba-starring film, with its godawful synth-driven title ballad, was one of those typical products of the era when the black sheep of the Kadokawa family, Haruki - who would later spend time in the pen for cocaine smuggling - filled the vacuum of the post-studio era with one inane, high-concept moneyspinner after another.

Whether this remake means that the Kadokawas are finally embracing their stray son or, on the contrary, that they are trying to whitewash over his legacy remains open to debate. What is clear is that their corporate philosophies have changed little in the intervening decades. Through a series of corporate take-overs that swallowed up Asmik Ace and Daiei, the company may have become one of the major players in Japan's filmland (its head honcho Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, younger brother of Haruki, also chaired the major-studio cartel The Motion Picture Producers Association and, more bizarrely, the Tokyo International Film Festival), its vision of successful film production still entails a predictably formulaic form of high-concept filmmaking gleaned from Hollywood and transplanted with little or no additional effort and imagination.

During a test exercise for a new form of magnetic shield, a batallion of Japan's Self-Defense Forces goes missing, seemingly evaporated into thin air. Where tanks and jeeps used to be moments earlier, a sole figure on horseback is found, hunched over and pierced by arrows. Through a freak accident, the company of soldiers has been sent back in time to 1549, the era of civil wars and the rise of Nobunaga Oda, the warlord who united Japan and paved the way for the three-century rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. Once it realises that the event is throwing history into disarray and that the good old space-time continuum is making amends for this by gobbling up the present, the military high command realises that someone has to make the same leap and retrieve the missing soldiers lest history and the world as we know it cease to exist.

And so, two of its officers go knocking on the door of Yusuke Kashima (square-jawed TV heartthrob Eguchi), a former elite soldier who now lives a civilian life tending a small bar. As heroes are wont to do in films like these, Kashima is more than a little reluctant, still carrying the emotional burden of the accidental death of a colleague which he picked up from an American screenwriting manual. He naturally blamed himself for the tragedy and departed from the military. Cue several monologues about him being the only one who can save the world and his duty toward his country and eventually he reluctantly agrees to be jettisoned, along with a new squad whose members have all read 'How to write a script that sells'.

Really, you can guess the rest. You will indeed see a few tanks taking on armoured samurai on horseback, bullets versus arrows, lots of extras running around a battlefield set, an explosion or two and a bit of CGI. If that's your thing, Samurai Commando is more than happy to oblige. Just don't complain afterwards that you've seen it all before, because I guarantee that you have. Even if the closest thing you've ever been to a Sonny Chiba movie is Kill Bill. And for those who choose not to take heed: the recruitment forms are in the lobby, right next to the petition to amend the constitution.