This was Neal's second-to-last acting job. He made one more TV appearance the following year (1959), in "Mike Hammer," which starred Darren McGavin.
This was Neal's second-to-last acting job. He made one more TV appearance the following year (1959), in "Mike Hammer," which starred Darren McGavin.
There's a strong cast of guest stars topped by Mexican actor Acosta, who has one of the juiciest roles in his long career of acting in Hollywood westerns, both big and small screen. Others in the cast include Faith Domergue, John Marley, Joe De Santis, Carlos Romero, Paul Dubov and, in the role of Juarez, Frank DeKova, who is quite good. There is occasional stock footage from the 1939 Warner Bros. feature, JUAREZ, which starred Paul Muni as Juarez. I watched this as part of the Encore Western Channel's afternoon lineup of TV westerns.
I like the villains here, especially Blaze and Roxy, the avatars of two humans, now in comas, who had been slated to be among the original Beast Morpher team. One of them, Roxy, was even the girlfriend of Ravi, the Blue Ranger, which makes his battles with her particularly heart-wrenching. As avatars, they have the memories of Blaze and Roxy, with none of the emotions. It helps that they're played by two attractive actors (Colby Strong and Liana Ramirez) who add a bit of seductive flair to their roles. In one bit, as the two hold comic relief characters Ben (Cosme Flores) and Betty (Kristina Ho) hostage and demand that Steel be turned over to them, Roxy strokes Betty's hair and chants, "Tick, tock, tick, tock." She has quite a delicious smirk. The two represent a potentially more formidable team than the Rangers, who still haven't quite developed the cohesion that the three previous Ranger teams had. It's only the ninth episode, so there's time.
At Grid Battleforce, the entity set up to provide high-tech security for the power grid, three young people are selected to become the Power Ranger team that will protect the energy source, called Morph X, but when a virus infects the system during the morphing process, disaster ensues and two young do-gooders on the scene rush in to help. In a clever turn of events, they wind up becoming Power Rangers themselves, along with one of the original designated Rangers, making a three-person team of Red, Blue and Yellow Rangers. They also engage in some spectacular martial arts fight scenes with the "avatars" created by the virus during the morphing process. It's all very exciting.
There is an excellent dramatic music score by Matt McGuire, who gets credited in the opening, the first time I've seen a prominent music credit in the franchise since the days when Shuki Levy was in charge of composing back in the 1990s.
The series is based on the 2012 Super Sentai season, "Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters," a show I like a lot. This is the first time a series that was passed over in the previous Power Rangers progression has been adapted. (This gives me hope that "Ressha Sentai Toqger," from 2014, my favorite sentai season, will eventually get adapted for Power Rangers.) As far as I could tell, there was no Japanese footage in the first episode of "Beast Morphers," although that is not uncommon for season premiere episodes in the PR franchise. I eagerly await the next new episode.
It's pretty much nonstop action from start to finish, with some of the most intricate fight scenes I've yet seen in a Shaw production. At one point, Shi Jin (Chen Kuan Tai) takes on dozens of enemy soldiers in a courtyard singlehanded. The reckless and short-tempered Black Whirlwind (Fan Mei-Sheng) was quite a lethal combatant in THE WATER MARGIN, but he's even more ferocious here, wielding his battle axes to bloody effect in one encounter after another as he cuts a swath through the onslaught of attacking soldiers, who are dwarfed by his massive presence. Also on hand are David Chiang, Wang Chung, Danny Lee, Wong Kwong Yue and the one female in the group, Yue Fung, as Sun the Witch. The rebel prince and his cadre of generals are quite a crafty and formidable group of foes, so the suspense level is high. The film makes ample use of the Shaw studio's massive backlot built for period epics. The music score is much better than the patchwork collection of random, sometimes dissonant, cues used in THE WATER MARGIN.
I had written a review of this film for IMDB back in 2001 after seeing a VHS copy of its shortened, English-dubbed version, SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU. After re-watching the film on Celestial's R3 DVD this week for the first time in nearly ten years, I came here to check my original review, but it seemed to have disappeared from this site, so I wrote this one, especially since my original review was mixed and, I believe, somewhat unfair to the film considering the copy I had to view back then. Well, the original review is back on site now, complete with a positive addendum I added in 2010. So now I have two reviews of it here. In any case, I highly recommend the film.
The chief obstacles here are three sets of gorgeous women, two of which have supernatural powers, just like the Monk's three companions. The four Devil Sisters and their competitors, Snake Spirit and Scorpion Spirit, all have their own ulterior motives for capturing the monk and take on different forms in order to trick each other and the Monk and his party. The Devil Sisters take on the forms of the Monk and his three companions when they arrive at the Land of Many Perfumes, an all-female kingdom that is overjoyed to see a man at last. The monk impostor agrees to marry the Empress (Li Hsiang-Chun) when he returns and he and his party soon leave. When the real monk and his companions arrive, the Empress demands he marry her and soon her daughter, the Princess (Fang Ying), wants to marry him as well. Eventually, the Monkey King figures out who's responsible for all the mischief and undertakes a battle royale against the female demons, using every trick of sorcery in his repertoire, aided by Pigsy and Sandy.
There are many exciting scenes in this, such as the Monkey King's battle to overcome Ru Yi, the Fairy God, who has taken over the Monkey King's domain, at the Spirit Sisters' urging, and imprisoned all of his monkey subjects. Wu Kong eventually earns Ru Yi's undying gratitude, which comes in handy late in the film. When the Monkey King takes on the Devil Sisters, he uses his powers over nature to uproot trees and mountains and rivers and consign them to an amusing fate. At one point, Pigsy, basically a pig who walks on two legs and speaks, takes on the form of the monk so he can gain entrance to the Empress' boudoir and attract the attention of all her handmaidens. His distinctly un-monk-like behavior constantly gets him into trouble and provides plenty of comic relief. (The rotund actor, Pang Pang, is a remarkable physical comedian.)
The special effects may seem crude by today's standards, but they're done with so much cleverness and imagination that I enjoyed every scene with them. Granted, you can do the same things so easily with CGI these days, but there's something about lab-created optical effects and hand-crafted real-time on-set mechanical effects that make these films look so unique and give them a vivid sense of Chinese mythical fantasy that you wouldn't find in any other country's special effects films from 50 years ago. Also, there is a charming animated credits sequence.
For the record, I have reviewed two of the previous Monkey King films, PRINCESS IRON FAN and CAVE OF SILKEN WEB, on this site also. Actress Fang Ying, who plays the Princess in this film, also starred in the Taiwan-set melodrama, MIST OVER DREAM LAKE, which I've also reviewed, the same year. She's quite an unsung Shaw Bros. talent and left the studio much too soon.
Each of the three main females in the film is a distinct character, different from each other in many ways, but united in their love and devotion to Jia-Shu. I've seen each of them, Ching Li, Shih Szu and Li Ching, in many films and never fail to be newly amazed at their versatility as actresses and their extraordinary screen presence and charisma. There isn't a single false note from any of them. I was also impressed with Stanley Fung as the capricious warlord. I know him mostly as a comic actor in the Lucky Stars films of the 1980s with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, where he more than holds his own with the best of Hong Kong's comic talent, so it's always a revelation when I see him in a dramatic role from earlier in his career. As Generalissimo Zhang, he avoids stereotypical villain mannerisms and plays him as a former peasant who has attained real power for the first time in his life and is not always sure how far he can go and has a key aide to advise him. He knows what he wants, but he's insecure and impetuous. You can see his mind slowly working every time he's faced with a new challenge. He's a vicious killer and we feel no sympathy for him, but he's also a human being. It's a harsh, but honest portrayal. The action finale allows kung fu stars Chen Kuan Tai and Shih Szu to show their considerable skills.
The narrative doesn't always flow in a linear fashion and we don't always know where characters are in relation to each other at a given time. Also, since we never see the three men, Hachiro, Sanzo, and Kitota, in their pre-war friendship, we have little investment in their relations with each other. Hachiro comes off as the most admirable since he takes control of his destiny and makes the kind of firm commitments to action that the others can't seem to make. Of the women, Miyuki is the most passive and given to frequent tears and we can't really blame Hachiro for falling for Arari or Sanzo for taking up with Hime. Arari and Hime are both assertive, proactive, beautiful, and in charge of their fates. They're easily the strongest characters in the film, although Hachiro eventually proves his true worth. The relationships with the women characters are the most important ones in the film, which is quite rare for a samurai film.
The film was produced by the Daiei Studio, which certainly knew how to make this kind of film well. It's beautifully shot in black-and-white and widescreen, with a mix of spectacular location shots and large expertly-crafted studio sets. There were some nighttime exterior scenes where I wasn't sure if it was shot outdoors or on a soundstage. Star Shintaro Katsu would go on the next year to headline the studio's long-running Zatoichi series of films. The more I see of his earlier, pre-Zatoichi work, such as this, THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958), and KOJIRO'S TURNING SWALLOW CUT (1961), the more I prefer it. (I have reviewed both of those films on IMDB.) His most expressive feature is his eyes, something the blind swordsman hides from us. He was also quite handsome and charismatic when not in Zatoichi mode. I wasn't familiar with the rest of the cast, other than Yoshie Mizutani (Arari), whom I've also seen in KILLING IN YOSHIWARA (1960) and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH: MASK OF THE PRINCESS (1966), neither of which are listed in her IMDB filmography. The director of this film, Kazuo Mori, also directed a number of exemplary yakuza, ninja and samurai films, including SAMURAI VENDETTA, JIROCHO FUJI, SHINOBI NO MONO 3, and three Zatoichi films.
Shot in black-and-white, the film is beautifully photographed, fast-paced, expertly directed and well-acted. It's two hours shorter than SEVEN SAMURAI since it has six fewer characters to introduce. THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a masterpiece, of course, but when you want a simpler, less demanding version and can spare only 90 minutes, this may be the easier choice. Director Sadatsugu Matsuda directed tons of movies like this in the 1950s and '60s, including VANQUISHED FOES, PORT OF HONOR, ROAD OF CHIVALRY, TANGE SAZEN AND THE PRINCESS, and CRIMSON BAT, THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN, two of which (PORT and ROAD) I've reviewed here already. Every one I've seen so far is a winner.
The film sets up an array of fascinating characters, all with different and sometimes conflicting agendas, and has them thrown together by fate, forcing them to work their way through and try to come out unscathed. The key plot thread is Sasaki's insistence on becoming a student of wandering sword master Seigen Toda and the hoops he has to jump through both before and after being accepted. Two women add to the intrigue and complicate things for Sasaki, as does the handsome, stately fiancé of one of the women, one Sir Tamaramaru, a Noh actor with martial arts skills who gets to display both talents in a splendid performance scene. Sasaki and Tamaramaru have philosophical discussions about the way of the sword and weigh the benefits of working for a powerful lord, as Tamaramaru does, versus going one's own way, as Sasaki does. Certain characters are constantly pressured into sword duels with others, which tend not to end well for those doing the pressuring. Sasaki's youthful idealism and romantic notions take quite a few hits in the course of the film, including in his exchange with a geisha who offers up a sharp, sardonic sketch of Tamaramaru's character.
The film is beautifully shot in black-and-white, mostly on location, tightly edited, intelligently written and wonderfully acted by a cast of players who were largely unfamiliar to me, aside from Katsu. This is another one of those undiscovered gems from a forgotten corner of Japanese film history that keep popping up for me in unexpected places. While it's not quite the work of art that YOJIMBO, SAMURAI REBELLION, HARAKIRI, GOYOKIN, or Inagaki's SAMURAI trilogy are considered to be, it is a good melodrama, plunging headfirst into the lives of its characters, keeping us gripped and engaged throughout the concise 80-minute running time. It may not make sweeping statements about the human condition or the Japanese character or social conditions of the time, but it does offer a vivid snapshot of an early step in Sasaki's venture into history and begins to compensate for the less savory portrayals of him seen in so many films about his opponent. It makes me wonder how many more such films about Sasaki exist and are waiting to be found. I've not seen any other films by this director, who made only eleven films per IMDB, this one being the tenth.
There was a series of later Terrytoons, made from 1959 to 1963, that were set in Japan and featured a mouse named Hashimoto. Many of them were directed by a Japanese-American director named Bob Kuwahara. There was a sincere attempt in these cartoons to offer a respectful portrayal of Japanese culture. These are definitely worth checking out also.
An interesting angle has the Rangers' exploits serve as material for an intergalactic reality show called "Galaxy Warriors," in which miscreants from other planets can watch on TV as the monsters employed by alien warlord Galvanax descend to Earth to try to defeat the Power Rangers. When their efforts invariably fail, the program host presses a "gigantify" button that causes the vanquished monster to come back to life and grow into giant size, at which point the Rangers call in their Zords to finish the job.
A lot of episodes revolve around problems the five Rangers, Brody, Sarah, Preston, Calvin and Hayley, cause themselves. Brody (Red Ranger) uses his "datacom" device to cheat on tests. Sarah (Pink Ranger) creates clones of herself to do some serious, if misguided multitasking. Preston (Blue Ranger) gets hold of some ancient spells, but thinks he can learn them quickly without paying attention to the fine print. Calvin (Yellow Ranger) is in awe of a local driver with a cool car and offers to fix the engine at a time he needs to be available to help the other Rangers. Hayley (White Ranger) and Calvin get into an argument which leads to them running against each other for student government president. Even their robot ally, Redbot, oversteps his bounds when he writes a book taking credit for the Power Rangers' achievements. They all have to learn from the messes that result from their hubris or irresponsibility.
One of the best episodes has the five banding together to take on a local crisis, caused when Preston's father, a real estate tycoon, buys the land that's home to the town's sacred Ribbon Tree, on which the citizens traditionally hang ribbons with their wishes on them. While two of the Rangers rally the townsfolk and another two occupy the tree to keep the bulldozers away, Preston tries to change his father's heart. It's actually quite a moving episode and features excellent performances by the actors playing Preston and his embittered father.
There's an emotional backstory involving Brody and his long-lost brother, Aiden, who were separated as boys when their father, a ninja warrior, disappeared while fighting Galvanax and preventing him from attaining the prized ninja steel. Brody is held as a slave by Galavanax until he's a teenager and manages to engineer an escape with the help of another human slave, Mick, a wild-eyed, wild-haired mechanical genius from another galaxy. They wind up in Summer Cove, where they set up shop at the local high school and find the ninja steel stored in a clever hiding place. Brody never gives up the hope of reuniting with Aiden, which, if you know your Power Rangers, is bound to eventually happen. There's a significant obstacle along the way, but when the reunion finally happens, it packs quite a punch.
In a most unusual development for Power Rangers, two of the Rangers, Calvin and Hayley, are in a committed relationship before the series starts and remain so throughout. They display a lot of affection--holding hands, hugging, putting their arms around each other, etc. It also happens to be a black-white interracial relationship, Calvin being white and Hayley being black, which makes it something of a first in the Power Rangers universe. The Blue Ranger, Preston, is Asian, Sarah is white, and Brody and his brother are of indeterminate ethnic origin. Even though the characters don't have much depth and their relationships lack the intensity of those in Power Rangers Dino Charge, I thought the actors were, for the most part, pleasant and engaging, with special marks going to Chrysti Ane (Sarah), Peter Sudarso (Preston), Nico Greetham (Calvin), and Zoe Robins (Hayley). They were warm and fun to spend a half-hour with.
The series was based on its Japanese sentai counterpart, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger" (2015), although its connection to that series is slight. Some fight scenes from the original are used, although many more fight scenes are restaged in New Zealand for the Ninja Steel scenes. The Zord battles offer the only consistent use of Japanese footage in the whole series and are, as usual, quite imaginative and exciting.
ADDENDUM: The new season of Power Rangers premiered on January 27, 2018, under the title, "Power Rangers Super Ninja Steel," so it's a continuation of the previous season with the same cast and some of the same villains, but with the ninja steel upgraded to "super."
Naruse's regular star Hideko Takamine (FLOATING CLOUDS) plays Hara's sister-in-law and I believe this is the only film in which she and Hara, two powerhouses of Japanese acting, appear together. (It's also the only film in which Hara and Nakadai appear together.) Also on hand are Akira Takarada (GOJIRA), Hiroshi Koizumi (MOTHRA), Reiko Dan (WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS), Daisuke Kato (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Masayuki Mori as the self-centered unrepentant weakling he seems to play in every other Naruse film I've seen him in. The two old mothers in the film, the family matriarch and her middle daughter's mother-in-law, played by Aiko Mimasu and Haruko Sugimura, respectively, are only 60, but are made up and directed to look and act much older. (Both actresses were about 50 when they made this film.) The two mothers even visit an old people's home and everyone else there is obviously 20-30 years older! Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, the father in TOKYO STORY, even turns up as an old man (he was 55 at the time). Overall, this is an excellent Japanese family drama and quite a change of pace for Naruse from the earlier films of his that I've seen.
Busshi heads toward Edo and in the course of his journey he meets a trio of ninja characters living in the mountains. His encounter with them leads to Hime or "Princess," the girl of the trio, disguising herself as a man to follow Busshi to Edo, accompanied by Saru or "Monkey," her agile sidekick, and entering the competition herself, as a judo expert. Shume also heads to Edo, to both participate in the competition and to kill Busshi. Meanwhile, Satomi (Keiko Okawa), the sister of Shume, whom he had abandoned in Sendai, is assaulted by another traveling swordsman on his way to Edo, Takeda Shinryuken, who takes her prisoner and makes her accompany him as his "wife." When Busshi intervenes and she escapes, another traveling swordsman, Iishino Shurinosuke (Tomisaburo Wakayama, of "Lone Wolf and Cub" fame), offers her protection while he, too, seeks a match with Busshi. Another group of characters, with smaller roles, is introduced as passengers on a ship to Edo, including a storyteller who goes from making false boasts about his own prowess to singing the praises of Busshi Shirogoro.
The film flits about from character to character, often leaving a scene in the middle before it's quite reached the point we wanted it to. There are lots of ellipses like this, but at some point it looks like a deliberate pattern set up to keep all the balls in play until everyone's converged on Edo for the tournament. Busshi and Hime eventually get much closer, while poor Satomi, clearly the noblest and purest character in the entire film, gets buffeted about from man to man, all while nursing a love for Busshi who'd rescued her from Takeda's first attempt to violate her. There are sufficient swordfights and matches sprinkled throughout the proceedings, usually in short bursts and all well staged, but they're incidental to the ebb and flow of the characters and relationships.
It's all beautifully shot on a mix of breathtaking natural locations, sprawling Toei backlots, and massive indoor studio recreations of outdoor settings. There wasn't a single scene that I didn't find compelling, either narratively or aesthetically. While films like this weren't considered artistic masterpieces on the order of those by Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Mizoguchi or Inagaki, they were still exemplary period films with fewer dramatic extremes and much more immersion in the everyday lives of characters from this era and how they lived and related to each other. While Busshi doesn't shatter behavioral norms and conventions the way Toshiro Mifune does in such films as Kurosawa's YOJIMBO or Kobayashi's SAMURAI REBELLION or the way Tatsuya Nakadai does in Okamoto's SWORD OF DOOM and Kobayashi's HARAKIRI, I got the sense that the flaws and failures of men like the ones in this film were more common among these kinds of characters in real life. Even the stalwart Busshi often seems incapable of living up to others' expectations of him. He disappointed me at times, but that makes him human, not a samurai legend. I believed him. (The only character here who breaks with convention is Hime, who dresses up as a man to enter the competition. The limited cast list on IMDb doesn't give the name of the actress who plays Hime.)
While this film has remained unnecessarily obscure, its director, Shigehiro Ozawa, is most famous in the U.S. and around the world for directing the STREET FIGHTER trilogy (1974), which made a household name of Sonny Chiba, who played the lethal karate fighter, Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi. The difference in tone and style between THE STREET FIGHTER and FESTIVAL OF SWORDSMEN is quite striking. No reason we can't have both.
Most depictions of Nobunaga Oda that I've seen in Japanese popular culture tend to portray him as a villain—or even a demon, as seen in numerous anime renditions. He was indeed known for the brutal tactics employed in his rise to power. There are hints of madness in this film, as when Oda laughs maniacally after making key pronouncements, and signs of fierce obsession in his behavior, but for the most part he is shown as heroic and loyal, a man of the people who commands the full devotion of his loving wife, whose father is a rival daimyo and significant opponent of Oda, and all of his people, including his 4000-man army and the farmers and workers in the surrounding region.
It all culminates in Oda's bold and risky strategy of marching out and engaging an approaching enemy that's ten times larger than his army, using the terrain and weather to his advantage and catching the overconfident Imagawa armies when they've dropped their guard and stopped to rest and drink with the local farmers who have conveniently brought sake to the tired, overheated soldiers. It's quite a grand finale.
Kinnosuke Nakamura gives a wild-eyed and energetic performance, perfectly capturing the volatile moods of this complex personality, from moments of joy and exhilaration to unrestrained expressions of grief, including one remarkable segment showing him wading into a river, crying and screaming lamentations after the death of Hirodate, with the camera in a boat tracking him in medium close shot. Hiroko Sakuramachi plays Oda's dutiful wife, Princess O-no, who turns against her own father to stand with her husband in his hour of need. She is initially shocked at his transformation following the death of Hirodate and demands that he "bring me back my husband," but she soon realizes the life-changing implications involved and welcomes her role in fulfilling this destiny. Even though it was an arranged marriage with a political purpose in mind, it's clear the two love and have deep affection for each other. He will not be able to achieve his goals without her.
As was typical of Toei historical films in the 1950s and early '60s, the production values are quite impressive, with beautiful color widescreen photography and imaginative use of standing sets, elaborate costumes, and breathtaking locations. There are hundreds of extras on hand, many on horseback, in the scenes of marching armies, so it's obvious there was an ample budget. There are a few short cuts in the battle scene, however, including close shots of Oda filmed against a backdrop pretending to ride his horse into battle when it's obvious he's not on a horse at all, but this is a small quibble. After reading the Nobunaga Oda entry in Wikipedia, it would seem to me that most of the events depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in 1560, the year in which this film is set.
I had never heard of this film before I gained access to a viewing copy and I continue to marvel at the large number of exemplary Japanese historical films from the 1950s and '60s that never made it to the U.S. through official distribution channels and are waiting to be discovered. As a student of Japanese history, I welcome any dramatizations of key historical figures and incidents that help me to visualize these people and events.
This film takes place after some catastrophic events in the TV show, "Kamen Rider Gaim," which I haven't seen, which has left the setting, Zawame City, in devastation and ruin. Once Kouta enters the alternate universe, where everything has been restored, he is surprised to see numerous characters who apparently died by this point in the regular series but are living and breathing here. Numerous Kamen Riders abound and many go mad and turn on others and begin fights that end with the one who went mad disintegrating, leaving only his armor, which gets absorbed by his "lockseed," the gadget that engineers a human's transformation into Kamen Rider. A single villain, Kougane, a high-powered Armored Rider with powers way beyond those of the other Riders in this film, is behind all the mayhem and our hero, Kouta, has to come up with some ingenious enhancements to confront him on an equal basis.
What I love about the Kamen Rider films is, quite simply, their elaborate action scenes and extensive location shooting in and around Tokyo. Kamen Riders burst into combat on a moment's notice all over the place and all through the running time of this 65-minute film. I counted a total of 13 Kamen Riders appearing in this film, although I may have missed a few. There are several particularly exciting action scenes, including one midway through where two opposing armies do battle on the streets of Zawame City using armed soldiers, fleets of motorcycle armored warriors and flying warriors in armored suits. It's quite spectacular. Late in the film, Gaim confronts Kougane, who has transformed into Armored Rider Mars, and they're both adorned in full armor, carrying swords and riding horses in a dirt plain far from Zawame City (and Tokyo), like a joust between knights-in-armor. Gaim is soon joined by ten other Kamen Riders and they all confront the main villain, who transforms into a giant flaming warrior.
There is a soccer motif in play here. Kouta's first scene in Lapis's fantasy world is in a massive soccer stadium with hundreds of fans in the stands turned out to support either Team Gaim (blue t-shirts) or Team Baron (red t-shirts). Gaim participates, as does his rival on the other team, Kaito, and both transform into Kamen Riders in the course of the game and continue to play that way. Later, at a soccer fair outside the stadium, Kouta meets an actual Japanese soccer star, Masashi Nakayama, playing himself. In the final battle with Armored Rider Mars in his flame warrior mode, the team of Kamen Riders fights like they're playing a soccer match with one of the warriors transformed into a blue ball of energy which is kicked around by the other players aiming toward Mars' flaming net.
The opening scene is set in a devastated cityscape that looks like a demolition site on the actual ruins of what was once a shopping mall. I wonder what site this was and where in Japan it is. The soccer stadium in the next sequence is huge and looks to be a real stadium and not CGI. The hundreds of extras in the scene are also real and not CGI creations, indicating a bigger budget than usual for such a film.
My copy of this film is in Japanese with no subtitles. I watched it the first time without consulting a synopsis. I then watched it again with a detailed, but terribly convoluted synopsis in hand, taken from a Kamen Rider website. I understood maybe half of the plot details described. It was much better without the synopsis.
This was directed by Osamu Kaneda, who has directed quite a number of Kamen Rider TV episodes and theatrical movies since 2001, having gotten his start as a stunt man and action director in the 1970s and '80s.
The one who suffers the most in all of this is Chigusa (Hiroko Sakuramachi), Sudo's sister and Mido's childhood sweetheart, whose brief reunion with Mido ends badly. Mido wants to end their relationship because he is quite certain he will die in his mission. Having his farewell tea with her, he is poisoned and winds up a prisoner, all a result of Sudo's machinations, although Sudo blames it on Chigusa.
It's not the most intricate of stories to be found in a samurai classic and the print I saw for this review suffered from the deletion of two major scenes, both of which are clearly visible in clips seen in the film's trailer. The obvious ellipses seriously undermine the impact of the story. Also, it doesn't help that Mido, as played by Nakamura, is too noble to be true and offers a one-note portrayal of the character, a model of saintly resolution as he goes about his self-proclaimed mission, attracting allies from various quarters. Given the intrigue he faces on a steady basis, he should be a bit less naïve and gullible than he proves to be, such as when he starts to believe Sudo's lies about Chigusa. I needed to see a little more conflict within Mido, some self-doubt and vulnerability, anger and indecision, for the character to be truly believable. Nakamura was certainly capable of much more complexity in his characters.
However, the film is beautifully shot- in color and widescreen--with elegant compositions, carefully crafted studio sets and costumes, and ample location work. Even the lesser samurai films of the 1950s and '60s had the kind of formal beauty that informs the best of Japanese cinema of the era. There are several good swordplay scenes, including one early on where Mido, fresh from the battlefield, confronts anti-Tokugawa remnants who are trying to abduct Princess Mio (in full armor), and takes them on with bloody results. Sadly, however, his big confrontation late in the film with Sudo and his men is one of the sequences missing from the cut I watched.
I can't find much information about the cast or even the running time. IMDb has very little info about this film. The r.t. of the disc I watched was 93 minutes, but that's with two major sequences missing. I was able to find the names of the three actresses, Satomi Oka, Hiroko Sakuramachi, and Keiko Okawa, and identified them with their roles above. Venerable character actor Isao Yamagata (GATE OF HELL) also plays a key role in this as the noble who does Tokugawa's bidding. Tokugawa appears in two scenes as well, but I don't know who plays him.
I happen to delight in train scenes in movies and TV shows and I was hooked on "Toqger" (pronounced "toe-KYU-jer") from the start. The main characters, the Toqgers, ride on a colorful, mystical train on the Rainbow Line, which rides the Japanese rails unseen by all but those with the most hyperactive imaginations, usually children. The chief opponent of the Toqgers is the Shadow Line, which sends dark trains into towns to wreak all sorts of havoc. The Rainbow and Shadow Line trains are created via CGI and provide lots of thrilling scenes as the trains burst onto the scene, often out of nowhere. There are also plenty of location shots of actual Japanese train stations and railroad yards and real trains both in and out of Tokyo. Each end credits sequence includes a montage of actual Japanese train lines, a treasure trove for train buffs.
The Shadow Line is run by a smooth, handsome-looking villain referred to as Emperor Z, who presides over a team of very elegant monstrous creatures with names like General Schwarz, Baron Nero and Madame Noir. The Shadow Line rides into Japanese stations and turns them into Shadow Stations, with an assortment of devious methods for sucking out citizens' energies and ambitions and turning this life force into dark mist which powers the Shadow Line. The Toqgers then ride in on the Rainbow Line, confront the villains and restore the town and its citizens back to normal. In the course of the action, they use their trains to combine and create giant fighting machines (called "Zords" in the Power Rangers franchise) to use in battles with giant Shadow monsters in nearly every episode.
The five college-age youths, three male, two female, who become the Toqgers—Right, Tokatti, Hikari, Mio, and Kagura—are quite an interesting and varied group of personalities and their intricate relationship is another chief draw of the series. When we meet them in the first episode, they're afflicted with amnesia. We soon learn they have a shared childhood and the flashbacks to this childhood occur quite regularly as they gradually piece together who they are and try to remember where they're from. We see their childhood selves often and the valiant young actors who play them look just like their older counterparts and give equally strong performances. It soon becomes clear that the ultimate destination of their journey on the Rainbow Line is their lost hometown. The finale takes up several episodes and is absolutely heart-wrenching. The Toqger colors are Red (Right), Blue (Tokatti), Green (Hikari), Yellow (Mio) and Pink (Kagura). Akira, an older male railway worker with a hard hat, joins the team in the 17th episode as the Orange Ranger, the sixth Toqger, and provides an interesting contrast with the more volatile younger members.
Another big draw for me was the frequent use of Japanese locations in Tokyo and elsewhere. Many fights between the Toqgers and their Shadow Line opponents take place in office plazas, shopping malls or waterfront plazas in the Tokyo area. One of these is in Chiba City, east of Tokyo, and is a frequent site of battles in these series. I made sure to visit the site when I was in Tokyo last year. Some fights take place on university campuses, in building lobbies and high up in sprawling offices overlooking the Tokyo skyline. Since the trains travel to towns outside Tokyo, there are episodes set in spanking new suburban developments and parkland, picturesque resorts, and seacoast towns.
I enjoyed the villains in this series. Emperor Z looks like he could be a J-rock star or leader of an aging boy band, which is not at all a bad thing in a series like this. He also has some connection to the children's childhood past. His confederates all have dark Victorian-style costumes and masks. They fight among themselves and often have their own agendas. One of them, General Schwarz, even makes a secret deal with one of the Toqgers. Madame Noir is very protective of her daughter, Miss Glitta, a monstrous girl with a very sweet voice and manner who wears a Gothic Lolita costume and is secretly in love with General Schwarz. One of the best episodes, #21: The Runaway Bride, has Miss Glitta switch places with Mio, the Yellow Ranger. Glitta is overjoyed at taking on Mio's cute and agile form and runs with joy through city parks, laughing with glee at her newfound freedom. Poor Mio, trapped in Glitta's monstrous form, is comforted by her friend Kagura (Pink Ranger), who noted the switch and walks with her through Tokyo streets looking for Glitta-as-Mio to engineer a reversal of the process while pedestrians and drivers of passing cars stare out at the odd duo. It's very funny, but also very touching.
I rented the series from a Japanese DVD store and watched it in Japanese without subtitles, aided only by a Wikipedia printout of episode synopses that provided roughly half of the key plot points. Forgive me if I misinterpreted a plot element or two in the course of this review.
The two Red Rangers are separated from the others and Red Ninja winds up in a picturesque samurai village, nestled in the hills, where they're confronted by a new enemy, the laughing, top hat-adorned Dark Doctor Mavro, a remnant of the Shadow Line, the antagonistic force in Ressha Sentai Toqger. The place is an elaborate evil theme park referred to in one sign as Yami Ninja Land, "yami" meaning dark. Mavro conjures up three famous ninjas of the past, Hattori Hanzo, Sarutobi Sasuke, and Fuma Kotaro, who combine to fight the Red Ninja, who puts up a valiant fight but is soon defeated. On the verge of certain death, he's rescued by the Red Toqger Ranger and quickly spirited away. Long story short, the other members of the Ninninger and Toqger teams agree to work together to rescue the two Red Rangers from Yami Ninja Land. The Toqger members are even given temporary ninja powers and ninja outfits. They all converge on Ninja Land and use ninja tactics to infiltrate the place and eventually join the Red Rangers in a massive battle at a quarry.
Meanwhile, on Harumi Island in Tokyo Bay, two of the villains from the different series show up with the Hitokarage, the Ninninger monster soldiers, to terrorize citizens until they are stopped by a new sentai team, Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, the stars of the 2016 sentai season, making a cameo appearance. It's a massive fight scene filmed on location at a sprawling waterfront plaza adjoining the Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal. Its modernist architecture provides a dramatic backdrop and its wide, open plaza lends itself well to large sentai battle scenes. It's a frequent location for fight scenes in these shows.
Back at Ninja Land, the Rangers' battle with the Yami Aka Ninja results in an uncertain fate for Takaharu, but after some intervention from the afterlife, all twelve Rangers are reunited for a final battle with Mavro and his army of villains at an abandoned mine in the hills. When Mavro pilots his own train monster, the Ninningers and Toqgers combine their zords for a spectacular zord battle under a darkened sky at the mine. It's one of the most impressive such scenes I've yet seen in a sentai movie.
I liked the abundance of historical, ninja and train motifs in the film, as well as the use of actual locations for much of the action, enhanced by various CGI effects, of course. And I was intrigued by the samurai village backlot set, which doesn't appear to be in any studio complex. It's certainly not part of the Toei Kyoto Studio Park, which has a somewhat smaller village on its grounds. I wonder where it is in Japan.
For the record, "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger" forms the basis for the current Power Rangers season in the U.S., "Power Rangers Ninja Steel." Sadly, "Ressha Sentai Toqger" was never used as the basis for a Power Rangers season. For the record, Toqger is pronounced Toe-KYU-jer.
The copy I have of this does not have subtitles, so I used a synopsis from Wikipedia to help me keep a score card as to who's who among the many and varied Kamen Riders. It left out a lot of major details, so I'm not sure I could adequately sum up the plot if asked to. For instance, if there are good reasons why the older Showa Riders (Hirohito era) would turn against the younger Heisei Riders (Akihito era), they're not really evident from the synopsis. Or the actual reasons could just be as lame as they sound. Japanese fans insisted that the older Showa Riders acted completely out of character and I can understand that, although I'm wondering if it was simply the choice of the filmmakers to present a generational divide between the era when older and tougher looking actors were cast in the Kamen Rider roles, e.g. Hiroshi Fujioka, the original Kamen Rider from 1971, who has a role here, and the more recent 21st century versions where the Kamen Rider actors all look and sound like refugees from J-pop boy bands. Of course, once they're in costume, it's all stunt men of about the same age and build taking a whack at each other.
If, like me, you're an aficionado of Tokyo locations, there is much to savor here. A lot of the locations seemed fresh to me and I speak as someone who's seen dozens of sentai episodes, which generally use a lot of the same locations as Kamen Rider episodes. On my trip to Japan last year, I even visited some of the commonly-used locations. In this film, there was one sprawling office plaza early in the film that hosted a major battle and I wish I knew where it was. Midway through the film, when the boy, Shu, remembers where he lives and takes one of the young Kamen Riders with him to see it, it's in a sparkling clean, seemingly brand-new suburban development, complete with a beautiful bridge and park in the middle of the place. Sure enough, the bad guys show up and a major fight breaks out in this picture-perfect setting. The climactic battle involving warring factions of Kamen Riders and the monsters from the Badan Empire takes place in a wide modern plaza somewhere in Odaiba with the modernist Chuo-Ohashi bridge in the background. The action even shifts to the bridge at one point. The high point is when the underground base of the Badan Empire emerges to the surface, smashing through various landmarks of the site. It's all quite spectacular and offers much excitement and imagination. To make things even better, the Super Sentai participants include the Ressha Sentai Toqger team and the Red Ranger from Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, along with his red T-Rex Zord. Their Zord combination is really clever and I only wish there had been more shots of it in action. I'm sorry that Kamen Rider purists are put off by this film, but the rest of us can just wallow in the colorfully costumed heroes and villains on display and their furious exchanges of blows and sword thrusts, plus the occasional effects-created combat tactics. Some of the Riders even have hand devices that can turn into motorcycles. (Paging Capsule Corporation!)
The 22-minute episode offered on the tape I purchased was dubbed in English and doesn't feature a single credit. There are sequences evidently meant to have opening and closing credits, but they're presented entirely absent of text. I did some research and learned that what I had was an episode of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden," although I couldn't tell which one. It's certainly not the first one since it plunges right into the action as the evil ninja master Mashira pursues Kamui with murderous ferocity. When we first meet Kamui, he is resting with his pet falcon and, upon spotting a nearby pack of wolves, decides to dab himself with an ointment with an odor designed to attract the wolves who descend upon him and give chase, providing Kamui his needed morning exercise. Mashira and his band of ninja assassins soon show up and distract Kamui from the wolves, causing him to use various ninja tactics to sneak past them through the flowing grass stalks and use the wolves as bait for the ninjas. Later, Kamui and Mashira have a series of one-on-one battles in a thick forest with lots of leaping on and off tree limbs, the use of assorted ninja tricks, and the furious lobbing of metal throwing stars (shuriken). Much of the imagery in this sequence looks forward to similar action in the 1993 anime classic, NINJA SCROLL. There is a significant supporting character in Ryuta, a young boy living in a forest hut with his sister, who wants to join Kamui and learn the ways of the ninja. We see Ryuta catching fish from a nearby river but is then bullied by village boys. Ryuta fights back valiantly, but they all gang up on him and beat him, while also leaving his catch battered and inedible. He goes back to the hut and laments the absence of Kamui, who was watching from afar, curious to see how Ryuta responds to such challenges.
Throughout the episode, the creative graphic design makes dramatic use of light, shadow, and a narrow color palette, along with background art in the style of Japanese charcoal paintings. The character design is simple, but effective. The imagery sometimes freezes and turns black-and-white, a device that may have been imposed by the American distributor to edit out gore and mute the scenes of bloodshed. If I could only compare it with the Japanese original to confirm that.
A lot happens in the 22-minute episode and it certainly piqued my interest in wanting to see the entire series, preferably in Japanese. I would even watch it in Japanese without subtitles, since it tells its story in such a visual manner. How I can do that, I don't know. As far as I know, Kidds Klassics only released the one tape. (The English dubbing on this tape is awful.)
In Japan, "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" was preceded by a similarly themed ninja series, the aforementioned "Sasuke" (1968-69), that was also based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It was about a boy learning the ninja arts from his father while trying to avoid killers led by the notorious Hattori Hanzo, working for the Tokugawa Shogunate and seeking to eliminate the boy's clan. The plot synopsis provided on this page for "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" actually describes "Sasuke" and the picture of the boy with the red scarf with white polka dots in the photo gallery is from "Sasuke." There is no entry for "Sasuke" on IMDb. I've seen three episodes of that series on VHS—in Japanese with no subtitles—and it's an absolute work of art, with some of the most expressive use of color I've ever seen in anime. Its animation and design are even better than that of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden." I would love to see more.
For the record, Sanpei Shirato revived the character of Kamui in a 1990 manga series called "The Legend of Kamui" that was published in English by Viz Communications in 1998. As far as I know, no other Shirato series has been published in English.
I enjoy seeing stories of Asian life in TV westerns, especially when they get an actor of the right ethnic background to play the part as is the case here, with Chinese-American Benson Fong playing a man who could well have been his own ancestor. However, Fong has been directed to play the role in a somewhat stereotyped fashion. While the character is quick-witted and resourceful, he's also quite subservient and speaks his lines in the way Hollywood often required of its Chinese characters, with a thick accent and replacing the "r" with an "l" in pronouncing words, so we hear Sam frequently say "So solly" instead of "So sorry." One can argue that a Chinese immigrant of Sam's status would not have been speaking standard English by this point in his tenure, but I still find the "So solly" grating. In the later episodes of "Death Valley Days" with Asian characters that I've watched, "The Book," starring George Takei, and "The Dragon of Gold Hill," starring Soon-Tek Oh, the characters were not portrayed in a stereotyped fashion. Granted, neither of them was ethnically right for their roles although both are at least Asian. (Japanese-American Takei played a Chinese immigrant, while Korean-born Soon-Tek Oh played a Japanese immigrant.) I've reviewed both for IMDb.
In return for their help, Lady gives the Toqgers a set of Galaxy Line weapons to help in their continuing battles, on Tokyo locations, with Count Nile, Hound Shadow and their army of black-clad minions. The weapons include a few surprises and, in the spectacular zord battle finale, even involves the two trains from the Galaxy and Rainbow lines. The whole thing plays like a more polished, bigger-budgeted episode of the TV series. I enjoyed it a great deal and I don't see how sentai fans can go wrong with this. (If you need further convincing, check out the images I've submitted to IMDb's Photo Gallery for this film.) This film originally played on a double bill in Japanese theaters with that season's Kamen Rider movie spin-off, KAMEN RIDER GAIM. I am submitting this review on the third anniversary of the premiere of that double bill. For the record, Toqger is pronounced "Toe-KYU-jer."