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Musashi - The Dream Of The Last Samurai (2009)
Director: Mizuho Nishikubo

review by Jim Steel

Myamoto Musashi was a 17th century samurai warrior. An iconic, semi-mythical figure, certainly, but he wasn't the last samurai by any means, despite this film's subtitle which, one suspects, was added purely to entice occidental audiences. Musashi has left a book and many highly accomplished paintings behind, but there is much mystery concerning his life. His tombstone, for example, gives his year of death as being sometime before he was probably born (although this minor curiosity is not mentioned in the film), and some of his most famous fights may not have actually happened (something that is mentioned here, frequently after the events have been very effectively portrayed). This means that he comes across as something like a strange cross between Robin Hood and Samuel Pepys.

Obviously all of this presents difficulties for documentary makers. There have been several conventional films made of his life; one of which, you will not be surprised to hear, starred Toshiro Mifune as the eponymous hero. To further muddy the waters, Musashi is the name of an ancient Japanese prefecture, and the several warships that have borne the name (including the Second World War behemoth) appear to take their name from the district and not the man.

What director Mizuho Nishikubo has chosen to do (with Mamoru Oshii's skilful screenplay) is to make a non-linear animation of Musashi's adult life. A sensei (aided by a silent female assistant) lectures us between the segments and he has chosen to hang the mystery of Musashi's personality on an early duel that took place on an island. An exploration of the circumstances surrounding this duel bookend the film but it has to be admitted that it fails to illuminate the man.

The film itself is a delight to watch and looks like a moving demonstration of Scott McCloud's seminal critical work, Understanding Comics. The duels and close-up battle scenes are reminiscent of the realist line-work of artists such as Goseki Kojima (Lone Wolf And Cub), while the sensei is shown as a minimalist toy-like figure who operates against realistically scaled backgrounds. Sometimes real-life filmed backgrounds are even utilised. On other occasions, such as when Musashi's double-sword fighting technique is demonstrated by wooden figures in a dojo, we are reminded of Pixar. And when strategic overviews are needed, figures move about the hexagonal settings of a gaming board. It sounds like it should be a mess but it works.

The film falls down when it tries to compare samurai culture with the western chivalric tradition. The sensei states that it was against the code for knights to kill each other and that was why they used maces instead of edged weapons, something which suggests a confusion between jousting and warfare. The reason that western knights used maces was that the combination of chain-mail and plate armour made edged weapons relatively ineffectual. Iron-tipped lances (not to be confused with the wooden-tipped, weakened jousting variety) on the other hand, were highly effective and lethal weapons. This argument also leads a few swipes at the early Olympic movement which excluded such samurai-friendly martial sports as archery. Musashi's book, coincidently, was called The Book of Five Rings.

The unsentimental exploration of post-Musashi samurai evolution and the subsequent cult of bushido (a surprisingly recent development), on the other hand, is superlative, and leads us up to 'the second Chinese war' (a term which fools no-one). We all know how that one turned out. All in all, this is a unique if flawed creation. If you feel that you have any sort of interest in either the animation techniques that it utilises or the martial subjects that it covers then I have no hesitation in recommending that you track it down.

Musashi - The Dream of the Last Samurai

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