Ever since the iconic single-shot sequences used in Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children of Men, one-shot films have become extremely trendy in cinema. And though this adventurous technique was popularised as far back as the 40s, more and more filmmakers are trying their hand at manufacturing a continuous shot feature film.
Particularly in the West – in the last decade or two, a handful of big name directors such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Sam Mendes and Gaspar Noé have shared their contributions to the technical showboatery. Both Iñárritu and Mendes cleaned house during film awards season with their respective films, Birdman and 1917.
Over in the East, Shin’ichirō Ueda shook the world a few years back with his exceptionally inventive and quirky zombie comedy film, One Cut of the Dead. In the low-budget flick, the film opens with an intricately executed 37-minute long continuous shot.
Next up from the East, boasting the world’s first feature-length, one-take action sequence is Yûji Shimomura‘s Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (Crazy Samurai Musashi).
Having spent a large portion of his career as a stunt coordinator, fight choreographer and action director, it seems it was only a matter of time before Shimomura tried his hand at something as bodacious as Crazy Samurai attempts to achieve.
Starring Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Crazy Samurai centres around a master swordsman who walks into an ambush after arriving at a duel to face a fellow master, leaving him to fight for his life against 400+ warriors.
Briskly opening up with lots of dialogue in quick succession, a backstory is created hastily to inform the audience of who is who, when and where the story takes place, what is established and inevitably where the film is heading for the rest of the runtime. The backstory isn’t particularly interesting nor investing. It’s a straightforward classic, run of the mill “lone disgraced warrior is about to attacked by a multitude of opponents”. In these opening scenes, regardless of what you know or don’t know of the film prior to your first experience with it, you will find yourself impatiently waiting for the action to begin.
When the inevitable “400 vs 1” action begins, the transition from well-crafted, well-framed and well-paced shots and narrative are out of the window! In comes the beginning of the one-take sequence, as too does the nauseating, found-footage-type shaky camerawork. All the finesse is lost instantly in favour of something more naturalistic. The end result feels ham-fisted and clunky. It radiates shoestring budget and film school student’s first project.
Off the bat, the action itself is pretty lacklustre. Even as somebody who typically takes an elite stance against visual effects in films, the lack of special effects and visual effects here, coupled with the flow of action and development ends up being heavily reliant on its choreography. And the choreography simply isn’t compelling enough to wow you like most other martial arts films from the East. Or even action films from the West.
The concept of time is lost during the 1 hour and 31 minute runtime of Crazy Samurai. Only 30 minutes into the film, I felt like I’d been watching it for an eternity. Uncomfortably I might add. 60 painstaking minutes in as Musashi begins flagging, as too will you. Your concentration and capacity to stay invested becomes a test of durability. A 24 Hours of Le Mans/Tour de France endurance test. Shimomura‘s film suffers from blatant pacing issues which is a damn shame for a product that could have been destined for greatness. The action isn’t paced a breakneck speeds, leaving you to feel that the improvisation of these choreographed is purposefully delayed to stretch out the narrative for the runtime. The swordsmanship lacks any creativity. Gut slash, skull bash, neck clash. Repeat. It doesn’t quite have the character of a great on-screen battle such as The Bride vs The Crazy 88 or Manji against the endless hordes of rōnin in Blade of the Immortal.
During the gargantuan one-take sequence, the mise-en-scène is largely absent of drama or theatrics. Musashi (Sakaguchi) leisurely weaves through an army of warriors, moving gradually from one location to the next after unentertainingly slaying masses of samurai. Where the never ending battle takes place is never at all in the foreground. It’s a bog standard Edo Period setting, humdrum and not essential to the focus of what is repetitive, mindless action devoid of any genuine conviction.
There are brief moments of forced respite, however they are equally as irritating as the film’s abundant blemishes. The first being super slow extreme close-ups of Musashi every now and again during battle, showing him breathing heavily, attempting to catch his breath in between flailing his Japanese steel around like a madman. Put in place as if the audience need to catch their breath in between the action, which just isn’t the case. They add very little depth to the narrative and take you right out of the frankly measured action sequences.
On the odd occasion here and there, Musashi encounters the video game-esque “end-of-level boss fight”. These moments are built up with lots of nuggets of vital dialogue, only to last a minute or two in exchange. The “bosses” are very obviously tougher opponents – who even look like side characters among the 400+ near-identical warriors, and yet are mowed down as if they’re equally as inferior. Nothing seems to challenge our key protagonist and it’s frustrating to see zero character development throughout the runtime. I wanted to see Musashi under some level of threat and pressure and that just never is the case. In its defence, what can realistically be achieved when your film is almost entirely reliant on improvised choreography with absolutely no editing whatsoever? I just wish the action was a bit more brutal and visceral.
It isn’t all doom and gloom however! There are pockets of goodness inside this laboured body of work.
The biggest cluster of praise is in the films sound design. The sound effects are unambiguously brilliant! Every swinging sword, gut-slicing slash and blood splatter pierces through your eardrums like they should. The timing and precision are a thing of beauty. Masterfully implemented post-production by Toshihide Osada and Kenji Shibasaki.
Praise can also comfortably be given to all cast members involved in during the one-take sequence, as each cast member plays their role as well as is humanly possible with the extensive sequence having almost a sense of free-for-all to it. The often flimsy and frail strength of Shimomura’s film is carried by its muscular performances.
So, Crazy Samurai sadly misses the mark by quite the margin and most definitely isn’t the next Birdman or 1917. It shoots for the stars and plummets before it reaches the summit of Mount Fuji. It dishonours itself in its attempt of being honourable and now it must perform seppuku as punishment. Regardless, it dares to try something that most never attempt and or that, you have to at the very least applaud it.
Action, World Cinema | Japan, 2020 | 18 | Subtitles | 5th July 2021 (UK) | Blu-Ray, DVD, Digital HD | Dazzler Media | Dir.Yûji Shimomura | Tak Sakaguchi, Kento Yamazaki, Yôsuke Saitô