One might expect that serving as an assistant director on a film by Akira Kurosawa would be invaluable to anyone interested in making movies. Among other things, one could hope to learn: how to use every inch of the widescreen lens to its utmost potential; how to appreciate scale; how to properly photograph an elaborate set; how to construct a compelling screen narrative. All of these tips—again, one might imagine—would be particularly helpful to anyone who, in their own career, makes a film set in or drawing influence from early Japan. Who better to learn from than the master? Alas, expectations do not necessarily equate reality. For even though director Takao Okawara did in fact assist Kurosawa on his late-period samurai epic Kagemusha (1980), whatever he might have ascertained from the experience is nowhere to be found in his insipid, mind-numbing 1994 production Yamato Takeru. In a sense, it is not too surprising. Okawara seemed heavily dependent on a good script in the early years of his career, and this project showcases his weaknesses to a nauseating degree.
The film, known stateside as Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon, is based in part on the mythological elements of The Kojiki: the oldest surviving chronicle about Japanese history. It opens with an unnecessary prologue about the universe’s birth and how a pair of gods named Izanagi and Izanami forged the creation of Japan. Thousands of years pass. The emperor of the Yamato Dynasty (Saburo Shinoda) is blessed with twin sons. Except "blessed" is not quite the word, as the emperor develops an intense hatred for his second child, Prince Ousu, going so far as to order his trusted psychic Tsukinowa (Akaji Maro) to kill the infant. The assassination is unsuccessful: the child is saved by an enormous metal bird and delivered to his devoutly religious aunt (Nobuko Miyamoto) for safekeeping until the emperor decides to pardon him.
Ten years later, Ousu ventures into a mysterious cave, where he encounters a giant speaking statue. The statue informs the young prince his destiny is to obtain "three lights" and become "a warrior of the gods." Some more times goes by. Ousu, now a man (Masahiro Takashima), receives a pardon and returns to his father’s palace…but not for long. After being framed for matricide and being trapped into killing his brother, Ousu is instructed by the emperor to subjugate a realm of barbarians. A treacherous mission with little chance of survival. While en route, he is joined by a shrine priestess named Oto Tachibana (Yasuko Sawaguchi) who feels as though she has been waiting for him her entire life. (I kid you not.) The subjugation mission proves successful, and Ousu acquires a shrine mirror—the first of his "three lights"—confirming the prophecy relayed to him as a child. As warrior of the gods, his ultimate task will be to vanquish the evil deity Tsukuyomi (Hiroshi Abe), who once tried to conquer the planet….
Oh, and I should probably mention that, in the midst of this whole "spectacle," Ousu is rechristened Yamato Takeru.
Japanese mythology is ripe with cinema-worthy material. (In fact, Toho had made an adaptation of The Kojiki once before: a lopsided but mildly entertaining 1959 Hiroshi Inagaki film called The Three Treasures.) However, as Yamato Takeru manifestly demonstrates, an intriguing premise, by itself, really doesn’t amount to much in the long run. Without imaginative execution and a sure hand at storytelling, even the most interesting idea will sink into cinematic purgatory.
Though I dismissed Okawara’s direction earlier (and intend to dismiss it further still), he is far from being the only bad link in this dilapidated chain. I, frankly, find it impossible to imagine any director, of any caliber, could have fashioned something good out of the simply repugnant screenplay provided by Wataru Mimura. To begin with, the script makes the questionable decision of basing its story around the too-easy gimmick of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our protagonist learns about his destiny not even fifteen minutes in, resulting in a narrative that unfolds more in the manner of a third-rate videogame as opposed to a true adventure fable. (In other words: there’s very little sense that anything can happen in the world of this film. Everything feels predetermined.) So when Yamato Takeru undertakes a quest—whether it’s to slay the ruler of a hostile kingdom or to do battle with a villainous deity—it feels as though he’s being moved around by the mechanics of the plot and not by his own decision-making. When he obtains the remaining two "lights"—one thanks to divine intervention, the other due to the owner willingly giving it to him—the feeling of accomplishment adds up to zero. Also spat up are lapses in character logic. Toward the end of film, the god Susano-o (Yuki Meguro) reveals that Yamato Takeru’s life was planned out to, essentially, train him to vanquish Tsukuyomi. A tad surprising, therefore, that our hero wouldn’t bear a grudge: you’d think Susano-o and company could’ve readied their predestined warrior without making casualties out of his mother and sibling…that surely must have been part of the plan, as Ousu wouldn’t have been sent to kill the leader of the barbarians (where he obtains his "first light") without the deaths of two family members.
However, let it be said, in spite of the inherent problems it presents, I would’ve been more than happy to overlook the above described gimmick…had the filmmakers been so courteous to give us not only some riveting adventure scenarios, but a collection of memorable characters to experience it. Alas, that is where the movie falls drastically short.
A prime example of the film’s confused sense of narrative and character development. Ten-year-old Ousu is wandering in a wooded area when, suddenly, he is ambushed. A skilled swordsman erupts from the ground like a submerged rocket, and a staff-wielding magician comes swooping down from the nearby hill as though propelled by a zip-line. They attack, swinging swords and casting lassos of green energy between the tree trunks. Ousu declares surrender after a quick scuffle. The men cease their attack and warn the young prince not to go near "the cave" (there was nothing beforehand to suggest Ousu was looking for anything, and this is the first time we’re even told there is a cave in the first place); and then the sequence abruptly ends. At this point, Screenwriter Mimura designates the audience to do his work for him: trying to figure out who these men are, what relationship they have with Ousu, what motivates them, etc. We are eventually led to assume they are friends of Ousu’s aunt, entrusted to protect the prince from youth to manhood; but the film reveals virtually nothing about them, even when they join the hero on one of his quests. Obligatory sidekicks/guardians—weaved into the story in the sloppiest manner conceivable.
Other characters boast less screen time but are tossed around just as haphazardly. Take, for instance, Ousu’s brother (Akira Koieyama), who we see as an infant at the beginning of the film and briefly again as an adult—without a proper reintroduction; at first glance, the audience has no idea who this character is—and who is slain within the next five minutes. More aggravating still is the handling of their mother (Keaki Mori). She falls ill—rather, she’s already bedridden—a mere few seconds after appearing completely healthy in a previous scene; and then the film awkwardly cuts to a not-dramatic moment in which her life slips away. The script shares the gods’ ostensible sentiment: these are not human beings; these are tools of the plot; and ham-handedly operated tools at that.
But the worst offender of all is the protagonist—the one, above all others, we are meant to follow, root for, and identify with. Even if the self-fulfilling prophecy and all its limitations had been eradicated, I doubt it would have done much good; for this film version of Yamato Takeru is one of the blandest characters ever to ‘command the screen’ in a Toho film. And the performance of the part by the hopelessly miscast Masahiro Takashima does not help in any way. As much as I disliked Gunhed (1989), I will admit the actor seemed more at home in that movie, relying upon his good looks and ready-to-pose personae to course from scene to scene in a picture that didn’t ask for substance. But in the role of a mythological hero, he’s utterly inadequate: he looks, moves, and speaks completely wrong from beginning to end—too much of a "modern" personality, for lack of a better description. What this movie desperately needed, among other things, was a leading man who could channel a larger-than-life personality and imbue the sort of presence befitting a figure of legend—someone like Toshiro Mifune in The Three Treasures (1959).
Yasuko Sawaguchi, as Oto Tachibana, fares considerably better than her co-star: she delivers a pleasant performance in spite of the dreary writing. Most notable is a moment where she shows off her talent for comedy. Oto has been conned into taking the place of a sacrificial candidate; she kneels on the floor while a rugged barbarian looks the other candidates over. But before he can get to her, Oto uses soot from a candle to black out one of her teeth and dab a mole on her face. When instructed to look up, Sawaguchi—black tooth and mole on display—conjures a priceless, pretend-brainless smirk and delivers a well-earned laugh.
As for the rest of the cast, only Hiroshi Abe, as Tsukuyomi, warrants mention. Frankly, if I were to adjust the cast of this picture according to what already exists, I would’ve much preferred he play the part of Yamato Takeru. He has a larger-than-life personality, a sort of awe-generating vibe about him.
Takao Okawara takes the picture’s rickety foundation and does it no favors. Despite having assisted on Kagemusha (1980), the director demonstrates little expertise in the crafting of a visually spectacular period piece: staging ho-hum composition after ho-hum composition, linking shots without grace, allowing cinematographer Yoshinori Sekiguchi to further deteriorate the visuals with unremarkable lighting, pacing at such an inorganic tempo that the picture feels suffocatingly slow. An early scene of Tsukinowa observing, from afar, the birth of Ousu and his brother is a prime example of poor direction, with no two shots having any true sense of relation, flowing statically as though assembled by the crew of a lackluster TV movie. Also, Okawara even goes so far as to bungle what could have been an awe-inspiring action moment. Our hero is staring down the leader of the barbarians, a pit of fire between them. They exchange a few pseudo-tough guy words before the barbarian, sword at the ready, charges forward and leaps over the flames—and the director swings his camera to the left so fast we can barely glimpse it; one of those ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ errors; another director would have insisted on a second (stationary) camera to catch the leap in all its crimson glory.
There are a few nice things to look at, though, such as a candle-lit meeting between the emperor and Tsukinowa. Some of the outdoor vistas of characters on horseback, trekking across great landscapes, carry a sense of wonder. And the production design by Tetsuzo Osawa and Fumio Ogawa sings with detail—so much detail that even the humdrum compositions cannot wholly diminish the hard work put into the sets. But by and large, the visual look of Yamato Takeru is dismayingly poor. Had the picture been handed to a director with a little more wit and imagination—say, the Okawara who directed Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)—it might’ve at least had some texture and rhythm, though a critically good film still would’ve been impossible. Instead, Toho settled for a product that, beyond its intricate sets, looks as though it were made for the small screen and moves in ragged fits.
Continuing the downward spiral are the special effects headed by Koichi Kawakita. The monsters in this motion picture are well-designed and feature some excellently detailed sculpts; but in the process of bringing these unique-looking creations to life, Kawakita turns out some of his least inspiring work. Amano Shiratori, the bird who saves baby Ousu, is represented via two methods: a life-sized animatronic and a scaled-down puppet. While the robot features a number of surprisingly articulate parts (including eyelids), the puppet is inexcusably stiff, with no apparent mobility outside its sluggishly flapping wings. (Cutting back and forth between the two during the film’s climax is cataclysmically jarring.) The effects used to realize the molten deity Kumasogami and the giant metallic samurai Utsuno Ikusagami look and perform efficiently, though their respective scenes flop in terms of excitement.
Orochi is perhaps the biggest letdown. On the one hand, there is an intrinsic spectacle in seeing a monster with eight independently moving heads lashing across the screen, especially when several of those heads are spitting huge gouts of flame. (No optical animation or trick photography: the crew installed actual flame-throwers inside the mouths to simulate this breathtaking effect.) But the shots of Orochi dragging itself across the ground are downright embarrassing. When the creature moves, its front limbs gyrate with all the dexterity of a pair of joysticks, rarely making contact with the ground, never conveying the illusion that this thing is even capable of hauling its own mass. (In most shots, it looks as though Orochi is dog-paddling through an invisible pool.) Having said that, and considering he mostly shrouds the beast’s lower body in smoke, Kawakita might as well have just cut off the legs and had the monster slither around like Ray Harryhausen’s hydra in Jason the Argonauts (1963). The final battle with the eight-headed dragon has very little tension or excitement outside a few admittedly spectacular shots (most of them of the beast spraying fire from its maws); the drearily lit set upon which the whole skirmish takes place does not help in the slightest. And the shot of Orochi "flying" to Earth, casting a disproportionate shadow on the planet, is arguably the most pathetic image in Kawakita’s career.
Composites, normally an effect Kawakita could execute well, come off shabby. In one such instance, Kumasogami swipes at one of the sidekick/guardians (superimposed in front of the monster), misses him by a long shot, and yet the man still somehow gets flung across the room as though he’d been struck by a battering ram. (Maybe Kumasogami has been studying the Force between sacrifices?) And let’s not get started on the ineptitude to be found in those shots of Takashima and Sawaguchi floating in outer space, where the lighting on the subjects doesn’t even vaguely match the backgrounds.
On the positive side: since Kawakita seems to have been incapable of making a film without at least one impressive sequence, there is a highlight to be found within Yamato Takeru’s dreary wastes of boredom. The hero and heroine have ventured to a rocky coastline when a typhoon erupts into life. As lashing winds stir up the ocean, we see an enormous tail rise from the waves before slamming down with a thunderous bang. In one of the film’s better composite shots (helped by the inclusion of rain), we see the two leads standing on a ledge, backs to the ocean; a patch of water behind them churns explosively with froth, something on its way to the surface. From the foam rises the (excellently designed) sea monster Kaijin Muba, which proceeds to snatch up our leading man with one of its constantly moving tentacles. The scene gets better when Kaijin Muba takes its prize beneath the waves. In addition to filters, bubbles, and sediment to improve the "underwater" illusion, Kawakita backlights the monster, long streams of pale blue warping around its figure. When Oto dives in and rescues her drowning loved one, the scene takes on almost balletic photography while maintaining a visceral sense of scale…as the oceanic demon decides to take Oto as its prize instead. Okawara, of course, should be commended for his contributions to these few minutes, but this is primarily Kawakita’s scene, so he deserves the bulk of the credit.
When it came time to write music for Yamato Takeru, Okawara considered sending an offer to Akira Ifukube but ultimately decided against it. His logic: the project "was going to be so different from the Godzilla films," so another composer would be ideal. (I guess the director wasn’t aware Ifukube had scored The Three Treasures many decades before.) Regardless, he probably should’ve reconsidered, because the musical score the film ended up with (by Kiyoko Ogino) is an ensemble of mostly hit-and-miss cues. Ogino seems more at home composing gentle music as opposed to scoring action scenes, and rarely does the score enhance or transcend the bland film it’s been written for. Still, she does deliver a few noteworthy pieces: her tracks for the earlier described highlight with Kaijin Muba couldn’t work better, and I very much enjoyed her simplistic theme for Oto.
Yamato Takeru was originally planned as the first installment in a trilogy. But lackluster box office returns put the sequels on hiatus: the beginning chime of the series’ death knell. In a Fangoria profile written by Norman England, Okawara confessed to having been unimpressed with the first movie’s screenplay as well as Wataru Mimura’s script for the sequel. "[A]fter reading the second script," the director recalled, "I told [producer Shogo] Tomiyama it was just no good. It never got made, and it seems that was that." It might have been for the better. Given the quality of this film and the fact that its own director saw no merit in what was next in line, one can only imagine how unwatchable the remainder of the trilogy would’ve turned out. As for what we got, Yamato Takeru is dreadful: a torpid, visually unappealing mess that rivals Kunio Miyoshi’s Rebirth of Mothra II as the nadir of Toho’s 1990s special effects productions.