Yamato Takeru (1994)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (1.5/5)
June 10th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Takao Okawara, fresh off his box office hit Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993), takes his swing at a big screen adaptation of the legendary “Birth of Japan” story, already made famous to Toho enthusiasts for Hiroshi Inagaki's The Three Treasures (1959). Unfortunately, Okawara continues his unenthusiastic approach to his work, as the audience is left here with this uninspired mid-1990's film. In fact, Yamato Takeru is pretty lackluster across the board, as its plagued by a weak script and a hollow cast of characters, as the bland acting, special effects and musical score do little to help the movie.

In terms of the plot, the movie starts out with the birth of twin princes. Their father, the emperor of Yamato, feels a great loathing for his one child Ousu. Being convinced that this feeling is a premonition, the emperor orders the shaman Tsukinowa to kill the boy, yet his efforts are spoiled by Amano Shiratori, the White Bird of the Heavens. The emperor's sister, seeing this as a clear sign of divine intervention, takes it upon herself to raise the child. Years later, when the boy has matured into a man, he is given pardon by his father and allowed to return to the castle. Unfortunately, not long after, his mother falls ill and dies mysteriously. This sends his brother into a rage and causing him to attack Ousu, who defends himself and kills his sibling in the process. His father, furious at these events, orders his son to leave the castle and not return until the barbarians living in the Kumaso domain are dealt with. The prince makes haste to complete this task, stopping off at a shrine on his way where, after a quick battle, he befriends Oto who joins him on his journey. They, along with companies Genbu and Seriyu, raid the castle, killing Kumaso Takeru and their god Kumasogami. Following this feat, the prince changes his name to Yamato Takeru, yet fails to win the acceptance of his father. His aunt, though, warns him of a great threat looming overheard, as the god Tsukuyomi is posed to return, endangering the Earth, as Yamato Takeru must prepare to halt this from occurring.

The movie's story is a pretty ho-hum retelling of its famous source material, as is likely evident. In fact, the movie tends to play out like a modern video game RPG, seen at points where Oto rushes in and attacks the group only to, after a short battle, join them on their quest. The scene after Kumasogami is defeated, and the mirror of the White Bird of the Heaven drift down from the sky and softly lands into Yamato Takeru's hands, is just too appropriate for this correlation as well, to the point where you almost expect a message to appear saying “You have collected the Mirror of the White Bird” as a “level up” screen follows. As I'm sure some know, there actually was a RPG based on this movie released simultaneously as the film; if the story was actually crafted with the game in mind seems doubtful, though.

This aspect of the storytelling aside, the way the movie moves from one element to the next is just awful, as the pacing is amazingly poor. This doesn't just give the movie a rushed impression, though, but is also fairly exasperating to watch on the part of the viewer. For example, upon Yamato Takeru being pardoned by his father and his to return to the castle, you see his mother, perfctly fine, being grateful for this. Yet, it suddenly transitions to the prince walking up to his bed-ridden mother who is deathly ill. The whole thing is handled in such a way, in fact, that you have half expect for her mother to have walked into the next room and nearly collapsed instead of the movie giving a sense that a good deal of time had transpired between the two events. The manner in which characters in the movie are constantly being revived is also problematic. Both Yamato Takeru and Oto are resurrected during the movie, and in the case of Oto it actually happens twice. Although it's never specifically addressed, one can assume this was due to divine intervention, yet it gives the whole proceeding a lack of urgency. The story is also a little too convenient at times, like Tsukinowa admitting that he killed Yamato Takeru's mother and brother to the young man, although the latter of which doesn't even make sense considering that we saw Takeru kill him in self-defense.

As far as character development is concerned, forget it. Wataru Mimura's script doesn't even make the slightest effort to try and explore these characters. This creates for a few laughable moments, such as Oto's declaration on the night after her and Yamato Takeru first meet that she has a feeling they have known each other for a long time and “will die for him.” Now I realize the story is going for this whole “destiny set in stone” angle, but would it have hurt to at least develop some sort of relationship between the two before she has to utter that absurd line? As it turns out, their relationship never really evolves at all, leaving a distinctly hollow feeling when Oto dies at the hands of Kashin Muba. As for Yamato Takeru himself, he is pretty much your generic adventurer, one who lives with self-loathing due to his “curse”, yet this never comes out in any significant way beyond some brief lines between himself and Oto. The movie also establishes two companies for the young prince: Genbu and Seriyu. Normally, these would be good candidates to kind of develop as likelable characters for the audience, maybe with some humor or just a clash in personality between the two. The film does nothing with them, though, as they are as hollow as can be while they tag along for a good portion of the adventure. What little hint we do get as to what type of characters they are is questionable, though. Such as Seriyu submitting Oto up for sacrifice to gain entry into Kumaso without telling her, which leads to the awkward moment where she cries “Seiryu!” as he laughs it off. Oh Seriyu, offering your friends up for sacrifice without telling them, you jester you. What's even more comical, though, is the last scene of substance with the two characters. This occurs right after Yamato Takeru has apparently been killed by Tsukinowa, at which point it flashes back to the shrine with Seriyu, Genbu and the prince's aunt as the three start to say: “Has something happened to the prince?” “I am also worried about the prince…” and then nothing happens as they all continue to stand around and talk about Tsukuyomi as the scene cuts out. Well great to know you guys cared…

The last character worth mentioning, although for all the wrong reasons, is the stubborn Emperor. The first time we meet the character he is already hating his son to the point where he wants him dead, which are pretty strong feelings considering the little tike just left his mother's womb not even 24 hours ago. What's even stranger, though, is what happens after his wife and other son die, at which point you would figure Yamato Takeru is as good as dead now that his father actually has reasons to hate him. Yet instead he decides to send the prince out of the castle on a quest, telling him he can't return until it's completed… did I miss something?

As for the acting in the movie, it's incredibly poor under the hand of director Okawara. Nearly every performance in the movie is abysmal, a clear sign that fault lies with the director himself and his insufficient guidance of his actors. It's not uncommon, for example, to have actors standing on screen stiffly as you are unsure if they are simply waiting for the director to yell “cut” or if they are trying to portray some kind of emotion and failing at it. Masahiro Takashima, as the title character, seems particularly dull here. Now Takashima was never a really great actor, as he was often renowned more for his natural good looks then his expertise at his craft; however, his portrayal here almost makes it seem like his uninteresting character in Gunhed (1989) was bursting with emotion in contrast. Yasuko Sawaguchi as Oto tends to fare better, giving a superior performance than the audience has seen from her in past movies like The Return of Godzilla (1984). Unfortunately, there is still nothing remarkable about her delivery here, and had the rest of the cast been more up to the task she likely wouldn't have been worth mentioning at all. On the other hand, Hiroshi Abe as the main protagonist Tsukuyomi gives easily the most satisfying performance in the movie. His character isn't given much to do, as he shows up during the final act and disappears for the climax, yet he does well with what he was given, as he stares down the audience and anyone else in his scenes while adding a nice sense of menace to his line readings. This production was fairly early in Abe's career, yet already he shows immense promise as something more than just a flash in the pan model-turn-actor.

In terms of the special effects, they are fairly lackluster here under Koichi Kawakita's guidance; however, his crew certainly did manage to cram a wide variety of beasts into the film, ranging from the lava god Kumasogami to the eight-headed Orochi. The suits themselves for the monsters are fairly well done in terms of details, yet, like a lot of Kawakita's work at this time, are far less impressive once they are seen in motion. The almost slug like Orochi is the best example of this, as the creature has trouble slithering around the screen with much credibility. Kumasogami is created here with much better results, particularly the sequences where he is seen towering over Yamato Takeru and his band. His shape shifting hands, a very interesting concept into their own, are also executed well. Sadly, the suit tends to also wobble about a little unconvincingly, although its role in general is very minor. Utsuno Ikusagami, who appears during the climax, is handled fairly well. His design seems kind of out of place, as it's distinctly more modern then one would expect, yet Kawakita packs the character with so many bells and whistles, like the great effects of the creature's birth and his reflective barrier, that it works. In fact, the special effects manage to make the climax actually interesting to watch, despite how incredibly one-sided the conflict is.

The rest of the creatures, save the incredibly stiff Amano Shiratori that makes Fire Rodan from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) look like a crowning achievement, fare pretty well. The SFX director also pulls off some sequences here with good results, like the entire creation of the universe segment at the start of the movie. Sadly, there is a lot of stuff that goes amiss here as well. The green screen work, for example, being one of the more apparent as it still needs a lot of work to look more credible, and it's not used sparingly here either. Kawakita's trademark sparks are also in full force, and are seen when the swords strike pretty much anything. In the special effects director's defense, in terms of the production as a whole, he was severally overworked here as Toho had him creating both this and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) in that same year, although the latter of which probably suffered more on account of it.

In regards to the movie's musical score, Kiyoko Ogino has composed a body of work that sounds like it would have been more appropriate for a television show as it features repetitive melodies and a good deal of reused themes; the size of the orchestra utilized sounds incredibly meager as well. Surprisingly, the soundtrack seems to work on some level, although perhaps because the feature itself seems like it would have been more suitable as an OV (Original Video). A couple of the cues, like the battle music or Oto's theme, are also fairly pleasant even in spite of their repetitiveness while the score also manages some nice low key cues as well.

In closing, Yamato Takeru is yet another forgettable 1990's special effect driven picture from Toho, as the decade as a whole was an off year for the company in terms of these types of productions, even though box office receipts for them were booming. This, however, was not one of the more successful endeavors from the decade, as the movie's failure sealed the fate of more planned films in a “Yamato Takeru series.” Something that, given the quality of this one, was likely for the best, especially since it would have caused more strain on Toho's special effects house as they would have had to continue to produce two of these types of productions a year.