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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Nothing to do with Jesus or Satan

Makai Tensho

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Hideyuki Hirayama
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens April 26

The Japanese take on Christianity has long baffled Westerners -- Christian or not -- when it has not outraged them. Even though Christians first set foot on these shores 450 years ago, their religion evokes responses ranging from blithe incomprehension to playful mockery to outright disgust.

News photo
Yosuke Kubozuka in "Makai Tensho"

Even when a film, such as Hideyuki Hirayama's "Makai Tensho (Samurai Resurrection)," portrays Christianity and its believers with an approximation of seriousness, from a Western viewpoint (or to be more exact, this Western viewpoint) its approach is still odd, if utterly Japanese. The notion of resurrection gets mixed up with folk beliefs about vengeful spirits, resulting in a farrago dressed in the conventions of the samurai swashbuckler and spooky kaidan (traditional ghost story) and served up with Japonesque CG effects.

Hirayama, who has found a happy balance between art ("Ai o Kou Hito") and commerce ("Gakko no Kaidan"), sometimes in the same film ("Out"), directs with a lighter, surer touch than usual for this sort of fare. Meanwhile the talented cast members, led by Yosuke Kubozuka, Koichi Sato and Kumiko Aso, avoid playing their characters as either park statuary or cartoons -- the common jidai geki (period drama) options -- while delivering their lines slowly enough that even junior high-schoolers can follow along. As they should; the film is less a jidai geki for the old folks than a slickly produced arcade game on film, whose target audience is under 25.

The hero is Amakusa Shiro (Kubozuka), a young Christian who is slaughtered, together with 37,000 other Christians and their sympathizers, by the forces of the Tokugawa bakufu in the bloody Shimabara revolt of 1638. Shiro is possessed of occult powers, which frighten his attackers, but can't save his life.

Ten years later, Tokugawa Yorinobu, a lord of the Kishu clan with aspirations to the shogunate, is out hawking when he encounters what looks to be an angel in kimono -- Shiro returned to this world. He tells Yorinobu that he will help him depose the despised Shogun Iemitsu, whose anti-Christian policy led to the Shimabara massacre. At first skeptical, Yorinobu becomes a believer when Shiro, aided by an equally dead follower, Clara Oshina (Aso), resurrects Araki Mataemon (Masaya Kato), a famed swordsman of the Yagyu school. For this miracle of makai tensho (return from the spirit world) to occur, however, a young woman must die.

Two sisters and Yagyu disciples, Ohiro (Yuka Kurotani) and Ohina (Hitomi Fukeishi), are selected as human sacrifices for more unholy resurrections. Thankfully, they manage to avoid this dire fate and when Ohina tells the Yagyu leader, Yagyu Jubei (Sato), about the Kishu clan plot, he becomes determined to thwart it.

First he has to get past Mataemon and a host of other resurrected warriors, including -- but why add a spoiler? How can a mere mortal defeat supernatural opponents who, having already tasted death, have no fear of it?

Based on a novel by Futaro Yamada and preceded by Kinji Fukasaku's 1981 film of the same title, "Makai Tensho" is structured much like a modern role-playing game, with Jubei having to defeat a series of opponents, each with different weapons and skills, before he can finally confront the "boss" -- Shiro. Also, though the fight scenes unfold more with traditional sword-play than flashy acrobatics, the losers don't bleed, but electronically deliquesce, just as they do in "Final Fantasy."

That said, Sato brings a very human combination of determination and dismay to the role of Jubei. Despite his formidable sword technique, he is no superman -- and his doubts that he will emerge from these encounters alive give his performance an added charge.

As Shiro, the latest in a series of weirdo roles, Kubozuka comes across as little more than a cult leader, in the sort of long-sleeved, high-collared costume that wouldn't be out of place in a "Star Wars" episode. Aso has a stronger presence as the femme fatale Oshina, but like Shiro her character, is less a credible Christian than a vengeful spirit. In the Christian view, both may be martyrs for the faith, but in the context of the film -- and the culture -- they are an alien Other, come to wreak revenge on the living.

This is not to say the film deliberately distorts Christianity; instead it uses it (or rather misuses it) as a convenient bridge to the type of fantasy world most familiar to the local audience. What's Jesus -- or Satan -- got to do with it?

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