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Makai Tensho - Samurai Resurrection (Hirayama Hideyuki 2003)


Makai Tensho
[Samurai Resurrection / Reborn From Hell]

Genre: Quasi-historical Supernatural Samurai [Tokugawa/Edo Era: 1603-1867 AD]

review in one breath

Makai Tensho, Makai Tensho, Makai Tensho (Makai Tensho).

Only a mere five movies share this same title, attesting to the fact that this is a very popular traditional tale. Each retelling is undoubtedly different in both seriousness and content. The story itself does not seem to be fixed and can take on several forms, as long as most of the main characters are present. (For a very over-the-top rendition of this tale, be sure to check out the (hilarious) two-part Reborn From Hell: Samurai Armageddon .)

The reason for this story's popularity is due to its reliance upon very (in)famous (actual) historical figures.

One constant in the various versions is the fact that the good guy is swordsman extraordinaire, Jubei Yagyu. Jubei is a real historical figure dating back to the 1600's. His father, Tajima Yagyu was the swordmaster of the Tokugawa shogunate. In these stories, Jubei finds himself pitted against all forms of diabolical, demonic schemes, which often include the demonic resurrection of his father, Tajima, against whom he must then fight to the death.

In this newest retelling, Jubei's primary nemesis is Amakusa Shiro (also historically known by the names Amakusa Shiro Tokisada and Amano Shiro). The historical background of Amakusa Shiro is indeed the type which breeds legend. Here's some true history:

The early Christian (Japanese) communities of Shimbura and Amakusa consisted mainly of peasant farmers under the tutelage of foreign missionaries. The Daimyo, however, strongly opposed the emergence of this foreign religion and aggressively persecuted these communities through both physical and economic hardships. These persecutions caused many believers in Christianity to "recant" in order to save their lives or the lives of their families. Such recantation, though strictly symbolic (and in many cases simply involved placing one's foot on an image of Christ), was viewed by the missionaries and the Japanese church at large as heretical. Thus relatively large numbers of Korobi Kirishitan ("Fallen Christians") were produced. Continually viewed as outcasts by both the Daimyo and the Church, a breaking point was reached in 1637 with the beginning of a peasant rebellion. Fueling the peasant rebellion were several discontent (Christian) Ronin (masterless samurai). The leader of the peasant rebellion was Amakusa Shiro, the son of a Konishi Ronin. ("Konishi" refers to Konishi Yukinaga, who ruled over Shimabara and Amakusa for the previous eleven years.) Although this was indeed a political uprising, the peasants, ronin, and Amakusa himself viewed it in highly religious terms. Those rebelling looked upon Amakusa as a type of savior, and historians generally refer to this movement as a (rare) form of Japanese "messianism" (that is, belief that Amakusa was a messiah-figure under whose military leadership the revolt would bring about a more spiritual political reality). Historical documents record the Shimabara and Amakusa communities as describing Amakusa in these terms: "The august personage named Lord Shiro who has these days appeared in Oyano (village) of Amakusa is an Angel from Heaven" (dated Oct 25, 1637). Needless to say, the Tokugawa shogunate came down upon the rebels with a fast and furious hand, and the rebellion ended with a great slaughter of the Christian communities. (Today, a statue of Shiro and a museum dedicated to the historical episode can be visited in the town of Hondo in Kumamoto prefecture).

Makai Tensho begins with the armies of the Tokugawa Shogunate storming the final bastion of the all-but-defeated rebels under the leadership of Amakusa Shiro. As the Shogun's General barges through the doors of the room in which Amakusa is waiting, the two opponents meet face to face. The General sneers, suggesting Amakusa pray to "his foreign god". But Amakusa calmly replies that he has forsaken the Christian God for a more powerful force. (Notice how he is remembered as belonging to the Korobi Kirishitan who denied the Christian God?) Saying this, a strange influence overtakes the general, who then turns and slays all of the accompanying Tokugawa soldiers before finally cleanly beheading Amakusa who stands before him. As the general then takes his own life, the decapitated body of Amakusa begins to move.

The subsequent story will be very familiar to anyone who has seen another version of the Makai Tensho tale. Where this version differs, perhaps, is in the very impressive landscape scenes and the special effects. Director Hirayama seems to have taken great care in providing dramatic natural backdrops for the storyline and provides several impressive panorama views of Japan's mountain and seascapes. The film's special effects, though undoubtedly better than its predecessors', are (strikingly) akin to those seen on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", especially in the multiple scenes where defeated resurrected samurai vanish into piles of smoldering ash. Though perhaps technically superior, I felt myself longing for the incredible fountains of green demonic blood permeating Reborn From Hell: Samurai Armegeddon.

Also missing from this version was the multitude of gratuitously naked virgins. You see, it is a well-documented historical FACT that the resurrection of any dead samurai MUST be accompanied with a large-breasted naked virgin. On the Official Scale of Naked Virgins (OSNV), Makai Tensho scores pitifully low with a mere one naked virgin. (Compare this, if you will, with the previously mentioned version which boasts an eye-popping population of naked babes.)

I'm not sure why this movie was made. It was enjoyable to a degree, but in most respects, it striclty retraces an otherwise very familiar story. And although the swordsmanship was decent, I felt the resurrected samurai died or gave up much too easily. There didn't seem to be any new ground broken in the retelling of this story. For those unfamiliar with the general tale of Makai Tensho, this would undoubtedly be a good introduction (though it does not provide any background on the setting or characters).

Maybe a final comment on the title Makai Tensho. Perhaps the most literal translation of this is "Reincarnation from the Demonic World". In a general sense, Makai means "hell", but certainly not in the Western Judaeo-Christian sense (though this film conjurs up visions of a "burning hell"). Traditionally, this term connotes more simply a "world of the undead" or "spiritual realm". And Shinto definitions of what this netherworld might be like are notoriously vague. Tensho is the formal Buddhist term for "transmigration of souls", better known in the West as "reincarnation". Nothing in the title suggests "samurai" (despite the film commonly being referred to as "Samurai Resurrection").

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Pretty standard retelling of a popular traditional tale. One beheading and several deaths by sword fight. Certainly not a "violent" movie. Most deaths are rather stoic, accompanied with a requisite thoughtful reflection prior to dying. One naked virgin, whose nipples had their own little "resurrection" going on. (!). Nothing out of the ordinary here.

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