iSugio

Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was an unrivaled swordsman in the days when internal wars in Japan had virtually ended. Nevertheless, he wrote a master treatise on military strategy, The Book of Five Rings and sought “the way” to enlighten his spirit and cultivate his mind. But could this image have been fabricated by the generations that followed? Mamoru Oshii will take on an unusual portrayal of this legendary and aloof warrior, between spectacular duels and a tragic life in pursuit of greatness.

Films based around mythical or legendary figures have always presented a difficult spot for creators to construct some sort of objective truth regarding them. This is even harder to consider when dealing with a cinematic interpretation of such an individual, and even more difficult when attempting to present a documentary on such. We all have to admit that such exaggeration lends the source material a great depth of creativity, but should this be considered when dealing with historical accounts? Where do we distinguish between fact and fiction? With an original concept by Mamoru Oshii himself, Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai attempts to borderline the realm of interpretative history and factual history, which often times presents a very awkward outlook for a film dealing with such a memorable figure within Japanese history. Perhaps it’s best to say that this sort of approach was necessary given the figure at hand, but it will undoubtedly inform, surprise, and even confuse the viewer as to what to make of it.

Caught between showcasing live-action footage, comical narratives, and animated sword battles, the film treats the material at hand with the feel of a documentary. Those looking strictly for a full-length animated feature film will be certainly disappointed, while those looking for a showcasing of historical accounts and elaborate background information regarding the period in which Musashi lived should be pleased. The film is definitely pointed towards acquiring knowledge of Musashi as a mythical and historical figure, and pans out in such a fashion that should be enjoyable for anyone interested in learning such information. Those who have little interest in history in any capacity or regard will probably not enjoy the film as much, mainly because it relies so much on providing information on the historical backing of the era of Musashi, including that of his likings, sword techniques, and even some history on warfare. While all this will certainly appeal to viewers who enjoy learning history through film, it can become somewhat of an arduous task to sit through for the common viewer more accustomed to strictly animated fares that rely on a straight narrative to engage them.

This is not to say that the film is confusing to watch, but it does expound upon the figure of Musashi through various bizarre set pieces—often times with mixed results. What this does is present a unique but ultimately dry look into the life of Musashi—almost methodical in its handling. While the most preferred treatment would be that of a fully animated feature film, Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai carefully brushes this aside to focus more on the contextual background of the duels more so than the actual duels themselves. While this is fantastic for those not accustomed to the history, it heavily borders on being too informative and less entertaining a film for viewers already informed of the history—even then, the film only briefly touches on so little of it to begin with. While the trailer amply showed an abundance of animated battle sequences, the actual film sparsely showcases such scenes, only to have a majority of the film’s time dedicated to explaining the historical establishments surrounding such scenes through a collage of live-action scenery, manuscript inserts, and awkward narration.

Besides the rather strenuous amount of information given in the film, it still delivers on providing excellent animated sequences. With animated production by Production I.G., the film highlights many of Musashi’s duels in articulate and exaggerated fashion, which further cements Musashi’s status a both a mythical and historical Japanese figure. This most certainly presents a two-fold though, and the abundant amount of narrative techniques can only stretch so far. While the animated battle sequences are quite nice to view, they are easily outweighed with that of shoddy CG of the main narrator and his companion. Contrasting the rather violent sword duels and battle sequences, the overtly cute scenes that the narrator resides in seems completely out of place given the material explored. This juxtaposition is rather jarring, and easily confuses itself from being taken as a serious account of Musashi the legendary swordsman or as a comical preschool presentation. Those not informed about Musashi in any regard will find some gratification during these informative segments—and they do provide extensive detailing—but many will probably want to just view the next sword duel.

Overall, Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai is an equally muddled and absorbing film for what it presents to the viewer. While the detailed historical and mythical look into Musashi Miyamoto as an individual is quite enlightening, one could only imagine a film like this being enjoyed to its furthest extent by history and warfare buffs strictly because the film presents itself more so as a documentary than anything else. Whether this works to benefit the film as being entertaining is entirely subjective to each viewer, and while that logic could be applied to most films, I feel it’s to be highly considered given this particular film’s focus being on such a legendary swordsman. And like any historical analysis, it’s quite difficult to encompass everything within the confinement of a film, let alone a 72-minute one. If you’re looking for a documentary approach on Musashi Miyamoto, look no further—if you’re looking for an animated action extravaganza, you might be disappointed. Still, Musashi: The Dream of the Last Samurai remains an impressive albeit perplexing look into one of Japan’s greatest mythical and historical heroes.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • gwern

    > Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was an unrivalled swordsman in the days when internal wars in Japan had virtually ended.

    Not quite right. He fought in, he says, 6 battles, and the Battle of Sekigahara (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musashi_Miyamoto#Travels_and_duels and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sekigahara), which was a battle to end all battles. He lived to see the end of internal wars, but he lived through his fair share of wars.

  • Douglas

    Most scholars would conclude that he lived in an era in which “virtually” all internal wars had ended–the usage of “virtually” meaning not wholly; just about. This would certainly apply here, simply because there wasn’t constant warring occurring like in the Sengoku era for example. It is also not certain fact that he fought in the Battle of Sekigahara as well–which adds to surrounding myth of his stature.