I've seen a few Sonny Chiba films - the Street Fighter films, of course, but also several of his more historical films. (Oh, and his classic turns in Prince Of Space and Attack Of The Neptune Men on MST3K!) Many of his recent DVD releases (in the wake of his appearance in Kill Bill) were picked up by the Austin Library, and so I was able to see such classics as Karate Bullfighter and The Killing Machine. I've got a cheapo copy of Shogun's Ninja (an apparently unrelated movie, except for Chiba appearing in both) sitting on my to-be-watched shelf, but I saw Shogun's Samurai appear on IFC last weekend and remembered to grab it on my Tivo.
I haven't really seen many samurai films - I'm more into the Jackie Chan-style, hand-to-hand fighting films. Samurai fights seem to fall into two categories - large masses of fighters slashing at each other, and one-on-one fights where the competitors stare each other down, there is one quick strike, and then after a pause, one fighter falls down. At any rate, that's the way things go here - there aren't really many fights that leave your jaw on the ground because of the technical nature of the action. There is a fight late in the film that leaves your jaw on the ground for a different reason - an evil leader sends his fighters out to wipe out a village that knows of his treachery, and the movie spares no details - including a soldier running a spear through two young girls!
So while there is some action, that really isn't the focus here. This is really a political intrigue film. A shogun dies at the start of the film, and the rest is the battle for succeed him between his two sons. The elder son is first in line, but he is scarred, has a stutter, and is generally considered unfit to lead. However, he does have some powerful friends and retainers, and so he is able to get the upper hand over his younger brother, who many would like to see ascend to shogun. The film quickly adds in many additional parties - the imperial nobles, who serve as the titular leaders of Japan but are generally considered subservient to the shoguns; a village of warriors looking to regain their stolen homeland; and a large group of leaderless samurai looking for a fight anywhere they can find it in order to regain their lost glory.
For a while, I was concerned that there were going to be too many sub-plots to keep track of. In addition to introducing the main parties listed above, the film also gives us a pair of "fencing instructors" (essentially the shogun's main military man), one for each brother, who have an ongoing feud. There's also a young dancer who is having an affair with one of the brothers, and who gets some valuable intelligence late in the film. However, after setting out a lot of pieces, the storyline runs pretty clearly for the second half of the film, and shows lots of nice little twists and turns along the way. This isn't a happily-ever-after movie either - one brother ends up winning the battle with still about thirty minutes left, and that leaves plenty of time for him to make some fatal mistakes that leave almost every character in the large cast touched by some kind of tragedy by the end. Oh, and Sonny Chiba is far from the lead character, but he does end up as the main instrument of vengeance at the conclusion.
This is probably a film that would improve with multiple viewings, as I'm sure I missed some bits of political maneuvering among all of the parties. If you go in expecting the right type of martial arts action, and can manage to make it through the opening section, it's well worth viewing. It's just not my particularly favorite genre of film. Three stars.