Once released as a TV movie called ‘The Sword of the Ninja‘, this John Frankenheimer directed film features Scott Glenn as the frustrated sparring partner of a champion boxer. One day his character Rick Murphy decides enough is enough and fights back with his superior technique before resigning. Watching on were a couple of Japanese people who recruit him to help smuggle a priceless family Samurai sword back to Japan.
He subsequently gets caught up in a bloody feud between two Japanese brothers laying claim to the blade. One of them is a modern rich gangster called Hideo and the other is the more traditional Japanese type. The latter is known as Yoshida played by legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune who, in my opinion, is not as convincing in his role here compared to his far more prominent work in classics like ‘Seven Samurai‘ (1954) and ‘Yojimbo‘ (1961). Who can blame him though for taking the money Hollywood began to throw at him to appear in such movies!
Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Yoshida is a venerable sword master who sees something in Rick that makes him think he is the last hope and he is proved right as Rick becomes a better man as the film progresses. As time goes on he finds himself drawn ever closer to respecting the traditional ways of Japanese culture and, after a failed escape, he asks for forgiveness and to be trained. Yoshida agrees on condition that Rick follows his orders which results in him spending five days buried up to his head in sand. There seemed to be a trend in the early 1980’s for characters having to suffer such conditions as happened in ‘Creepshow‘ (1982) and ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence‘ the following year.
It’s not all about redemption and rediscovering worth as a human being though as Yoshida’s attractive daughter may have also played a part in Rick deciding to return to the complex and as it really was no surprise that she fell for him and they shared a fairly laughable bedroom scene.
Filming of this 108 minute movie was principally done in two Kyoto-based locations. The grounds of the Shokoku-Ji Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto were used throughout and they have supposedly remained unchanged since it was founded in 1382. The other place to feature is Hideo’s headquarters a.k.a. the Kyoto International Conference Hall on Lake Takaraga-ike (a futuristic building by architect Sachio Otani where the Kyoto protocol was signed) which could previously be seen in ‘The Yakuza‘ (1974) directed by Sidney Pollack.
One of the film’s best scenes was where the American is provided with a hospitality lunch which sees him introduced to some fine Japanese food that’s still alive. Another memorable moment comes in the slightly ridiculous climactic office-based sword fight which involves a stapler, electric wires and a rather gruesome if not comical end which has to be seen to be believed. Some of the fight choreography was actually overseen by Steven Seagal who lived in Japan at the time and the action scenes were a foretaste of things to come in his own movies.
If ever you want a slightly anti-hero to be more appreciated by the watching public then just add in a few compassionate scenes of them rescuing a cat from a tree or a young child from drowning for example. They don’t need to fit in with the film too much but they give the viewer a chance to be more sympathetic to them. In this film there are some more tender scenes between Rick and a young Japanese boy at the martial arts training school who speaks English.
This is not a classic by any means but worth a look for anyone interested in such films. It’s a bit dated (Rick’s ludicrous haircut for one!) and cliché ridden as ever but thats what you sign up for when you see any Hollywood production about Japan as seen through American eyes. There’s the usual stuff about honour which is kind of inevitable it seems. At this time Hollywood was enamoured with the idea of the arrogant westerner traveling to Japan and learning all about honour.
Tokyo Fox Rating 6/10