Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Ninjas and Kaiju and Samurai, Oh My!


By Hank Parmer

The Magic Serpent (1966)

After slogging through so many cinematic train wrecks for you guys, I've decided it's time for a bit of a change. The Magic Serpent differs from my typical review fare because for once, this is a film I like. Mostly because it never pretends to be anything other than a gloriously bonkers mashup of kaiju and samurai flick, with a generous side of sorcerous shenanigans.

If you were a fan of MST3K in its early years, you're already well acquainted with how downright loopy Japanese giant monster films can be, from such choice selections as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster -- i.e. an enormous lobster -- and Godzilla vs. Megalon -- that is, a cockroach the size of a skyscraper, unleashed upon an unsuspecting world by the secret undersea kingdom of Seatopia.

But what really drove the point home was the deep dive Joel and the 'Bots took into the entire first Gamera series. For example, there's nothing like the sight of a five thousand ton, rocket-powered flying turtle doing a gymnastic routine on the five-kiloton-turtle-sized horizontal bar -- which brain-eating alien hotties have thoughtfully installed in their city beforehand -- to make the Western viewer conclude that the Land of the Rising Sun's approach to fantasy can be ... well, different.

The Magic Serpent (a.k.a. Kairyu Daikessen: "Mystic Dragons' Great Decisive Battle") debuted over a decade after the Big G. emerged from Tokyo Bay, in that somber, almost documentary-style first entry in the Toho series. (If you've never seen the original film, instead of the Americanized release starring Raymond Burr, you really should check it out sometime. I was lucky enough to catch it on the big screen in its 50th anniversary re-issue, and I have to tell you I was floored by how much better the original was than that staple of mid-20th-Century afternoon and late night TV.)

By the mid-Sixties, Toho Studios had accumulated quite the stable of giant monsters. Beginning with his second movie, Godzilla Raids Again, Gojira was joined by the likes of Anguirus, Rodan, Varan, Manda, Mothra and (my favorite) Ghidorah the Three-Headed Space Monster a.k.a. Monster Zero. So it was only natural other studios would be eager to get their own piece of that sweet kaiju action. Unlike the Gamera series, though, most of these were imitative one-offs like Monster from a Prehistoric Planet; Gappa, the Triphibian Monster; and the superbly screwy The X from Outer Space.

Sooner or later, given the popularity of both giant monster films and the even more ubiquitous samurai epics, someone was bound to try out kaiju in a medieval Japanese setting. And in fact, 1966 was also the year Daiei, the same outfit who gave us Gamera, kicked off its Daimajin series, starring a huge stone idol that comes to life in the last act and saves his oppressed worshipers by squishing the bad guys like bugs. (Think of it as a Japanese version of the Golem.)

The Magic Serpent, on the other hand, is a Toei concoction. The name may not ring a bell, but these are the people who had previously brought us such immortal classics as Prince of Space and Invasion of the Neptune Men, and, in the near future, would partner with MGM to produce that legendarily cheesy alien infestation flick, The Green Slime.

This was Toei's first color film, though sadly, my copy is badly faded. It was also their second picture in a widescreen format. Unfortunately, this print is the American International TV version. And forget about pan-and-scan: They simply cropped the edges, so often you'll see only a sliver of a character who ought to be in the scene.

Yet even in this washed-out and mutilated version, it's obvious Toei decided to pull out all the stops.

They certainly don't waste any time getting down to business, as a gaggle of ninjas poke their heads over a wall and immediately launch a night attack on a castle sited on a high bluff overlooking a lake. Using enough pyrotechnics to satisfy even Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, castle guards are blowed up real good and slaughtered right and left by the ninjas.

Lord Ogata and his wife are awakened by the commotion. When his chief vassal, Yuki Daijo, appears, the daimyo demands to know what's going on. Yuki tells Ogata he's been betrayed by someone close to him. Real close. Like, standing in front of him right now.

Ogata lunges for his sword, but before he can draw it from its scabbard, he's slit up a treat by his treacherous servant. His wife tries to run for help, but she's impaled through the shoji by Yuki's ally, wicked sorcerer Orochi-Maru.

There's still one prospective victim unaccounted for, though: Lord Ogata's son, Ikazuchi-Maru. (Since I don't want to take up the space required to explain what's up with that "Maru" suffix, I encourage any reader who has some time on their hands and a yen for philological trivia to look it up. What's important is this doesn't mean he's related to the bad guy.)

While the castle burns behind them, some loyal retainers spirit the young boy to safety in a boat. Ikazuchi-Maru thinks the conflagration makes the castle look pretty, all lit up like a lantern. Which is a line that -- assuming the dubbing is a more or less accurate translation -- is actually both poignant and believable, coming from a child his age.

Pretty much your standard set-up for a dispossessed-heir-seeks-revenge adventure, right? It seems as if they're in the clear, but the lake begins to bubble and seethe. Up pops a very large and very traditional-looking oriental dragon, who is in fact our naughty wizard. ("Orochi-Maru" can be translated as "demon serpent".)

"Help me, Rocky! I seem to be a sea serpent!"

The fearsome beast overturns their boat, drowning everyone except Ikazuchi-Maru. Orochi-Maru the were-dragon is poised to finish the job, as the boy clings desperately to the bottom of the overturned skiff. Then a huge eagle appears.

It swoops down and nicks the dragon on the forehead. I know cuts to the head tend to bleed freely, but in this case the red stuff positively sprays. This critter really ought to have his blood pressure checked.

The bird rescues the child -- at least, let's hope that's what it has in mind -- and wings away with Ikazuchi-Maru dangling from its claws.

"I hope you don't mind if I make another stop at Mt. Doom ..."

Fast forward fourteen years. Fortunately, Ikazuchi-Maru wasn't eaten, but has instead grown into a strapping young lad. Out for his daily jog down the precipitous side of a ravine, with no warning at all, throwing knives come at him from out of nowhere. He narrowly avoids them, but then he staggers and topples back out of sight behind a low rise. Flames shoot up from behind the hillock -- so the guy was highly flammable?

A white-haired, luxuriantly bearded elder flies down from the top of the ravine and peers into the blaze. But not so fast: Tricky Ikazuchi-Maru sneaks up behind the geezer and puts one of those throwing knives to his throat.

The wizard, Dojin Hiki, is pleased: He congratulates Ikazuchi-Maru on finishing his training. Now, declares the Master, the boy is ready to go out into the world and make a name for himself. Dojin Hiki surprises the graduate, though, when he mentions he had another student. But this one went to the Dark Side. (He never visits, he doesn't call or write -- not even a postcard!) His mentor refuses to sully his lips with the nogoodnik's name.

Ikazuchi-Maru bounds off to the forest to gather some herbs for their farewell dinner. After he departs, the Master suddenly whirls around and chucks his staff at the cliff face. It buries half its length in the (dirt? really soft rock?) for a moment, then returns to the wizard's hand. After a dramatic pause, the spot where his staff struck the cliff crumbles away; a ninja emerges -- but keels right over.

The Master grumbles that lately these guys are getting to be real pests. And you know what they say: For every one you see ...

Down in the forest, Ikazuchi-Maru trots along the trail, hunting for herb, when blades unexpectedly sprout beneath his feet. He leaps straight up, like a startled cat, onto a high branch of a tall pine. Ninjas appear and instantly snare Ikazuchi-Maru's ankles and his right wrist with chains. He protests he has nothing worth robbing, but the ninja leader replies they're not in it for the money, but to take his life.

Ikazuchi-Maru tugs at the chain binding his right arm, yanking the ninja who's holding it close to him. They grapple for a moment, then fall out of the tree. Crafty Ikazuchi-Maru manages to work it so they turn in mid-air and the ninja lands on top of those blades. In no time at all, the resourceful wunderkind dispatches the rest of Boss Ninja's henchmen.




But the leader of the ninjas has one more nasty trick: He beheads Ikazuchi-Maru with a stainless steel boomerang. Not exactly a weapon you normally see associated with ninjutsu, but okay ...

Ikazuchi-Maru's head bounds from his shoulders and lands on top of a nearby log. Well, that was an unexpected turn of events. Maybe I should have checked the running time on this thing.

Boss Ninja is understandably nonplussed, though, when Ikazuchi-Maru's detached head grins at him, laughs derisively and starts in with the trash talk. Oh, right: We're dealing with a graduate of the Japanese equivalent of Hogwarts, who paid close attention to the Master's advice on how to get a head in these perilous times.

Ikazuchi-Maru's headless corpse lashes the ninja to that enormous pine, with magical rope that wraps itself around the tree trunk. Then his body menaces the Boss Ninja with his sword while Ikazuchi-Maru's corpseless head demands to know who sent him. 

"Tell it to the head!"

True to his training, though, the captive "chews his tongue off" and dies rather than violate ninja-client confidentiality.

Ikazuchi-Maru's head floats back to his shoulders; it goofs up and lands with his face backwards, so he has to twist it around to the front. Back together again, Ikazuchi-Maru abruptly turns and flicks a shuriken at a tree trunk close by. This spooks someone from behind the tree. The lurker scoots into the forest, pursued by our hero. Ikazuchi-Maru employs his fantastic powers to leap ahead through the air Superman-style. He drops out of a tree onto his quarry; they tumble together down a steep, grassy slope. Once again the lad winds up on top. He then realizes -- in the usual way -- he's been chasing a young woman disguised as a boy.

Time to introduce the romantic interest, Sunate: She's wandering the woods, looking for the father she never met. She began her quest three months ago, after her mother died. Unfortunately, she doesn't have much to go on: Sunate doesn't even know her father's name, although she does have this piece of cloth her mother treasured.

Ikazuchi-Maru has an inspiration: The Master's been hanging out in these woods for simply ages. He knows everyone hereabouts -- maybe he could give her a line on her deadbeat dad. Sunate shyly accepts Ikazuchi-Maru's offer of help.

Meanwhile, back at Dojin Hiki's hut, the Master is sitting cross-legged before a Shinto idol. Apparently preoccupied with his evening prayers, he doesn't seem to notice when a snake slips in under the front door and stealthily slithers toward him. The Master shouts a magical word. The snake transforms into Orochi-Maru, the Darth Vader to Ikazuchi-Maru's Luke Skywalker.

Orochi-Maru bows respectfully to his old teacher. He was in the neighborhood, so he popped by to see if the Master is doing okay, and if there's anything he can do for the gaffer. He humbly apologizes for having been so neglectful of his mentor.

Dojin Hiki chuckles disdainfully. Promising Orochi-Maru that he won't be tricked again, the Master reminds his former student that he capped off his last semester by nicking his teacher's Secret Scroll. (Which, along with potent incantations, is also rumored to contain a recipe for egg salad so good you could plotz!)

Orochi-Maru continues to act contrite; he even returns the stolen Secret Scroll to the Master. But the scroll comes alive, wraps itself around Dojin Hiki's forearm and transforms into a poisonous snake. It sinks its fangs deep into the Master's unprotected flesh.

So much for not being tricked again. With a stroke of his sword, Orochi-Maru cuts the wizard's staff in two. He triumphantly informs the Master that he's been bitten in the ass -- er, bitten by an asp. His magic won't save him now! Orochi-Maru then runs Dojin Hiki through with his blade. Just to be on the safe side, I guess.

But the Master has a parting gift for his wayward apprentice: He wounds Orochi-Maru in the arm with a throwing knife. The dastardly knave snarls and scarpers.

Ikazuchi-Maru arrives at the hut, with his new girlfriend in tow. Though the Master is close to death, he manages to bestow the Scroll of Ninja Invisibility on his pupil. He gives the kid a quick heads-up about his birthright and who's out to murder him. Just before he expires, Dojin Hiki recognizes Sunate, but the wizard croaks before he can clear up this new mystery.

After burying the Master, Ikazuchi-Maru and Sunate part company. As Sunate watches Ikazuchi-Maru disappear down the road, she hears a voice behind her. Why, it's Grandmother! This magical personage assures her granddaughter she wasn't checking up on her; she just dropped by for a chat with her old friend Dojin Hiki. So much for that plan.

She urges Sunate to give up her search for her father. The elderly sorceress warns her granddaughter that even if she finds him, she's likely to be disappointed. But Sunate insists, so Grandmother tells her he can be found in Omi Province. Surprise, surprise: That's Ikazuchi-Maru's destination, too!

Grandmother gives the heroine a hair pin with a decorative golden spider. The sorceress explains that Sunate can call upon the spider for help -- but only once. If she tries to summon it again, the creature will turn on her. Better than nothing, I suppose.

After repeating her safety tip about the one-shot nature of the spider charm, Granny makes a mystic gesture and sinks into the ground. People come and go so quickly here ... but will she remember to take that left turn at Albuquerque?

Returning to the castle by the lake, Orichi-Maru reports the mixed results of his mission to Yuki Daijo. The evil lord panics. He's ready to send more ninjas after Ikazuchi-Maru, but Orochi-Maru convinces the daimyo all he has to do is wait for the kid to come to them. Meanwhile, the sorcerer will alert his bandit friends to be on the lookout for the boy.

Cut to the road, where a farmer, his daughter and her young brother struggle to push a cart piled high with vegetables for market up a steep hill. The cart gets away from them. Ikazuchi-Maru halts it with his staff, inches away from crushing the farmer's son. (Good thing he sprang for that buck-and-a-quarter staff!) He further astonishes the peasants by lifting the heavy cart, so they can fix the wheel.

One of Yuki Daijo's men observes this remarkable exhibition from behind some bushes beside the road. When Ikazuchi-Maru and his new friends reach the village, they're surrounded by soldiers. It seems Ikazuch-Maru's feat of strength has given him away, but the quick-thinking farmer claims the lad is his stupid son-in-law. He explains that the big lummox is just really strong; that's why he allowed him to marry his daughter.

The soldiers are still skeptical, until the farmer berates Ikazuchi-Maru for not speaking up sooner, knocks him down and begins kicking and beating the crap out of him. This convinces them the guy can't be Lord Ogata's son: No self-respecting samurai would allow a peasant to humiliate him like this.

So they let them pass. Once in the village, the farmer apologizes to Ikazuchi-Maru, but far from being resentful, the noble-hearted lad thanks him for his help. The farmer suggests Ikazuchi-Maru waste no time in getting out of Dodge, since lots of people hereabouts still remember his family.

Next we see Yuki Daijo exiting his castle on horseback, with a mounted company of samurai pounding along close behind. They thunder down the road. Ikazuch-Maru takes cover in some shrubbery while they pass by. He recognizes Yuki Daijo.

Arriving at the village, the evil daimyo immediately sets to work terrorizing Ikazuchi-Maru's friends. He cuts the farmer down, and warns the onlookers that anyone who aids Ikazuchi-Maru is an enemy of the state. Yuki Daijo is about to do terrible, horrible things to the farmer's daughter and her brother, when the sky suddenly darkens. There's a flash of lightning and a couple of explosions, followed by an instantaneous dust storm. The ghost of Lord Ogata rides out of the gloom, flanked by a retinue of loyal specters.

While Yuki cowers, Ogata's ghost calls him a backstabber, and prophesies the jig is up for the usurper. Yuki orders his men to attack. No one dares to point out this is more properly a job for an exorcist, but before the samurai can come to grips with the ghosts, the apparitions and the storm swiftly fade away.

Yuki hears someone laughing. From his perch on a roof peak, Ikazuchi-Maru jeers at the despicable daimyo. Yuki Daijo demands to know who this insolent fool is. For some odd reason Ikazuchi-Maru now identifies himself as "Jiraiya". (Away out East, they've got a name for rain and wind and fire ... )

Actually, there is an explanation for the sudden name-change: This story is (very) loosely based on the famous Japanese folktale Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari ("The Heroic Tales of Jiraiya") in which Ikazuchi-Maru spends a considerable amount of time as a sort of magical ninja Robin Hood doing business under the name "Jiraiya" ("Young Thunder"). I'm not sure why the script even bothered, though, because this is the one and only time in this film we'll hear him use that appellation.

Jiraiya nee Ikazuki-Maru delivers a recap of his living-impaired dad's speech. Yeah, yeah, Yuki betrayed his lord; he's an all-round schmuck who's in for a whuppin'. Ikazuchi-Maru conjures a glowing ring out of the air; it swiftly expands, floats over Yuki and his conveniently bunched-up men, then drops down and traps them.

"And it burns, burns, burns ..."

One of the men tries to break out of the fiery ring; he's instantly electrocuted by the sorcerous snare, which evidently operates on somewhat the same principle as a bug zapper. Ikazuchi-Maru levitates his mortal enemy out of this magical corral. He's about to give the lord his promised deserts when the ring abruptly winks out and at the same time Yuki drops back to earth. Orochi-Maru materializes via optical effect in fine mystical fashion, and promptly challenges our hero.

They bound around the rooftops and duel with their swords, but the fight ends inconclusively: Orochi-Maru grabs the farmer's daughter and threatens to kill her. Ikazuchi-Maru throws some magic ninja exploding powder and escapes with her younger brother.

Meanwhile, the bandits in Orochi-Maru's employ have been busy spreading a rumor that Lord Ogata's son has returned to the province to liberate the people. They rendezvous at a deserted shrine, where Sunate has unluckily decided to take a breather. Sunate, now dressed as a girl, overhears the bandits wondering why Orochi-Maru wants them to circulate this tale. When she's discovered, she tries to run away, but Ito, the bent Buddhist monk -- evil monks are a stock character in outlaw gangs -- lassos her with his prayer beads.

The nasties intend to slit her throat, but decide they'll have a little fun first. Sunate is spared by the arrival of Momobei, the leader of the bandits. He orders his men to leave, saying he'll take care of the girl and join them later. After they depart, Sunate thanks the bandit chief. He considerately offers to walk with her for a spell.

The bandits, minus Momobei, assemble at the castle for a quick confab with Orochi-Maru. They're still puzzled over why he's had them spreading this rumor about Ikazuchi-Maru's return, what with it getting the peasants all in a lather. Orochi-Maru reveals his cunning plan: Almost no one knows what Ikazuchi-Maru looks like, so all the treacherous sorcerer has to do is assume the boy's identity, off Yuki Daijo and be welcomed as a savior. With plum positions in his new government for his bandit henchmen, naturally.
There's just one potential hitch: First, the bandits will need to kill the real Ikazuchi-Maru.

'Kay ... Although I have to admit, the logic which led Orochi-Maru to conclude this scruffy handful of road agents will stand a better chance against a guy who barely breaks a sweat while disposing of a squad of highly trained ninjas -- and has no end of amazing tricks at his command -- is somewhat opaque.

For want of a better plan, Ikazuchi-Maru and Koshirota the farmer's orphaned son, decide to head for the castle, and hope an idea occurs to them along the way. While rowing their skiff across the lake, those pesky ninjas put in another appearance: One leaps out of the water, grabs Koshirota and pulls him down into the lake while two more amphibious ninjas attack Ikazuchi-Maru. He wastes his adversaries tout suite. But where's the kid?

Ikazuchi-Maru beaches the skiff and frantically searches for little Koshirota.  While hot-footing it down the road, calling the boy's name, he runs into Sunate and the bandit chief. Who, for some never-to-be-explained reason, now have Koshirota with them.

The boy is unconscious. The surprisingly mild-mannered leader of those desperados (clearly a samurai fallen on hard times) walks along with Ikazuchi-Maru and Sunate, toting Koshirota on his back. Sunate wants to stick with Ikazuchi-Maru, but he doesn't think that's such a great idea, not while ninjas keep coming out of the woodwork.

Koshirota is still comatose, and now he's running a fever. They take shelter at a deserted temple -- there seem to be quite a few of these derelict religious establishments in this neighborhood. Momobei disappears. Sunate goes to the well. While drawing a bucket of water, she's seized from behind.

The clatter made by Sunate's dropped bucket alerts Ikazuchi-Maru that something's not kosher. He responds by hurling throwing knives at the temple's dusty sliding panels.

The panels fall over one by one, but there's no one hiding behind them. Then the shoji stand up and take on a life of their own, whirling around the hero in a perfectly spaced circle, like some kind of demented, cranked-up Busby Berkeley choreography.

Ikazuchi-Maru is so dizzied by the stroboscopic effect of the rapidly circling panels he's on the verge of passing out. The shoji abruptly change tactics: One tips over, hovers in the air for a second, then launches itself straight at him! Intrepid Ikazuchi-Maru deftly dodges this kamikaze carpentry; it smashes to splinters on a column. He hacks two of its mates in half when they try their luck at the same maneuver. The rest of the panels crowd up against Ikazuchi-Maru, boxing him in so tightly he has no room to wield his blade. Two previously invisible ninjas appear and thrust their swords through the panels.

Oh come on now, we've all seen the Indian Basket trick a million times before.

Ikazuchi-Maru ninja-magics himself out of the trap. He wedges himself up in a corner of the ceiling, and punctures the two attackers with more throwing knives! (The guy must have an inexhaustible supply of the things; it's a wonder he doesn't clank around like Marley's ghost.)

Meanwhile, one of Orochi-Maru's henchmen hurriedly descends the trail from the temple, with Sunate, bound and gagged, slung over his shoulder. Momobei emerges from behind some bushes after they pass by.

It seems lurking behind the shrubbery was a popular sport in medieval Japan.

Cut to the castle: Sunate, still tied and gagged, is propped up in a corner. Orochi-Maru is rattled by his men's repeated failure to put an end to the protagonist. He admits he's foolishly underestimated our boy wonder. His lieutenant offers to go and kill Ikazuchi-Maru himself, but the boss prefers to keep his remaining men close at hand. The henchman assures the wizard that nothing will keep Ikazuchi-Maru away, now that they've got his girlfriend.

Major plot twist time: Momobei drops in (literally) to inform everyone that Sunate is Orochi-Maru's daughter! Not only is she the spitting image of her mother, he also recognizes that piece of cloth. (That soy-sauce stain clinches it.) Her long-lost daddums plays on Sunate's sense of filial duty, forcing her to agree to slip his mortal enemy Ikazuchi-Maru a Mickey and murder him as soon as he's unconscious.

Escorted by Momobei, she returns to the deserted temple. Ikazuchi-Maru remained there to look after the boy Koshirota  whose fever has worsened. Orochi-Maru's henchman has followed them in ninja guise; he watches from hiding as Momobei feeds Ikazuchi-Maru the knockout drug in his tea.

After Ikazuchi-Maru hits the floor, Momobei urges Sunate to get on with the job. Her heart's clearly not in it, but being an obedient daughter, she steels herself. She kneels beside him and raises the knife on high ... but just then, delirious Koshirota cries out for Ikazuchi-Maru. Shunate casts the knife away and begs Momobei to kill her, instead.

The bandit chief offers to take care of it for her, advances on our apparently helpless hero with his sword drawn -- but he skewers the hidden henchman, instead, with a quick sideways thrust. Turns out he once had a daughter, too, who was ordered to become a spy, got caught and was executed. Momobei then gives Sunate the low-down on Ikazuchi-Maru's justifiable vendetta against her father and Yuki Daijo.

Ikazuchi-Maru soon throws off the effects of the drug -- could he be the Kwisatz Haderach? It seems he heard every word of Momobei's speech. Sunate, still on her suicide-by-samurai kick, sobs that he must hate her for being Orochi-Maru's daughter, so he should kill her now. (Or should he wait until he gets home?)

As if!

Sunate has a bright idea: She says she may have a way to help him, after all.

Momobei returns to the castle and informs Orochi-Maru he's managed to capture the wizard's nemesis. Orochi-Maru can't wait to take care of this nuisance himself. The two gallop out the castle gate.

On the other hand, Yuki Daijo -- remember him? -- is definitely not your micro-managing type: While all this is going on, he's throwing a lavish shindig, complete with dancing girls. Who, quite remarkably for medieval Japan, are going through their synchronized moves to a cha-cha played by a very modern-sounding orchestra with a big brass section, while the dimwitted daimyo guzzles the sake. Ikazuchi-Maru is going to that big sushi bar in the sky, so gentlemen, it's Kiku Masamune Time!

Ah, but there's still something missing: He orders the farmer's daughter, Osaki, brought to him.

Momobei and Orochi-Maru arrive at the deserted temple, only to find Sunate tied up and Ikazuchi-Maru vanished. Sunate apologizes, claiming she was hit from behind and woke up to find him gone. But she says she knows where he'll be hanging out, if she can just remember the name of the place ...

Unfortunately, Momobei neglected to completely kill Orochi's hidden henchman, who drags himself onto the scene long enough to gasp out the truth: They just wanted the wizard out of the way, so Ikazuchi-Maru would be free to take a crack at Yuki Daijo. Furious, Orochi-Maru murders Momobei and threatens Sunate at sword point.

Back to the castle: Yuki yuks it up, his arm around the farmer's daughter, who for some reason doesn't appear to be getting into the spirit of the occasion.

By this point, you might be thinking, "Now look, you promised us kaiju, not a brief cameo of a dragon!" Well, your wait is finally over: The party comes to a premature end, as Ikazuchi-Maru magics up a gigantic horned toad with glowing eyes and long spikes growing out of its butt. 

"Are there any canapes left?" 

This literal gate-crasher stomps across walls and buildings, crushing guards and luckless revelers beneath its feet, while Yuki and his cronies attempt to flee.

Back at the deserted temple: Koshirota's fever has broken. He frees Sunate from her bonds -- alright, is there anyone who hasn't trussed her up yet? By now she should be getting fairly used to spending a considerable portion of her day bound and gagged.

They hurry toward the castle, which giant horned toad Ikazuchi-Maru is busy demolishing.

Yuki and his entourage are eventually cornered like rats. Ikazuchi-Maru returns to human guise to confront his father's murderer. Yuki Daijo is of course an utter coward. He throws away his sword -- the ultimate disgrace, according to the samurai code -- crying that he surrenders. Groveling, he begs Ikazuki-Maru for mercy. But of course the weasel is only waiting to stab Ikazuchi-Maru with his wakizashi, once he lowers his guard. Our canny hero was expecting something like this: He avoids the thrust and gives Yuki the coup de grace.

Abandoning his horse, Orochi-Maru cloud-surfs back to the castle at warp speed. 

"Hi ho, Stratocumulus, and away!"

At the castle, which is now in serious need of a rehab, Ikazuchi-Maru leads the farmer's daughter out of the ruins. Orochi-Maru hails him from a balcony: He thanks our hero, ironically, for saving him the trouble of disposing of Yuki Daijo. (As if that would have required much effort.) Ikazuchi-Maru declines to fight the wizard, now that he knows the guy is Sunate's father, but Orochi-Maru has his black little heart set on a duel to the death, choice of weapons: kaiju!

Ikazuchi-Maru orders Osaki to make tracks. Orochi-Maru turns into a dragon again; the budding wizard once more summons up his inner toad. Which we now learn is also a flame-throwing giant horned toad, at least, until the dragon douses its pilot light with a well-aimed jet of water from its gaping maw. The creatures -- okay, it's just a couple of sweaty guys in rubber suits, but use your imagination -- paw at each other and thrash around, crashing into buildings and thoroughly trashing a nicely detailed miniature of a castle.

Not to mention squashing scores of its luckless inhabitants, but I guess they deserved it, right? A screen falls on a lamp, setting the central keep ablaze. Again. This is definitely going to play hell with their insurance premium.

Dragon Orochi-Maru shoves Toad Ikazuchi-Maru off the bluff and into the lake, then pushes a massive pile of rubble onto his enemy. He slithers down and flails awkwardly at the toad. Orochi-Maru is clearly getting the worst of it, though he vows he'll never submit. (Yes, the kaiju talk.)

Luckily, it's at this moment that Sunate and the kid link up with his big sister, Osaki. Sunate finally decides to employ her spider charm hairpin. She tosses it into the air, where (you guessed it) it explodes, and turns into an enormous spider which flies across the lake and lands on the ruined castle. It enters the fray -- not, mind you, by leaping onto Dragon Orochi-Maru and biting him with those massive, venom-loaded fangs, but by projectile-vomiting foam on him. Apparently suds are the dragon's fatal weakness.

Then Toad Ikazuchi-Maru manages to get his pilot re-lit, and hoses his enemy down with flame. You'd think the fire and foam would tend to cancel each other out, but no, caught in this sorcerous crossfire, the dragon unexpectedly explodes!

Although you must admit, it's the sort of thing that can easily happen in this story.

The duel isn't over yet: Twin fireballs erupt from the billowing smoke, arc across the lake and land on the beach opposite the castle.

With explosions -- quelle surprise -- Orochi-Maru and Ikazuchi-Maru revert to their human forms. They face off with swords at the water's edge. After some splashing and slashing, mortally wounded Orochi-Maru staggers backward into the lake. He leans on his sword for a moment, then falls back into the water and sinks like a stone.

Multicolored lights flash beneath the surface -- is there a disco beneath the waves? The lake boils furiously, as if someone had dumped a truckload of Fizzies in it, then slowly subsides.

Osaki and Koshirota beg Ikazuchi-Maru to stay and rule his father's old domain, but he's not interested in the job. It's time for them to learn how to govern themselves, he tells them, because the land belongs to the people. (Damn commie liberal!) Ikazuchi-Maru summons the giant eagle from the prologue; Sunate and her lover fly off into the blue, while Koshirota and Osaki wave farewell.

And then -- everyone explodes!

Just kidding.

3 comments:

Debbi said...

Great write-up! The movie starts off looking like a Svengoolie reject and ends up somewhere between Kill Bill and the 47 Ronin story.

Kurosawa it's not! :)

Hank said...

Thanks, Debbi. Nope, not Kurosawa, but far better than you'd expect from the studio that gave us rich MST3K-fodder like Prince of Space and Invasion of the Neptune Men. The martial arts stunting is pretty well-staged, the thing has a plot and a hero who actually does heroic stuff, and the supernatural doings are just odd enough to be entertaining. After I wrote this, btw, I discovered there was a much better print available on YouTube, in widescreen and subtitled in English. If this has piqued your interest, you might want to give it a look.

Scott said...

Well I know my interest is piqued. Not only is this a fine write-up, but an historic one, since this is the first time I've ever finished on of your reviews and actually felt an urge to watch the movie.

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