The Action Scene: "Crazy Samurai Musashi" and the Meta-Formalism of the Very Long Take

The film’s central gimmick (perhaps inadvertently) deconstructs normative film style even as it exudes a compelling physicality.
Jonah Jeng

The lackluster reception of Yûji Shimomura’s Crazy Samurai Musashi at last year’s Fantasia Film Festival suggests that what sounded great on paper failed spectacularly in execution. Marketed with the tagline “400 vs. 1 in a single take,” the film commits to its premise with gusto: a brief intro and outro aside, the bulk of the runtime comprises a showdown between Japanese folk icon Miyamoto Musashi (Tak Sakaguchi) and an army of mercenaries and samurai, all filmed using a single unbroken shot. Save for a couple moments in which cuts may have been artfully masked, the one-take effect is, for better or worse, staunchly sustained for upwards of 70 (!) minutes (00:08:27-01:23:10 in the film).  

Given that narrative immersion tends to remain a priority even for the most action-oriented films, Crazy Samurai Musashi registers on some level as a grand failure, dissipating the “magic” of storytelling through a scarcity of plot (most of the film is a literal hack-a-thon in which Miyamoto cuts his way through hordes of bad guys) and an “excess” of showy formalism. The longer the shot runs, the more we notice it, and the more we notice it, the more we notice the act of filming. In place of the spell of diegetic drama, the long take asserts the film camera and the filmed world as obtrusive facts: concrete bodies and spaces more so than fictional characters and settings. 

In some ways, Crazy Samurai Musashi feels like something approaching an experimental film. It disassembles the “apparatus” of film production, foregrounding the process of filming over and against the goal of telling an absorptive story. It operates (even if loosely) within a narrative mode and deploys normative techniques for visually representing dramatic action, but the single-take gimmick also causes these very norms to become defamiliarized, to not “work” quite the way they usually do. In straddling conventional style on the one hand and self-conscious formalism on the other, the movie effectively—even if inadvertently—becomes a deconstruction of the former. 

The minor dilemma I faced while preparing this piece is instructive. This column concerns action scenes, but the fact of the film being essentially one long battle begs the question: is it all one set piece? Are there ways in which the film subdivides the larger fight into relatively discrete dramatic segments, each of which exhibits a more conventional sense of scene-ness? The latter, certainly, is a well-established strategy; see, for example, the way Peter Jackson has the roughly forty-minute-long Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) unfold in stages, and the way he cross-cuts to other subplots—Merry, Pippin, and the Ents, for example—as a way to inject variety and mark the transition between different narrative movements. In Crazy Samurai Musashi, however, the unbroken shot complicates matters, since it seems to over-assert a sense of continuity where scenic development depends on discontinuity. Although our experience watching The Two Towers may feel smoothly immersive, formally, the shift between acts of the battle tends to be delimited by hard cuts that subconsciously alert us to the arrival of a new act. In the case of Crazy Samurai Musashi, the brute fact of the physical world persists as an unvarying presence that underpins and exceeds the operations of narrative; against this background of a banal, fundamentally non-narrative material world, every attempt to dramatize or narrativize—e.g., by presenting different, video-game-style “bosses” for Musashi to face—feel conspicuously like attempts, elements that are added rather than foundational.

This tension between spatiotemporal continuity and the discretized logic of conventional narrative film manifests not just at the “scene” level but on a moment-to-moment basis. In most narrative films, developments in drama tend to be assisted by the selective function of cuts. Shots presented in succession tell us to look first here then there; this object, then her reaction to it. In the process, a dramatic arc of subject-reacting-to-object is established. With Crazy Samurai Musashi, the absence of cuts means that every would-be “cut to a particular view” needs to be achieved through camera movement (or foregone entirely). At one point, the film attempts a “close-up” of Musashi’s face, presumably to imbue him with some semblance of character psychology. Rather than jumping immediately to the closer view, the camera tracks in ostentatiously, in such a way where the moment feels like not just an expression of x emotion but an expression of the expression of x emotion, a meta-close-up that frames the very close-up device—as well as its attendant narrative/dramatic implications—as a device, a codified element of film style that is here defamiliarized. 

This “meta” formalism is made apparent thanks to the narrative imprecision conditioned by the single-take effect. From a dramatic standpoint, the “close-up” happens much too slowly. There’s a ton of “dead time” and “wasted space” in the movement from a distant view to a closer one, such that this very movement feels labored and intentional. Coupled with the limited narrative/dramatic development in the film overall, the prevalence of this spatiotemporal “excess” likely contributed to complaints of dullness from reviewers. Indeed, I’d agree that, for a film this packed with action, Crazy Samurai Musashi does feel pretty leaden. And yet, this leadenness is not without its merits. What the film loses in dramatic élan, it makes up for with a palpable sense of exertion and heaviness. Last year, another film sported the title of “Samurai Marathon,” but the name would’ve more fittingly appended this film. As Sakaguchi’s protagonist keeps on fighting, at points stopping for literal water breaks that are clearly as much for the actor as the character he plays, the continuity of the shot foregrounds the reality of actual bodies in actual strain, our own fatigue arising from an unusually intimate, bodily identification with a character’s physical journey. In lieu of dynamic choreography, the film opts for quick, rote attacks that convey the tactical pragmatism of survival; if a particular strike is effective, why not keep using it? With Crazy Samurai Musashi, psychological-emotional investment and “dramatically” involving action are superseded by a shared physical endurance between protagonist and viewer, the existential grind of a never-ending battle bodied forth in the kinesthetic experience of strenuous duration.

In some ways, this durational and bodily alignment of the spectator with a character navigating a de-narrativized environment evokes the logic of gamespace. Indeed, the recent fad of “single-take” sequences (ranging from Academy Award winners and direct-to-video actioners to superhero tentpoles and arthouse experiments) likely stems in part from video games’ cultural ascendancy, as well as the larger cultural fantasy of navigability offered by digital devices hooked up to the seemingly boundless (even if in reality tightly regulated) world of cyberspace. At the same time, however, the popularity of the one-take set piece also suggests a nostalgia for a (romanticized) pre-digital heyday when matter mattered (or seemed to) and cinema bore a more direct connection to the “real,” physical world. Beyond just Crazy Samurai Musashi, then, the recent trend in long takes—an age-old technique made new once more—seems to tap into the multiple and contradictory senses in which screen-body relations are imagined and enacted today.

The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema. 

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The Action SceneColumnsYuji Shimomura
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