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A western fantasy of Japan that should be on dvd
on December 30, 2005
After the Shogun mini series aired on American tv in the late '70s there became an American fascination with all things Japanese. In the early '80s Hollywood was eager to cash in on the Ninja boom and there were a tons of Samurai/Ninja movies ranging from decent to downright awful. The Challenge however deserves some praise while other films of the genre don't.
The Challenge was directed my John Frankenheimer (Ronin, The French Connection II) and is a little known gem of the "Samurai movie boom" in America. The story opens with a broke boxer named Rick (Scott Glenn) who is paid to smuggle a sword back into Osaka, Japan. Little does he know that he has just involved himself in a family feud battling over the ownership of a pair of swords. Toshiro Mifune plays the patriarch of a large family who live in "the good, traditional way" while his rival, bad brother, Atsuo Nakamura, heads a multi national company . Both brothers are determined to get their hands on each others swords to reunite the pair of blades.
One has to admire Frankenheimer for his quick cinematography of Japan. The busses, the street shots and the long views could be just about anywhere in Japan and at times it seems like he deliberately tried to avoid any signs that might give away the actual location of each shot. However all the quick shots leave us nothing to desire about Japan. Granted, filming in Japan in the '80s cost a small fortune and the red tape to even get filming permission to film anywhere must have been a nightmare. Even for those who live in Japan might have a very hard time finding any visible landmarks in the movie....save Sanjo Station in Kyoto, Itami Airport and the Kyoto International visitors center....where the main battle takes place.
The Challenge refreshingly doesn't spend a lot of time dealing with the stereotypical "east vs. west" and the oh so tired "the foreign fish out of water in Japan". Scott Glenn does a great job of playing a naive foreigner who knows nothing about his new world, but doesn't go over the top by over analyzing every little Japanese custom as an odd opposite of "superior" Western culture. Unlike other films of the same genre, there isn't any deep, Japanese Samurai ,philosophy that most films of the era try to enthrall Western viewers with. Yes, it does deal with family honor and the ever popular Western fantasy view that all Japanese have this over emotional, all powerful, love of the Japanese sword. The idea that a family in 1980's Kyoto dressing in traditional clothing and practicing martial arts every waking moment of every day waiting for a battle is....well...laughable and that security guards carry machine guns is beyond realistic.
The only famous Japanese actors are Toshiro Mifune who is legendary and Atsuo Nakamura, who is only really known in Japan and I am pretty sure his English was dubbed for this film. Donna Kei Benz plays the love interest Akiko, who seems really miscast and her acting is awkward. The best line in the whole film is by the Henchman Ando, played by Calvin Jung, who says "I don't understand these people (japanese) either. Every time I come here I understand less and less about them".
Why this movie isn't on DVD is beyond me. There are old video copies being sold for ridiculous prices for this rare, out of print film. I got mine in Japan after a long, seemingly endless search. Luckily, there were English subtitles in the few places where Japanese is spoken. Why this film was ever re-released as "Sword of the Ninja" is slightly insane....since there are NO Ninja in the film and the title alone does the film a discredit.