Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

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Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

2017 #155
Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

Spot the period-accurate boom mic

The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

3 out of 5

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Kyôto taika-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno

2017 #149
Keishi Ōtomo | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin film was such a success that they followed it with a two-part sequel, filmed back-to-back and originally released six weeks apart over the same summer. This is the first half.

After the events of the first film, former assassin Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with his newfound friends, until he’s summoned by the government to take on a mission. Turns out one of Kenshin’s former assassin colleagues, the vicious Shishio (Battle Royale and Death Note’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), is amassing an army to take down the government that left him for dead. Well, less left him for dead, more killed him after they won the war because he was too nasty to let stick around. Previous efforts to stop Shishio have failed, so now they want Kenshin to sort him out. Our peace-loving hero initially turns the job down, but events conspire to convince him he must act, and so he sets off alone to once again face the demons of his past.

Kyoto Inferno is one of those sequels that benefits from the its predecessor establishing the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it, meaning it can launch off on its own grander scale. Partly we see this in a material sense: it looks even more expensive than the first one, right from a fabulous fire-strewn opening location, and keeps up the visual impressiveness throughout. But it’s also in the scope of the story and the way it stretches the characters, both old and new. It really puts Kenshin through the ringer, testing and questioning his beliefs and principles, and his fighting skills too. As a film it finds power in that — whereas the first movie established his persona and gave it a bit of a work out, here he’s stretched to breaking point.

Sword fights a-go-go

Despite being only the first half of a four-and-a-half-hour epic, when compared to the original film the story here feels more streamlined, focussed, and pointed. It’s not perfect in this respect — at one point Kenshin’s mate Sanosuke sets off to help him, only to disappear from the movie until he suddenly appears during the final battle — but such lapses are few and do little to impact the overall flow. As a villain, Shishio is more of a force and a challenge for our hero, not least because he has an army of henchmen, as well as a literal army, on his side. The fights are even more accomplished, spectacular, and epically staged than in the first movie, not least the huge climax that sees a pair of armies duke it out in the streets of the titular city.

Kyoto Inferno is unquestionably a first half — it ends on a handful of cliffhangers. That kind of thing sometimes irritates me, but it can work when done well, and I think this will turn out to be one of those good two-parters. It feels like a well-shaped movie in its own right, starting and paying off some of its own subplots rather than just leaving everything hanging. Some of these conclude in a way that is both an ending and indicates where the story will go next, which is a most deft bit of structure. The whole affair builds to a significant climax (the aforementioned battle) and a major turning point in the narrative, rather than just pausing events at the halfway point as lesser two-part movies do.

Shishio and his hench-friends

I enjoyed the first Rurouni Kenshin a lot, but this follow-up is even better. It expands the world of the story and deepens the characters, making for a more rounded and exciting movie. As mid-parts of trilogies (and/or first halves of two-parters) go, it’s more of a Dark Knight than a Matrix Reloaded; more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Dead Man’s Chest; more of a Two Towers than a Desolation of Smaug. Hopefully the next film can stick the landing…

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

2017 #143
Keishi Ōtomo | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin

Based on a manga series that was previously adapted into an anime known in the West as Samurai X, this live-action adaptation was first brought to my attention by Total Film’s list of “50 amazing films you’ve probably never seen”, which cited its “stunning action sequences” and “beautifully choreographed sword-scraps”.

Set in the late 19th century, the film is the story of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), who ten years ago went by the name Battosai and was a renowned fighter in the successful rebellion that brought Japan into a modern new age. Disgusted with his actions, he vowed never to kill again, becoming a wanderer (the rurouni part of the title) helping those in need, fighting with a blunted sword. When he arrives back in Tokyo, Kenshin finds that a murderer has adopted the name Battosai, whose killings are likely connected to powerful businessman Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) to protect his illegal activities. Kenshin falls in with Kaoru (Emi Takei), the young owner of a fencing dojo under threat from Kanryu’s plans, and eventually teams up with acquaintances old and new to stop Kanryu and co.

Kenshin and Kaoru

I’ve never read or seen a version of Rurouni Kenshin before, so I don’t know how faithful this is as an adaption, but they’ve certainly crammed plenty of plot into its two hours. Viewers need to be a bit attentive to keep track of who’s who, and who’s working for who, and what their motivations are — for example, characters who initially appear to be villains, both because of their actions and our expectations of the story, are revealed to be good guys in short order. Having two characters called Battosai, one of whom has since changed his name but is primarily known by his old moniker to some characters, doesn’t help matters.

It’s worth the small effort though, because, a few languorous patches aside, Rurouni Kenshin is a very entertaining movie. The heroes are a likeable bunch, even if Satoh looks too fresh-faced to have been a hardened warrior a decade earlier. I guess everywhere likes their pretty-boy leads. He also carries a little too great a sense of naïveté for that persona, but maybe that’s just faithful to the character as written. At least he seems to know his way around a fight scene. On the other hand, the villainous Kanryu is a delightful addition to the proud line of scenery-munching nemeses, his quirks underlined by a jaunty theme from composer Naoki Satō. He employs a couple of physically intimidating henchman too, which naturally serves to fuel the action sequences. As promised, these are excitingly staged, full of quick choreography and slick stunts. Couple their impressiveness with the large cast and varied period locations, and it gives the whole thing a glossy, big-budget feel.

Ready for action

In the years since it appeared on Total Film’s list with the note “worth importing”, Rurouni Kenshin has become much more widely available: in the UK it’s been available to stream and buy on disc for a couple of years now, and it even made it to the US in 2016. It still deserves more attention, I’d say, especially for anyone who likes a good bit of sword-based duelling.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow and Monday: reviews of the two-part sequel.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

2017 #159
Tokuzô Tanaka | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi the Fugitive

His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut in this whole wide world is oil and the bond of lovers.

The fourth film in the Zatoichi series finds the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) with a bounty on his head, which only increases when he kills the first person who tries to claim it. Travelling to a nearby village to apologise to the guy’s mother, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a yakuza scheme to grab territory from a young boss. There’s also the small matter of a ronin (Jutarô Hôjô) and his companion, Ichi’s old love Otane (Masayo Banri).

That’s the straightforward version — much of the plot is an overly complex account of yakuza plotting that, frankly, I sometimes struggled to follow. Especially at the start, there are so many bosses to keep track of, with broadly similar names, all of whom are more often referred to in dialogue than established on screen. I got my head round it eventually, but it took some work. It makes stretches of the film a bit dry and awkward, however.

Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. Otane is back from films one and two, but she’s different to how Ichi remembers her. Rather than just bringing back a familiar face for the sake of it, the film uses her to make a point about how people aren’t always who we think they are — a bit like Ichi himself, in fact. I imagine this would be even more effective if I’d watched The Fugitive closer to when I watched her previous two appearances, but there’s enough information recapped within the film to get the gist. It also continues what seems to be a definite theme of the Zatoichi films (at least so far) about past people and actions coming back to haunt our hero.

The bond of lovers

However, the best part of the film is the final 20 minutes, a tour de force of emotion and action that sees Ichi surrounded and, enraged into action, taking down an army that stands between him and vengeance. Said vengeance comes in the form of a one-on-one sword duel, of course. Obviously we know our hero will triumph, but it’s still a tense scene, especially as it seems to be a rare occasion when Ichi’s been out-fought. This third act elevates the whole movie, its very existence justifying everything that came before.

Reading other reviews, I’ve seen The Fugitive described as both “one of the weaker installments in the series” and “thus far the best [of the series,] a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much.” I think this stems to which you weigh heavier between the first-rate climax (plus a few choice sequences before that) and the occasionally dry plotting earlier in the movie. For me, the way it eventually comes together and concludes makes it all worth it.

4 out of 5

New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

2017 #75
Tokuzô Tanaka | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

New Tale of Zatoichi

With studio Daiei apparently realising they had a potential long-running series on their hands, blind masseur cum roving wrong-righter Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) makes his colour debut in this third film. Despite the obvious visual change, New Tale picks up on plot threads from the previous film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that spans the series’ first three instalments.

Two strands from Ichi’s past come forth to challenge him this time: as he’s hunted by the brother of a villain he killed in the previous film, Ichi runs into the master who trained him to be a sword fighter, Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu). Desperate for money, Banno has fallen in with a criminal gang, while also trying to marry his younger sister, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), to a respectable samurai — but Yayoi has feelings for Ichi.

Where the first Zatoichi sequel was faster and more action orientated, New Tale takes a slower, character-driven tone. Ichi is pulled in multiple emotional directions, most of which he keeps stoically buried, but we can still interpret them from Katsu’s nuanced performance. The most forefront theme is violence and the honour of it: Ichi vows to renounce those ways to marry Yayoi, while Banno is betraying them with his greedy actions — and naturally those two are going to come into conflict. It makes for a sombre film, that doesn’t come to a happy conclusion.

Family dynamics

Although this is the first colour Zatoichi, director Tokuzô Tanaka keeps the palette muted throughout, but this is particularly obvious at the end: after Ichi gives in to his old ways, the final shot is practically in black and white, like the previous two films — perhaps a visual indicator of our hero’s return to, or acceptance of, his previous position. Although this dull colour scheme means New Tale isn’t the most vibrantly exciting film visually, it’s compositionally strong, making appropriate use of the wide frame. It’s interesting to note that Tanaka was previously an assistant director on such acclaimed masterpieces as Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Sanshô Dayû, so I guess he picked up a thing or two.

As Ichi hits the road again at the end (I don’t think it counts as a spoiler that he doesn’t ultimately settle down), it feels a little like an origin story has been completed, setting Ichi off on a path ready for standalone adventures. That said, according to the liner notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release, audiences “became increasingly starved” for details of Ichi’s past as the series went on, so I guess some people weren’t satiated.

I don’t think New Tale is quite the equal of the first film, which seems the purest execution of the character as yet, but its thoughtfulness in engaging with the emotional effects of a violent life mark it out as a step above the second movie.

4 out of 5

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

47 Ronin (2013)

2016 #18
Carl Rinsch | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Blighted by behind-the-scenes difficulties, 47 Ronin wound up among the biggest box office bombs of all time — a fate not entirely undeserved.

It concerns a gang of samurai who set out to avenge their master, a true story that’s legendary in Japan. This telling is enhanced with fantasy elements — which, despite some critics’ views, is just fine, as the film’s historical advisor explains in this excellent defence.

Sadly, what falters is everything else: clumsy storytelling, poorly edited action, Japanese actors struggling with English dialogue, Keanu Reeves’ acting. Magnificent imagery and design stop it being a total disaster, but only just.

2 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.