released in the U.S. as Orochi: the Eight-Headed Serpent
Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.
"We're here to save the universe,
but we really just want to get down."
-Oto and Yamato, Lords of the Dance
Yamato Takeru is a big budget sci-fi fantasy film from Toho, the studio that produces Godzilla movies. They intended it to become a series, but the box office showing was poor. After viewing the film for ourselves, we can see why the Japanese viewing public reacted with apathy. It's not a bad film, exactly, but it won't really excite you the way a good sword and sorcery epic can.
The story is mostly taken from Japanese traditional Shinto mythology, though we doubt the accepted versions of this story contains quite so many robots. There are also bits and pieces from other mythologies, mainly the Hercules myth. It's movies like this that make you think Joeseph Campbell was on to something.
The movie takes place shortly after the gods of Japan have turned the world over to mortals. Two twin sons are born to the king, and the court sorcerer fortells it is a bad omen. Well of course he would -- no court sorcerer ever stayed in business by fortelling a long, happy life. He's the same character you see in all these kinds of film. He's the same as Iago in Othello, Koura in the Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Jafar in Alladin. He's the obviously evil court magician who skulks around all the time, predicting bad things will happen, and no one notices the fact that he's the only person wearing black until it's too late.
In any case, one of the princes grows up to be our hero, Yamato (Masahiro Takashima, of Gunhed and Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla). He is trained in the arts of war by two grisled old warriors, and he owns a magic amulet that posesses frighting powers. In a fit of pique, Yamato kills his brother after transforming into a beast man. Yamato's father banishes him from the kingdom so he can learn to control his powers. He travels with his two teachers to the wild frontier, where he meets a priestess-in-training named Oto. She's cute and she can shoot fireballs from her hands, so they take her with them. The four of them infiltrate the lair of Kumasogami, a fire demon. They defeat him and stop his plans to invade Yamato's kingdom.
In a surprising plot twist,
the guy wearing black armor is evil.
Yamato, now called Yamato Takeru, returns to his kingdom and is given a mission by his aunt, who is priestess to another god. Apparently an evil god is traveling to Earth, one that previously ravaged the Earth as a huge hydra. The movie then runs through the entirety of TheGolden Bough, as Yamato dies, is reborn, meets God, pulls a sword out of a stone, fights a guy wearing black armor with a lightsaber, flies on the back of a pheonix, fights the hydra, merges with a woman and turns into a giant robot. All of which were in the The Golden Bough, you can check for yourself.
The easiest way to look at this film, and what's wrong with it, is to see it as kin with the great old Ray Harryhausen films like Jason and the Argonauts and the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. What these films had were lots of monsters, lots of special effects and lots of sword fights. So far, Yamato Takeru has the formula spot-on. But the Harryhausen films had a sense of humor. The characters used to laugh at their predicaments, and the actors looked like they were having fun living out these amazing fantasies. Unfortunately, all of the actors in Yamato Takeru seem unbearably serious. No one ever cracks a smile, or laughs, or even hints that saving the universe could be fun. It's really a shame.
There are some very nice things in Yamato Takeru as well, especially on the special effects side of things. The hydra is an amazing creation, and Yamato's battles with the creature are really amazing, though the sight of Yamato and Oto fighting a slow motion dragon on the surface of the moon while riding a clockwork bird we couldn't help but think of the Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The sequence where Yamato transforms into a giant robot is also very good, if a little too Power Rangers for its own good. But all of the great special effects and neat monsters can not make up for the sense of fun this movie is lacking.