In 1164 a band of ninjas and samurai led by Rentaro Katsu (Tatsuya Nakadai, from Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985)) are sent on a mission to the United States, protecting a cache of gold bound for struggling Japanese families in San Francisco. Local ladies note lead samurai Kamijo Kenichi (Hiroyuki Sanada, from Ring (1998) and The Twilight Samurai (2001)) is “sure ’nuff pretty”, while wacky ninja Tamajiro (Naoto Takenaka) can’t quite master the English language, beyond the words “I love you” - which keep getting him slapped by random women. The warriors stumble into the middle of a bank robbery, led by outlaw Gus Taylor (Christopher Mayer) who promptly makes off with their gold. Wrongly suspected of colluding with the outlaw, Kamijo teams up with a little boy called Sam (Scott Bachicha), whose father was shot dead in the robbery, to retrieve the gold and save the inhabitants of a silver mining town.
The late Kihachi Okamoto, lauded mainly for samurai movies and war epics, dipped his directorial wick into a diverse array of genres including science fiction, arty oddities, crime thrillers and even anime. Being a huge fan of westerns, Okamoto concocted this cockeyed homage, with fantastical flourishes courtesy of some ninja superpowers, that unfolds in both English and Japanese. East Meets West starts very well but sadly runs off the rails, hijacked by some strange supporting characters and ill-conceived plot quirks that confine superstar Hiroyuki Sanada to the sidelines until the exciting blades-and-bullets showdown. Interestingly, Sanada had done the whole cowboy thing before, except in reverse with Roaring Fire (1983) where he played a Texan-raised half-breed who has adventures in Japan, while co-star Tatsuya Nakadai (relegated to a glorified cameo) had been a spaghetti western villain in the obscure Today, It’s Me… Tomorrow, It’s You! (1968).
Okamoto has fun indulging Wild West clichés and crafts a literate screenplay laced with historical detail and episodes that pay tribute to classic scenes from John Ford movies, Shane (1953), High Noon (1952) and even that lesser known John Wayne vehicle The Cowboys (1972), but is ill-served by a cast of unknown American actors ill-equipped to convey its nuances. Which leaves it all the more frustrating when he zeroes in on hulking gunslinger-turned-schoolteacher Hardy (onetime soap actor Jay Kerr) and leaves the more interesting Kamijo and Sam pottering aimlessly in the background.
On paper Hardy presumably reads like a swaggering, monolithic John Wayne type but as played by Kerr is either bipolar or just plain weird. When Sam approaches him for help, Hardy’s first reaction is to spank the kid soundly for missing school. Remember this kid just saw his dad get shot! Thereafter, Hardy takes them home to his wife, who refuses to speak to him since she thought he was dead and already dug his grave. He starts the world’s most pointless bar fight, forms a gang made up of former school kids, converts them to the joys of drinking milk (another John Wayne reference?), and starts his crusade to clean up the lawless town by beating up those folks too frightened to fight back. Now, on a certain level everything Hardy does makes perfect sense (e.g. trying to keep kids on the straight and narrow; encouraging oppressed townsfolk to stand up for themselves), it’s mainly the glassy-eyed manner in which Kerr interprets the character that makes him so eccentric. When he launches into yet another windy soliloquy you’ll be longing for Kamijo to stab a katana in his back.
A broadly comedic yarn, this stirs the bawdy humour familiar from the ninja genre in with the knockabout comedy so beloved by John Ford. Most of the intentional laughs arise from Naoto Takenaka, so bug-eyed and off-the-wall he makes Marty Feldman look restrained, but this is a rare movie where the comedy relief gets the girl while the handsome hero rides solo. For while beautiful Native American princess Nantai (Angelique Midthunder - who now works as a casting director and documentary filmmaker) is introduced making eyes at heartthrob Hiroyuki Sanada, she winds up sharing a jail cell with Takenaka where, after the quickest seduction scene in screen history (basically, he sticks his head up her dress!), they wind up going at it in full view of the disgruntled sheriff.
Indeed, like Hardy, Tamajiro (or “Tommy” as he is christened by the American characters) dominates proceedings to a ludicrous degree, shouldering plot strands one normally expects would be reserved for the hero. He marries Nantai, bonds with her fellow tribesmen and teaches them some ninja tricks. Which leads to a silly scene where, while practicing their stealth attack, the pair get so hot and bothered they start having anal sex in the middle of the desert. “What are they doing?” asks young Sam. “Uh, practicing martial arts”, replies a worried-looking Kamijo.
Bizarrely, this light-hearted romp ends with an inexplicably downbeat coda that reveals the surviving heroes died from illness one year later, except for Tommy who becomes an Indian chief and lives to be one hundred and four. We then flash-forward to watch Tommy stagger to his melancholy death in the desert. If that sounds like weird way to end a comedy, well, that’s because it is.
Veteran Japanese director who used his experiences during the Second World War to shape the outlook and tone of numerous anti-war films, such as 1959's Dokuritsugu Gurentai, and 1968's Nikudan (aka The Human Bullet). Okamoto also directed gangster pictures such as The Age of Assassins (1967) and samurai epics like Sword of Doom (1966) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), frequently casting the great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune. Okamoto slowed his work-rate afterwards, but still continued to direct for TV and cinema until his death.