An ancient legend foretells that whosoever unites three ancient artefacts: “the Skanda Thunderbolt”, “the Judas Cross” and “the Sword of Alexander” shall go forth to rule the universe. Cocky and carefree at over seven feet tall, samurai superhero Genkuro Yorozu (Hiroshi Abe) wields the titular super-sword but is blissfully unaware of this prophecy as he swaggers through 17th century, Tokugawa era Japan getting into all sorts of exciting adventures. Meanwhile, plucky Princess Mai (Kyoko Hasegawa), heir to the Toyotomi royal family, is on the run with her smitten ninja sidekick Sasuke (Kankuro Kudo) from crazy Monk Grin (yakuza movie icon Riki Takeuchi, with his face hidden behind a wide brimmed hat), leader of the notorious Arachnid Mob, a band of evil assassins who include the Demon Princess with her killer animated hair and the disgusting Black Locust who spews a swarm of flesh-eating bugs. Fate or something else brings these various people together one night when two spaceships crash-land in the woods… Hold on a minute. Spaceships?!
“A spaceship in a samurai period drama is a bit weird”, admits our crackpot narrator before the film backtracks to reveal a spectacular space battle between what he describes - in an hilarious dig at the famous intro to Star Wars (1977) - as a “long, long, long, long, long spaceship” (that also happens to talk!) and a similarly planet-sized, H.P. Lovecraft-meets H.R. Geiger style tentacled horror. These cosmic combatants arrive on Earth in search of the fabled three treasures. Good guy green alien blob Ran takes possession of Princess Mai. Evil red liquid being Daksha fashions its own patchwork host body from a bear and a luckless bear hunter (Kenichi Endo), looking like the demonic Oni or Japanese legend. Switching between reserved royal and unhinged alien personae, Princess Mai allies and strikes romantic sparks with Genkuro, much to Sasuke’s annoyance since he has loved her forever. As this troubled trio escape Tokugawa agents, sexy shadow warrior Botan (Meisa Kuroki) skulks on the sidelines adding another wrinkle to the increasingly insane plot.
Illustrating the gulf between English and Asian sensibilities, this demented but rollicking period fantasy/science fiction adventure is routinely dismissed as “a mess” on most film forums, but was enthusiastically embraced as a good-natured romp by fans across the Far East. Based on a serialized novel by Yumemakura Baku, this Toei production falls only narrowly short of the madcap genius of its Hong Kong made counterpart A Chinese Tall Story (2005), but remains a lively, engaging effort with enough ideas to fuel a dozen Hollywood blockbusters.
Rumour has it Yukihiko Tsutsumi, a prolific straight-to-video director since the Nineties now better known for the big-budget 20th Century Boys trilogy, concocted the cockeyed scenario with input from co-writers, cast and crew drawing upon crazy ideas they just fancied seeing onscreen. Amidst the gross-out gags, malevolent monsters and otherworldly intrigue, listen out for a lightsaber sound effect used (presumably) in tribute to Star Wars and mixed with an instantly recognisable roar belonging to none other than Godzilla! The chaotic storytelling takes some getting used to, but the film extrapolates intriguingly on real historical events and long-standing Japanese myths, such as the Christian revolt of the Tokugawa and the legendary Three Treasures.
Nevertheless the secret agenda of gender-bending beauty Botan (“Dude or babe? Aw heck, who cares?” remarks the open-minded Genkuro), inexplicably unmasked as an alias for Shiro Amakusa - a real-life Christian missionary turned rebel leader and the subject of such fantastical biopics as Kinji Fukusaku’s Darkside Reborn (1981) and the anime Ninja Resurrection (1997) - should have been more coherently integrated into the narrative. Also the trippy, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) style finale that plays over the end credits does not provide a whole lot of answers.
The non-stop action and adventure win you over and the whole cast rip into their zany roles with great relish. Especially leading man Hiroshi Abe, who since the beginning of his career in the mid-Eighties has dipped his toes in both Hong Kong cinema and that of his native Japan, notably with Peacock King (1988) and Tokyo Raiders (2000). Abe’s comic talents are to the fore as he plays Genkuro as an overgrown kid, wrapt with wonder over everything from fireworks, to true love and spaceships duelling in the stars. His catchphrase: “Wondrously strange!” pretty much sums up the whole movie.