Known variously as Kabuto, Shogun Warrior and Journey of Honour, this lavish historical epic was a personal project for star/producer/real-life ninja master Shô Kosugi. Having risen to fame in a string of trashy ninja actioners from Cannon Films, Kosugi aimed for an altogether classier affair, assembling a big budget production with respected British and Japanese actors, including Japan’s greatest movie star. Drawing upon a real historical conflict, the film opens in 17th century Japan where Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu (Toshirô Mifune) wages war against the Toyotomi clan. His most trusted samurai, Mayeda (Shô Kosugi) wins the latest battle, but his wife (Yuki Sugimura) and son die protecting the shogun’s arrogant, hot-tempered son Yorimune (Kane Kosugi). Realizing the enemy retain the advantage by wielding firearms, Ieyasu tasks Mayeda to accompany his son on a voyage to petition the King of Spain (Christopher Lee) for a collection of flintlock rifles.
Amongst the all-European crew are Captain Crawford (Ronald Pickup), a drunken but decent seaman who bonds with Mayeda having lost his own wife and child at sea, and Father Vasco (Norman Lloyd), a duplicitious Franciscan friar who feigns friendship with the Tokugawa clan but has secretly pledged Lady Yadogimi (Miwa Takada) he will assassinate young Yorimune. Our heroes eventually reach the Spanish court where Mayeda wins the admiration of comely courtesan Cecilia (Polly Walker), who turns out to be Crawford’s long lost daughter, and earns the enmity of her dastardly fiancé Don Pedro (Seventies pop idol David Essex). When Cecilia stows away aboard the departing Japanese galleon, Don Pedro gives chase while the adventurers are captured by the glowering Sultan of Morocco (John Rhys-Davies).
Released just when Hollywood was starting to take a more gimmicky, pop video influenced approach to historical yarns, e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Journey of Honour failed to find much of an international audience but remains an endearing throwback to the old-fashioned adventure romps made three decades before. It also features the most ambitious plot of any Shô Kosugi vehicle, touching on the political machinations of Christian missionaries in Japan (whom Ieyasu observes seem to love money more than God) and how the nation gradually opened its door to the western world. As is often the case in stories of this type, the destination proves less important than the journey. Under Mayeda’s sagely tutelage, young Yorimune learns the value of respecting foreign cultures and the key difference between honour and valour. Though never really much of an actor, Kosugi approaches his role with endearing sincerity and exhibits an unexpected flair for comedy in his scenes with Polly Walker, notably when he nonchalantly walks in on her naked in the bathtub. David Essex sports an outrageous Spanish accent more suited to Fawlty Towers, but otherwise serves his role fairly well.
The film aspires to Akira Kurosawa levels of grandeur and, if not quite reaching that lofty ideal, is impressively marshalled by veteran Gordon Hessler. Best known for his A.I.P. horror films throughout the Sixties and Seventies and the Ray Harryhausen fantasy romp The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Hessler also helmed what is widely considered among Shô Kosugi’s better vehicles: Pray for Death (1985). Evidently the pair hit it off well enough for Kosugi to entrust him with this cherished personal project. Despite Kosugi’s karate moves, the action scenes suffer from sloppy editing and occasionally cramped compositions. However, the extended duel sequence at the Spanish palace that finds Mayeda and Don Pedro leaping about with energetic abandon, is a set-piece worthy of vintage Errol Flynn.