Hired to deliver an antique samurai sword to Japan, washed-up boxer Rick (Scott Glenn) is caught in the middle of a violent feud between two brothers fighting over the sacred heirloom. Toru Yoshida (Toshirô Mifune) lives by the traditional Bushido code, training an army of loyal samurai warriors in the woods near Osaka. Hideo Yoshida (Atsuo Nakamura) is an evil gangster turned business tycoon who seemingly controls all of Japan with his heavily-armed militia. Eager to collect his pay, Rick agrees to infiltrate Toru’s samurai school and steal back the sword but gradually comes to admire the samurai way of life. Having fallen for Toru’s gutsy daughter, Akiko (Donna Kei Benz), following her abduction, Rick throws in his lot with Toru as together they mount a last ditch assault on Hideo’s Bond villain-style hi-tech lair.
In the early Eighties, America went through one of its periodic obsessions with Japanese culture, largely as a result of the hit TV adaptation of James Clavell’s novel Shogun starring none other than Japan’s most celebrated movie star, Toshirô Mifune. Yellow Magic Orchestra stormed the pop charts, Frank Miller began introducing bushido lore into Marvel comics and Roger Corman released the quirky patchwork cult favourite Shogun Assassin. And yet despite seeming a rather timely, comparitively prestigious production reuniting Mifune with veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer after the race car drama Grand Prix (1966), and featuring a screenplay co-written by the great John Sayles, The Challenge sank without a trace. It was barely released in the United States and remains unaccountably obscure to this day. Which is a shame, for while a deeply flawed effort, its merits are notable including a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score, fine cinematography by Kozo Okazaki - who shot that other “uncouth westerner goes east” fable The Yakuza (1974) as well as a great many chanbara and yakuza films by the great Hideo Gosha - and a sincere level of respect for samurai culture.
Reverential perhaps, but also somewhat naive and the mystery remains why such an assemblage of worldy and intelligent artists would combine their talents to produce something more or less akin to an upmarket Chuck Norris movie or at best, an adult-oriented Karate Kid Part II (1986) with pretensions. Trivia buffs note: Toshirô Mifune was originally cast as Mr. Miyagi until the producers deemed his performance too scary for kids! Borrowing as much from the yakuza genre as chanbara films, The Challenge delivers a well-intentioned but arguably less enlightened western perspective than The Yakuza, the under-rated The Last Samurai (2003) - which faced many of the criticisms I will level here - or even the Japan-set thrillers House of Bamboo (1955) and The Crimson Kimono (1959) made by cult director Samuel Fuller. Its vision of Japan is far less oppressive than Black Rain (1989), but arguably less cohesive a treatise with a slightly insulting view of a civilisation hopelessly stuck in the feudal era, implying Hideo has a ludicrously all-pervasive stranglehold over Japanese trade and politics while bands of noble savages still romp around the woods alongside Yojimbo, even in the midst of the economic boom.
Okay, perhaps one is being overly harsh about what is fundamentally an adventure yarn, but an air of orientalist fantasy hangs about The Challenge. The film tips its hand from the first scene where Rick avenges himself in the boxing ring against an arrogant, notably westernized Japanese opponent who is glimpsed flirting with a sexy blonde. Gasp! He’s more interested in interracial romance than honing his martial arts skills. Not that Rick exhibits any restraint in that area, as the film reinforces the strange martial arts movie notion that interracial romance is best kept a one-way street. Nevertheless, as one character observes, westernized Japanese are clearly unworthy to inherit the warrior’s mantle. Orientalism had been around since the days of empire, but the concept was redefined by Palestinian-American literary theory theorist Edward Said, in his book of the same name, as a constellation of false assumptions underlying western attitudes towards eastern culture. Said was speaking largely of the Middle East, although his theories just as easily apply to the Far East and tales that play largely to romantic notions of western travellers mastering a foreign culture and in some areas proving more adept than indiginous youngsters who have lost their way, or in other words succumbed to western influences. This strangely self-contradicting concept is surprisingly pervasive. Having said that, as polemical author Ibn Warraq observed, Said’s belief that all truth is relative undermines his credibility. As to the accusation a western fascination with martial arts tales betrays a certain cultural myopia, this overlooks the fact that Japanese and Chinese fantasies appeal overseas for exactly the same reasons Shakespeare travels so well, because they weave compelling narratives laced with poetic truths.
As a rumination on the code of bushido, The Challenge falls far short of Harakiri (1962) and is more a B-movie writ large. Such a phrase was routinely used to describe the early films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, when it fact their films used the framework and iconography of pop culture to address wider themes. The Challenge really is a B-movie. Trading in clichés and simplistic interpretations of more complex concepts, it ticks all the familiar boxes of past (and future) “go east, young man” yarns: Rick stoically endures a diet of raw fish and live eels, befriends a cute little kid played by Kenta Fukasaku - son of legendary film director Kinji Fukasaku and future director of the terrific X-Cross (2007) and the not-quite-so-terrific-but-still-likeable Yo-Yo Girl Cop (2006) -, masters the way of the samurai, sleeps with the sensei’s daughter, and becomes a man of honour. Although his big moment of contrition before Toru proves a genuinely moving scene, it has to be said Scott Glenn does a poor job engaging our sympathies as bad boy Rick, who by the movie’s end still seems the same brash, surly guy he always was. One wonders whether the character read as one-dimensional on the page? Despite John Sayles’ prominent screen credit the script was co-authored by Richard Maxwell, who went on to write The Serpent and the Rainbow (1989) for Wes Craven (a film whose “white hero tortured in a foreign land” concept is foreshadowed here with Rick buried up to his neck in sand for five days while bugs and rats gnaw his face), with uncredited input by veteran Ivan Moffat who penned the superb Black Sunday (1977) for Frankenheimer as well as classics from Giant (1956) to The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
So why watch? Foremost for the chance to see one of cinema’s all-time greatest actors, Toshirô swagger and roar through one of his last good roles. He is supported by an excellent Japanese cast, although their real voices are heard only while speaking their native tongue. Both Mifune and Atsuo Nakamura were dubbed. Nakamura famously played Hoichi the Earless in the segment of the same name from Masaki Kobayashi’s classic ghost omnibus Kwaidan (1964) and went on to a political career with the Japanese Green Party. Supporting players Shôgo Shimada, Seiji Miyaguchi and Yoshio Inaba were familiar faces from the films of Akira Kurosawa. It is great to see them here. More surprising are the strong performances delivered by American TV regulars Donna Kei Benz, Calvin Jung and Clyde Kusatsu, even though the latter’s character exhibits a jarring personality switch that does not ring true.
As a martial arts film this packs less visceral excitement for the most part than more modest Asian offerings, except for the last fifteen minutes when one-man army Mifune storms the villain’s hideout. Frankenheimer’s direction really comes alive with some well-staged swordfights and terrific head-splitting effects. It scores further points by not having Rick morph miraculously into a samurai master, but by having him outclassed by a fearsome opponent, reliant mostly on luck and guile. Additionally, the ending is less triumphant, more ambiguous, as its implications reverberate in our minds over the end credits. Incidentally, the action sequences were choreographed by a genuine westerner versed in the ways of the samurai, a young man named Steven Seagal. Whatever happened to him?