You really have to respect director Haruki Kadokawa for the monumental task of directing a movie like “Heaven and Earth”, which is more enterprise in filmmaking than actual filmmaking. Not really a movie, but a series of pitched samurai battles between two determined rivals vying for control of 16th century Japan, “Heaven and Earth” could be compared to “Braveheart”, if only it wasn’t so PG in its depiction of what is supposed to be brutal medieval combat.
The two samurai lords facing off in “Heaven and Earth” are Kagetora (Takaaki Enoki) and Takeda (Masahiko Tsugawa). Takeda is the obvious aggressor, an ambitions man with ideas of conquering Japan, and then the world. Kagetora is a reluctant warrior, who becomes lord by necessity, and has to learn to win a battle at any cost because the result of losing is unfathomable. Over many years, the two do battle on the prairie, trying to outsmart each other, and losing everything they cherish in the process.
For Kagetora, the price of defending his territory from Takeda’s incursions is his unfulfilled longing for Nami (Atsuko Asano), the daughter of one of his lords. The cost of his lordship becomes even higher when Nami’s father betrays Kagetora, forcing the lord to face off against Nami’s father in mortal combat. For Takeda, the cost of ambition is his beloved female warrior, Yae (Naomi Zaizen), who is struck down in battle by a bullet. Later, Takeda would also lose his son. And yet, despite these loses, both men continue on, but it’s obvious the losses haunt them greatly.
The real star of “Heaven and Earth” isn’t the convoluted storyline, which features double crosses, changing loyalties, and questionable battle tactics, but rather director Kadokawa’s ability to overcome the logistic nightmare inherent in making a movie of this size and scope. The film could never work for the viewer if presented in fullscreen because only a widescreen format could do justice to the massing of thousands of extras in armor, on foot and on horseback. The last 40 minutes is really one big battle scene, with thousands of men clashing in the open fields and cavalry charging, retreating, charging again, and retreating some more.
And yet, despite the massive logistic undertaking in “Heaven and Earth”, the film is strangely bloodless. Which again leads me to the conclusion that the movie is more of an exercise in style and cinematography rather than reality. The film looks great, and the bright red battle armor of Takeda’s men, and the black of Kagetora’s, look like poetry in motion as they clash and retreat, and clash some more. The movement of hundreds of horses and the bristling of flags add to the beauty of the film, but in the end you wonder what it all means.
At just under 2 hours, I have to wonder if there was more to “Heaven and Earth” that didn’t make it into the final cut. There are a lot of important plot points that are simply glossed over, or not fully elaborated on. Most obvious are the confrontations between Kagetora and his turncoat samurai lords. One moment they are fighting, and the next…nothing. I guess we’re supposed to assume what transpired (that Kagetora won), but it would have been nice to have seen it, or at the very least, been told by the voiceover narrator what exactly happened.
“Heaven and Earth” is a spectacular film, but don’t expect any realism. The battle sequences are elaborate, well thought out, and fabulously created. And yet, there’s no sense of violence, of chaos, or weight. A lot of extras in prop armor, carrying prop weapons, charge and run around, but you never get the feeling that people are being killed, and that this is somehow serious. It all looks great, but a saying comes to mind: “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But at least it was a beautiful and breathtaking “nothing”. In this regard, “Heaven and Earth” is not unlike the recent “Hero”, another great looking film that failed to offer anything more.
Haruki Kadokawa (director) / Haruki Kadokawa, Toshido Kamata, Chogoro Keynji, Isao Yoshiwara (screenplay)
CAST: Takaaki Enoki …. Kagetora
Masahiko Tsugawa …. Takeda
Atsuko Asano …. Nami
Naomi Zaizen …. Yae
Hironobu Nomura …. Taro Yoshinobu