A samurai finds a sword mysteriously embedded in a straw mannequin in the forest. Taking it back to his dojo, he finds that he is able to cut through numerous straw mannequins during practice with ease. But then, he begins seeing straw men everywhere, and unable to resist cutting them down, he finds to his horror that he himself has become a puppet to the sword he wields.
This was originally released at the 1987 Hiroshima Animation Film Festival, and it's clear from the get-go that this is intended as an allegory for the madness of war itself.
Muramasa is an interesting film for several reasons: for one, it has no dialogue, telling its simple story through imagery alone, backed by the traditional instrumentation of musicians Roetsu and Yuho Tousha. Tezuka eschews his usual style here, instead going for a more "realistic" look that serves this movie well. The animation, while never stunning, is certainly adequate, and there are images here that are alternately beautiful and harrowing.
Being only eight minutes, though, there's little time to establish any characters other than the samurai himself, and therefore some of the process of "dehumanizing" this character through violence is blunted somewhat because he's not really established as being very human to begin with. The narrative is little more than an overlong Aesop's fable, and while it's psychologically interesting, the allegory doesn't feel particularly subtle or deep here; there's a distinct flavor of "preaching to the choir" here. I just try to imagine showing this to anyone in any sort of disciplined fighting force (like, say, the United States Marines or the Spetsnaz) and I can't see this convincing a single soul in such an environment. Grave of the Fireflies this ain't.
Perhaps that's an unfair expectation for an eight-minute film, even one by the God of Manga Osamu Tezuka. This is certainly more of an experiment toward the end of his long and storied career to push the boundaries of animation as he knew it, much like Legend of the Forest: while limited in appeal and maybe not entirely successful, the cautionary tale of Muramasa must still be respected for its intent and its ideals. Losing Tezuka at merely sixty is one of the great tragedies of the history of anime: one wonders what further works he might have come up with given the increasing sophistication of the Japanese animation industry in the ensuing decades.
Though at times mesmerizing, Muramasa is not a work to be enjoyed at length so much as a word to be admired and respected at a distance. Art film and Tezuka aficionados may probably add a fourth star. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: While violence is the entire point of this film, Muramasa eschews blood in favor of emotional shock, which actually proves to be an effective psychological tactic. Kids these days probably wouldn't be able to sit through this anyway.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Muramasa © 1987 Tezuka Productions
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