You don’t need a big budget to make a good movie. It seems obvious to say such a thing, but money is a much bigger issue with films than we tend to realize. There’s a certain stigma put upon the under-budgeted film that exists, even though it might not be a conscious act of the public. And it starts at the very top. Movies that were cheap to produce, in a stunning case of irony, rarely make it into the theaters. Studios and venues alike would rather spend WAY more money and time on films that they ALREADY spent ridiculous amounts on, leaving the smaller-budgeted films to languish in straight-to-DVD releases or two-week smaller-chain releases. This alleviates the media’s need to talk about them, since no cash is being thrown their way for these safer, less insane investments. And, unfortunately, whenever the media does talk about small-budget films, it’s usually about the bad ones (The Room) or the controversial ones (Hounddog). This results in a lack of people seeing them, a lack of audience, and a lack of interest in anything cinematic that isn’t blasted into the brain by advertisements. It’s a fucking shame, too, because movies like today’s feature, Heaven and Earth, should have received a lot more play in their day. But 1990 was a big year, and the theaters needed to make room for gems like Bird on a Wire, Ernest Goes to Jail, The Exorcist III, and Frankenhooker, so I can understand why they’d pass on this.
In a deeply contentious era of feudal Japan, the warlords have broken away from the law of the shogun and have broken out in heated battle between one another. Two warlords in particular, the samurais Kagetora and Takeda Shingen have declared all-out war on one another, and there seems to be no way out of it besides mortal combat. Older Takeda wants to expand the horizons of his domain, and sees younger Kagetora’s realm as a suitable place to start his budding future empire. Kagetora sees things a little differently, and vows to protect his land and his people at all cost. This results in a lot of bloodshed over some damn real estate. Kagetora is a noble man compared to his ruthless opponent, but believes that he must grow more ruthless to have a chance against him. What lengths will Kagetora go to in order to protect his homeland? And will it be worth it if those lengths are soaked in blood?
Heaven and Earth, or Ten to Chi To in Japanese, has a strong, if not vapid, premise. It can’t be faulted for its skin-deep ideology, though; this was how things were. People often didn’t fight over love or hate or God or country, but for the simple drive of greed. This entire conflict is all about land, and how one person wants what the other has, and is willing to use brute force to take it. This makes for somewhat uninspiring cinema, since there is really no point to any of it (I guess you could call this era FUTILE Japan! HAHAHAHAHA! Damn it, I’m funny…), but I still enjoyed this film.
The characters are unexpectedly rich. Kagetora, played by heartthrob-ish Takaaki Enoki, is particularly enjoyable. He embodies the impertinence and boldness of strength and youth, and his Kagetora suffers no disrespect against his people lightly. But he has the doubts, as well, and his fear of failure in the face of an older, wiser opponent is handled very well. He also has an intriguing subplot involving his adviser’s daughter, particularly his affections for her. It would normally be no big deal, but he recently took a vow of celibacy to give strength to his armies. Oops! It’s a very invigorating look at love in a royal court, and I relished every minute of their scenes together. Masahiko Tsugawa as Takeda is no slouch himself, however, as is apparent by some of his scenes in battle (what a jerk, is all I’ll say!). These two compliment each other very well, and it was an on-screen rivalry that held my interest the entire run-time, at least until the realistic-but-anti-climactic ending.
And I know I won’t be the first to report on this, as I know I’ll also not be the last, but this movie is unequivocally gorgeous. It’s impeccably well-made, and I was unprepared for the simple beauty Heaven and Earth provides. Some scenes, like the sequence where Kagetora plays a song on a flute for the adviser’s daughter, take my breath away. Director Haruki Kadokawa melds expertly-performed action sequences with the scenic beauty of Canada to make something unforgettable. That’s right; Canada. The Great White North served as hosts to the Japanese film industry at some point, because this was filmed in the smack-dab of Alberta, the least likely place for Kadokawa to choose for filming. But it’s a good thing he did, because there’s something about the stillness of the Canadian wilderness and its pristine beauty that evokes a time before our iron-fisted modernization changed the face of the world.
If you see one Japanese movie from 1990 that was filmed in Canada, make sure it’s Heaven and Earth. It’s a small release that was totally avalanched by a ton of other films when it came out because of its small scope and its concept, which could have been potentially boring to de-sensitized Americans coming off of the coke-binge that was the 80s. It has a lot of things going for it, and I was really impressed with all the beautiful things they pulled off with a relatively small budget. It just goes to show you that bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to Japanese period drama. I give Heaven and Earth 8 1/2 Frankenhookers out of 10. Arigato gozaimasu!
Tomorrow I watch, in the spirit of all this Japanese cinema, the last Kurosawa epic, Ran! Until then!!!