Sadao Maeda, the man who would become Sonny Chiba, was headed for the Japanese gymnastic team when a back injury ruined his Olympic chances. Turning his athletic prowess to the Martial Arts, he eventually attained black belts in Judo, Kendo, Shorinji Kempo and Ninjitsu. In 1960, he won a talent contest at Toei Studios and adopted the stage name Chiba Shinichi, named after the Chiba prefecture of Tokyo where he grew up. One of his first films was Kinji Fukasaku's directorial debut, Wandering Detective – Tragedy in Red Valley.
Fukasaku, director of the controversial Battle Royale, was known best for his hardboiled yakuza pictures in the 60's and 70's. With titles like Wolves, Pigs and People, Graveyard of Honor and the 8 part Battles Without Honor & Humanity series, Fukasaku was one of the biggest directors in Japan. However, it wasn't until he started to branch out from gangster films with more sci-fi and fantasy oriented material, like Message from Space and Samurai Reincarnation: Makai Tensho.
In Samurai Reincarnation: Makai Tensho, Sonny Chiba reprises his role as Jubei Yagyu from Shogun's Samurai - The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy, also by Fukasaku. While that film was strictly historical action, Samurai Reincarnation: Makai Tensho is firmly along the lines of dark fantasy, taking historical figures and situations and weaving them into a macabre storyline. Also of note to chanbara enthusiasts, is Ogami Ito himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama (Lone Wolf & Cub series), as Lord Yagyu, Jubei's father.
Beginning in 17th Century Japan, with an actual historical occurrence, that of the Shogunate banning the practice of Christianity in the Empire, Samurai Reincarnation: Makai Tensho begins. Amakusa Shiro, a Christian Samurai, and several thousand of his followers are decimated by the Shogun's superior forces. Shiro's spirit cannot rest after witnessing the absence of God from their final stand, the same God for which they had given their lives. First reanimating his own severed head with to take vengeance on the Shogun's soldiers, then pledging his soul to Satan for the power to resurrect the greatest Samurai in history with which to end the Shogun's reign.
Shiro's army of the undead quickly grows, even including the Sword Saint himself, Miyamoto Musashi. The power which Satan gave to Shiro allowed him to turn these once honorable warriors into devils if they possessed one feeling in their heart when they died… regret. Legendary ninja warrior, Yagyu Jubei learns of this new threat to the Shogunate, but not before his own father, Lord Yagyu, is killed and then resurrected by Shiro's power. Jubei enlists the cursed swordmaker, Muramasa, to create a blade capable of killing these devils. The climactic battle that takes place in the flaming inferno of the Shogun's ruined castle is truly amazing and provides a fitting Hell on Earth with which to end the film.
The whole affair is classic Fukasaku, with an epic story told at a brisk pace making you double-check your watch to confirm the film's running time. With lots of samurai duels and action, but also scenes of black magic and psycho-sexual predation, there is something for everyone. Especially effective are the many back stories which are presented to further develop the characters. Rather than slowing down the film, they actually enhance it through extensive cross cutting, giving the past events more weight relative to the stories present.
NOTE: Several people have have brought to my attention that there is a missing scene on this DVD and it occurs during the scene when Jubei is in the Murasama's cabin as an earthquake starts. The DVD briefly pauses before skipping to the next scene. The DVD is missing footage of the Undead Mushashi attacking the cabin. It's obvious that the scene is missing as the DVD's runs 118 minutes and the DVD packaging states a 122 minute running time. It doesn't appear that Media Blasters plans on addressing this problem.
Picture: The movie is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The picture looks great with bright, crisp colors.
Audio: There are two audio tracks included on this DVD. The default is the Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo track, with an English Dub also offered in 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo. I watched the original Japanese language track with English subtitles and was very pleased with a great sound mix.
Extras: The Extras included on this disc are an interview with Sonny Chiba, an Image Gallery and the Original Theatrical Trailer.
Conclusion: Media Blasters should be commended, missing scene not withstanding, for putting Samurai Reincarnation: Makai Tensho out in such a great package. The print looks as good as when it was first projected and suffers little of the film stock issues of other movies from the same time period. Sonny Chiba's interview was done exclusively for this DVD and isn't a rehash of past interviews, although he is referred to in much of the DVD's packaging as "J.J. Sonny Chiba", whatever the hell that means. In short, for a film that deserves to be called a classic of its genre (Samurai/Horror, maybe?) this DVD is just screaming to be bought and added to your collection.