10 May 2020 | imagevulture
Little known live-action version of Osamu Tezuka's "Hi No Tori (The Phoenix)"
(It's been a while since I saw this film and it's hard to find , or was, I think it can be found streaming now.)
While Osamu Tezuka is beloved and his presence is still very much in Japanese pop-culture 2020, even most Japanese are not aware that there was a live-action version of Tezuka's manga Hi No Tori (The Pheonix). Hi No Tori opened the same summer as Star Wars (which opened one year later than the US in Japan).
Kon Ichikawa's film is an oddball mix - an epic, violent, meditation on the meaning of existence yet also seems to be a kids movie. It's as if Disney made "Apocalypto" as popcorn movie. I haven't fully read the manga but have browsed thru it and from what I can tell the movie is quite faithful to the source material.
It's a huge cast and a sprawling story. The core story is of Sarutahaiko (Tomisaburo Wakayama) who takes under his wing instead of killing him, Nagi (Toshinori Omi ) a boy belonging to the tribe whose village he has just pillaged. In a plot twist usually not seen (at least in modern films) Sarutahaiko becomes Nagi's father figure even tho he killed Nagi's own father. Later they are joined by Kaoru Yumi as Uzume, who becomes Sarutahaiko's love interest. The trio is tossed about thru turbulent times trying to survive all kinds of tribal factions and obstacles. Later Uzume becomes the object of desire for Jingi the Conqueror played by Tatsuya Nakadai.
Throughout all this is the hunt for "Hi No Tori" a mystical bird whose blood can give eternal life. A powerful Queen lusts for the blood of the bird. The tone shifts wildly, there is light hearted humor yet the theme of death lies strong under the surface. Feels and looks like an epic historical drama, but then we even get an animated sequence for laughs. Imagine a live-action Disney movie for kids but with scenes of genocide, mass murder, torture and war. Beautiful cinematography in rugged locations in that old school cinematic style we just don't see any more and fascinating costumes of a pre-samurai era Japan, more akin to the Jomon Era Japan.