Miyamoto Musashi – Souken ni Haseru Yume (The Dream Of The Last Samurai)

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Anime is a bit of a strange beast at times. Every fan knows how powerful and evocative a storytelling medium it can be, but there’s more than one face to the animal that we know and love. Anime is not simply a tool to tell stories, no, it can also be a tool to educate, and shows like Yakitate Japan! and Moyashimon: Tales of Agriculture are examples of the attempts to combine entertainment and education (the former containing lessons on baking and making bread, while the latter is an introduction to microbiology).

But what happens when you take it one step further? Well, in the case of Miyamoto Musashi: Souken ni Haseru Yume (The Dream of the Last Samurai – not to be confused with a subpar Tom Cruise movie), what we end up with is a historical documentary.

Originally penned by the renowned Oshii Mamoru and directed by his long term stalwart Nishikubo Mizuho, this anime is not your normal quasi-educational malarky but is an altogether different facet of the medium that hasn’t really been seen since Gainax’s Otaku no Video. Where The Dream of the Last Samurai differs though, is in its approach as, unlike practically any other anime out there, the movie is presented as a lecture.

Ostensibly, this movie is about the life of Miyamoto Musashi, one of Japan’s greatest warriors, one of the finest swordsmen in history, and the author of the legendary treatise The Book of Five Rings. The material is presented straight forward manner, although there are some deviations of topic for clarification purposes or to raise points.

Now one of the problems that people may have with this anime is the inherent lack of a story as this is effectively a retelling of history instead. That said, the content of this “lecture” will be of interest to anyone who likes or studies Japanese history, war and militaria, bushido and samurai culture, or martial arts. The Dream of the Last Samurai may even be interesting to those who are simply fans of Oshii Mamoru as the movie is certainly reflective of his slightly incongruous analytical style.

Another issue that may put some people off this movie is the fact that Production I.G. have combined different styles of animation with some live action footage of historical places in Japan, and the overall effect can sometimes be disconcerting. The glimpses into Miyamoto Musashi’s battles are sumptuously designed and animated (with suitably dark overtones), and this may cause some to be disappointed by the strangely cartoon-like 3D animation used for Professor Inukai Kiichi and his assistant (and comic relief), Miss Iori.

There’s a certain strangeness to The Dream of the Last Samurai because of the visual approach that can be a little awkward at times, especially when the scene changes rapidly from live to animated. If you’re is interested in the content though, then these small problems never really impact on one’s enjoyment of the movie.

Unfortunately, the sound and music are nowhere near as good as they could be. Granted the acting is good and the effects are well chosen and choreographed, but the music is probably the strangest thing about the movie. Again, the mixture of styles is readily apparent, and the music alternates between classical music to old style Japanese music. The one thing that I did like is that at certain points the story of Miyamoto Musashi is told in a very traditional folk style which enhances the idea that one is looking at history rather than a story.

As far as characters are concerned there’s little to say. Professor Inukai Kiichi is fairly intstructive but lacks anything that makes him stand out aside from his comedy value (which is pretty small). Likewise the professor’s assistant Miss Iori is nothing more than a voiceless, well intentioned klutz who really isn’t needed at all.

On the other hand, the opportunity to look at the life of one of Japan’s most enigmatic historical figures and one of the greatest swordsmen in history is something doesn’t come along too often. Miyamoto Musashi is portrayed very well through a combination of traditional storytelling, comparative fact, and modern animation. Granted he may not fall into the “traditional” character mould but given the nature of The Dream of the Last Samurai, this is to be expected.

So, will you enjoy it? In all honesty, unless you’re a history buff or a fan of the topics I mentioned earlier, then there’s a good chance you may not like this. The strange combination of animation, 3D and live action, together with the mixing of two very different musical styles can have a very odd effect on the viewer. In addition to this, the content of the show, and the manner in which it delivers its evidence, may not sit too well with those who simply want to be entertained.

On the other hand, I did enjoy The Dream of the Last Samurai because it talks about topics in which I have an interest.

Yes, Miyamoto Musashi – Souken ni Haseru Yume is a strange beast, but one can only wish that more such movies will make their presence felt in the industry through the coming years. It may be that anime is finally coming of age.

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