In Sixteenth century Japan the young and benevolent feudal lord Kagetora (Takaaki Enoki) must reluctantly do battle with Takeda Shingen (Masahiko Tsugawa), an ambitious warlord with a vast and seemingly unstoppable army bent on conquering his kingdom. Allies and advisers to the inexperienced Kagetora worry he is too soft to do what is necessary to claim victory. Yet as an epic conflict unfolds the young lord takes increasingly ruthless measures to protect his people, at the cost of his own humanity.
The story of the man behind this unwieldy multi-million yen Japanese historical epic might well be more interesting than the film itself. Haruki Kadokawa inherited the already successful publishing firm Kadokawa Shoten from his late father in 1975 then pushed it into the stratosphere with his audacious multimedia marketing strategies. These encompassed adapting the company's bestselling titles into blockbuster movies, hyping such films in the pages of their line of glossy magazines and subsequently cross-promoting each other. Beginning with colossally profitable murder mystery The Inugamis (1976), Kadokawa ruled Japanese cinema in the Eighties with a run of blockbusters critics routinely dismissed as junk (sometimes unjustly) but audiences flocked to in droves: the all-star international murder mystery Proof of the Man (1977), Sonny Chiba time travel samurai flick Time Slip (1979), sci-fi disaster thriller Virus (1980), teen idol action film Sailor Suit and Machinegun (1981), the original live-action version of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), grandiose sci-fi anime Harmageddon (1983) and barnstorming fantasy Legend of the Eight Samurai (1984). In an industry dominated by faceless, risk-averse bean-counters, the flamboyant Kadokawa was a law unto himself. His stranglehold on the Japanese entertainment industry was such that his scandalous private life - including unhealthy obsessions with UFOs, Adolf Hitler (whose autobiography: 'Mein Kampf' he praised as a "magic book") and snorting copious amounts of cocaine - went unnoticed. At least until it didn't. (Long story short: a drug bust landed Kadokawa in jail whereupon his brother seized control of the publishing empire, though this did not stop Haruki penning a book of prison poetry).
For all the billions earned by crowd-pleasing blockbusters, rather like his similarly flamboyant Hollywood counterparts: Robert Evans and Don Simpson, Kadokawa craved artistic respect. In other words, what he really wanted was to direct. And so he did. Beginning with biker drama The Last Hero (1982) (based on an acclaimed novel with artistic merit critics charged Kadokawa with sorely diluting), Kadokawa's directing career encompassed teen musical Love Story (1984), film noir musical Cabaret (1986), dinosaur-themed family fantasy Rex (1993), the second live-action version of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1997) and most recently crime thriller The Laughing Policeman (2009), not to be confused with the Seventies Hollywood crime thriller of the same name and featuring a theme song performed by Whitney Houston. But Ten to Chi, a.k.a. Heaven and Earth, was the big one; Kadokawa's grand artistic statement.
Armed with a budget of five billion yen it was at the time the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. Filmed not on the site of the actual historical conflict between feuding warlords Takeda and Kagetora (which by then was much too modernized) but, remarkably enough, at the Canadian Rockies: the mountain range spanning the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. There Kadokawa set out to outdo Akira Kurosawa, marshalling three thousand extras (mostly local college students) in ornate costumes (with faces masked, so audiences could not spot these samurai were white guys) and one thousand horses. The end result, while not quite the Heaven's Gate (1980) of Japan (since Kadokawa already owned most of the major theaters in Japan the film wound up the third highest grosser at the domestic box-office) but predictably floundered overseas and, despite a Japanese Academy Award nomination for Tsunehiko Watase (as Kagetora's conflicted mentor-cum-adversary, Lord Usami), failed to draw the plaudits Kadokawa craved.
For international viewers, clueless about historical figures and their significance in the events of the real-life Battles of Kawanakajima in which the Japanese were well versed, Kadokawa assembled an alternate cut that ran one hundred and twenty-five minutes (as opposed to the original two hours and thirty-four!) and employed, of all people, faded Hollywood star Stuart Whitman as narrator. Yet even with Whitman providing context, insight and motivation for events all too frequently happening off-screen, Heaven and Earth still struggles to clarify a sprawling saga consumed with strategy and opponents philosophizing and psychoanalyzing each other from afar. Certainly its pictorial extravagance remains something to savour: epic in scope with lavish costumes and symbolic visuals exquisitely framed. While the choreographed precision of its grandiose set-pieces have been known to leave action fans cold the battle scenes are impressive. Particularly an early sequence with horsemen run over by flaming boulders and the climactic showdown. Yet if the film musters some of the pageantry of Kurosawa it lacks his humanity. Early on Kagetora watches impassively while his men murder the wife and five year old son of a rebellious ally. Later, filled with regret, he retreats into seclusion at a Buddhist temple until convinced by faithful retainers that to save his people he must sacrifice his principles for the greater good.
Thanks in part to the condensed run-time of the international cut Kagetora's transformation is much too abrupt. Our supposed hero goes from nobly saving Takeda's fiery warrior-mistress Lady Yae (Naomi Zaizen) from an errant horse to responding to the brave woman's gallantry on the battlefield by coldly shooting her dead. To save face Takeda congratulates Kagetora on his marksmanship. Only Usami proves the lone voice of morality though even he proves powerless as Kagetora finally destroys any remaining chance of romance with his mentor's daughter Nami (Atsuko Asano). All the while Kadokawa's attempts at visual poetry fall flat and come across po-faced as he cuts to images of falling cherry blossoms, mist shrouded mountains and stars twinkling in the vast darkness of space - a vain attempt to frame the earthly struggle within some wider, cosmically significant context. At the end of the day the chief reason Heaven and Earth fails to engage most viewers is that it argues only by relinquishing your humanity and principles can one achieve true greatness. A message that likely resonates only with sociopaths and megalomaniacs. And of course, multimedia moguls.