In March of 1854 Commodore Matthew C. Perry (Richard Boone) of the United States Navy stands poised to sign a treaty that will for the first time open Japan to the West. To mark this auspicious moment the Shogun's representative, Akira Hayashi (Toshirô Mifune) bestows Perry with a sacred Bushido blade. However the blade is stolen by rogue Baron Zen (Bin Amatsu) part of an anti-western enclave holed up at the heavily fortified castle of Lord Yamato (Tetsuro Tanba). Hayashi immediately tasks formidable Prince Ido (Sonny Chiba) with avenging this insult to the Shogun, but his abilities are openly questioned by gung-ho Captain Lawrence Hawk (Frank Converse) who forms his own sword-retrieving task force with linguist Midshipman Robin Burr (Timothy Patrick Murphy) and scrap-happy Leading Seaman Cave Johnson (Mike Starr). These three are immediately betrayed by their Japanese guide and ambushed by ninjas, leaving Burr to be nursed back to health by comely village girl Yuki (Mayumi Asano) while Johnson wanders lost through the countryside. It falls to Hawk and Ido to retrieve the Bushido blade so the Shogun can sign the treaty. Even though Commodore Perry thinks this whole sacred sword stuff is bullshit anyway.
America was gripped by an obsession with feudal Japan in the early Eighties thanks in part to the popular television adaptation of James Clavell's novel Shogun co-starring Japan's most celebrated actor Toshirô Mifune. A typically savvy Roger Corman distributed cult favourite Shogun Assassin (1980), a re-edited, re-titled adaptation of the Japanese chanbara gem Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972); toymakers Mattel rebranded a selection of anime and tokusatsu-derived super-robot characters as Shogun Warriors; for which Marvel produced an equally successful tie-in comic book. Meanwhile Rankin-Bass, the studio best known for family-friendly animated films including their many beloved stop-motion seasonal specials (e.g. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) but also one of the first American film companies to marshal a string of Japanese co-productions, got in on the act with The Bushido Blade.
Along with John Huston's ill-received The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) and the later Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai (2003) (similarly studded with big Japanese stars) Bushido Blade is among a handful of films dealing with this fascinating period in Japanese history when the country was torn between the need to modernize and an urge to hold onto their cultural identity. However the film is more lurid pulp adventure than history lesson. With sporadic (indeed all too brief) gory violence and nudity it is a highly atypical example of Rankin-Bass' output although the intro where American minstrels in blackface perform at a banquet for a justifiably bemused Toshirô Mifune and company is the most offensive scene in the film. Screenwriter William Overgard, who penned scripts for the live action monster films The Last Dinosaur (1977) (also starring Richard Boone), The Bermuda Depths (1978) and The Ivory Depths (1980) Japanese director Tsugunobu Kotani made for Rankin-Bass under the pseudonym Tom Kotani and went on to write episodes of Thundercats and Peter Pan and the Pirates for the studio, layers the opening scenes with intriguing historical detail. Yet once the plot kicks in the film overflows with bullish, xenophobic nonsense.
Almost none of the American 'heroes' exhibit any respect for Japanese culture as they clomp around the country, kicking samurai ass, mocking the language as "gibberish" and sneering at local customs. In fact an entire subplot is devoted to Mike Starr's character wandering around putting one uppity Japanese after another in their place. After leading foreign sailors (including James Earl Jones, briefly elevating proceedings with the best performance in the film) in revolt against their Japanese captors forcing them to take daily baths ("Don’t they know it's unhealthy?"), he then shows up a sumo wrestler. Yet even his character's antics pale beside the insufferably arrogant Hawk who sneers at the Japanese style of swordplay, derides Ido's fighting abilities (Sonny freaking Chiba? Really?!), totes the superiority of American firearms and dismisses a samurai sword as a "pig-sticker." Fans yearning to see Sonny Chiba rearrange Hawk’s face will be disappointed as Ido is swiftly waylaid, leaving Hawk to save the day and drone on even more about how much the Japanese suck. Save for one brief climactic burst of martial arts prowess, Bushido Blade scandalously wastes iconic action star Chiba and finds similarly little to do for Mifune and You Only Live Twice (1967) veteran Tetsuro Tanba.
Instead we get Euro sexploitation star Laura Gemser of all people as a mixed race warrior woman. Quite why the filmmakers sought the need to shoehorn Dutch-Indonesian Gemser into an otherwise authentically Japanese cast is anyone’s guess. However the star of Emanuelle in America (1977) and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) exhibits a stoicism and impressive athleticism that suggests she had more to offer beyond disrobing on camera. At least she challenges Hawk’s preconceptions even though he smugly curtails all her efforts to teach him about Bushido culture so they can shag instead. As per tiresome orientalist cliché both the stuffy white leads land Japanese girlfriends (well, not quite Japanese in Gemser’s case) while Sonny Chiba mopes around looking miffed. A strictly by numbers adventure yarn with only sporadic moments of interest, The Bushido Blade even adds insult to injury with a climax that dismisses the titular sword's role in the whole story. Much like the aggrieved Burr viewers are left wondering: what was the point?