Hong Kong VCD and DVD distributors move in mysterious ways. It's a well-known fact among those who depend on the former crown colony for their regular dose of Japanese cinema. Quality control is a term that has distinctly different meaning in the SAR than it does in most parts of the civilised world. What to make of Mei Ah's VCD release of Toho's three-hour fantasy film The Three Treasures for instance, which simply stops after two hours for no other discernible reason than there being no room in the CD case for a third disc? So, here's a review of a three-hour film minus one hour.
The Three Treasures is a Toho production from the height of the studio's fantasy / sci-fi period, after it had released its first kaijyu films onto the world (Godzilla, Rodan and Varan had each already starred in their own adventures) and just before starting the Godzilla series proper with King Kong vs. Godzilla (Kingukongu Tai Gojira) in 1962. Starting with a surreal prologue detailing the titular birth of the archipelago by way of a Japanese Adam and Eve (ancestors of the emperors, we are told by the narrator), who arrive on a rainbow to find a solitary rock in an ocean of primordial ooze. Fast forward several millennia to an empire in the making, where a handsome and brave officer (Mifune) falls in love with a princess, but can't have her hand before going off to battle to prove his bravery. This story is interspersed with episodes of the mythological foundation of Japan by the gods, a number of them also starring Mifune in a dual role as the warrior prince Yamato Takeru.
Its attention to period detail (albeit a fictional period), quest-like main plot and emphasis on fantasy rather than monster battles make The Three Treasures something more akin to a Ray Harryhausen film like Jason and the Argonauts (which it precedes by four years) than to your average kaijyu spectacular. But whereas Harryhausen's films always offered a steady stream of effects-filled action set pieces, The Three Treasures fills most of its running time with talk. Its central monster, the eight-headed dragon Yamata No Orochi, built in the trademark style of Toho's creature shop, is sorely underused with only one short scene, and Mifune even ends up battling the creature's tail rather than its heads (The battle between Yamato and Orochi was also the basis for the more recent Toho production Yamato Takeru, a.k.a. Orochi the Eight-Headed Serpent, 1994 - dir: Takao Okawara).
Perhaps all the action is packed into that elusive final hour, but even scenes like a woman turning into a hairbrush and Mifune picking up a dead horse and throwing it off a papier maché cliff are never as effectively silly as you would like them to be. This is largely due to director Inagaki's approach of simply pointing the camera and shooting. Much of the film is composed of wide shots that give the film an uneventful, lumbering feel and which fail to capture the presence of its normally so charismatic star. Though Mifune had worked with Inagaki before, on a triptych of films based on the life of legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto between 1955 and '57 (better known as the Samurai Trilogy, the first of which was Toho's first ever film in colour), and would work with him again (in a 1970 sequel to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro entitled Incident at Blood Pass / Machibuse, co-starring Shintaro Katsu), it's clear from his performance that the actor is in this venture mainly for the money. The man often seen as Akira Kurosawa's alter ego was more or less forced to make a slew of well-paying but under-ambitious genre films throughout the 50s and 60s, since his work with Kurosawa often entailed months of unpaid overwork. As detailed in Stuart Galbraith's recent book The Emperor and the Wolf, a hefty study of the collaborations and dynamics between these two golden age titans, it was much to the Master's chagrin that Mifune appeared in films like The Three Treasures.
Colourful and inventive sets and costumes (which oddly enough for an empire founded directly by the gods incorporate elements of Arabic and Latin American styles) help buoy this film somewhat and while there is certainly some Saturday matinee fun to be had with The Three Treasures, on the whole Ray Harryhausen needn't worry about his legacy.