On July 7, 1993, SNK released Samurai Spirits into the arcade through the Neo Geo MVS. A fighting game that focused on methodical, weapons-based combat, it became an instant hit around the world under the name Samurai Shodown, so it was a no-brainer to have that be the next series to be made into an anime. So, on September 9, 1994, the anime TV special Samurai Spirits ~Haten Gouma no Sho/The Descending Demon that Split Heaven Chapter~ aired, & like its predecessors it would see release in North America. Whereas Viz (& later Discotek) released the three Fatal Fury anime & CPM would handle Art of Fighting, both with dual-audio DVD releases, it was ADV that brought over this final special, but only as a dub-only release under the misnomer Samurai Shodown: The Motion Picture; even the later DVD release was without the original Japanese audio, likely being a simple VHS transfer. This final special went on to achieve it's own bit of terrible notoriety, so let's see how SNK's TV special undertaking finished up.
In February of 1638 (Kan'ei 15) was the Shimabara Rebellion, in which the Christian followers of Japan rebelled against the Tokugawa shogunate over tax differences. Leading them was Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, one of the Holy Swordsmen of the benevolent god Anislazer. After being betrayed by some of his own men, though, Amakusa decided to welcome the Dark God Ambrosia into his soul, crushing the rebellion (& the repelling shogunate army) as well as killing his six fellow Holy Swordsmen who tried to stop him; Anisalzer saved the six from being taken by Ambrosia, though. For the next 100 years, Amakusa would control the Tokugawa shogunate in secret, but in 1738 (Genbun 3) the Holy Swordsmen gather in Edo to finally put an end to their former ally's rule, with the only missing piece being Haohmaru, who has no recollection of his past life at the moment & just lost his village & surrogate mother to Amakusa's Evil Army.
Right away, I must declare a caveat here, and that is that this TV special is not an accurate adaptation of the original Samurai Shodown in any major way. For example, Amakusa being linked to Ambrosia is accurate, but in the game his mission was to take revenge on the shogunate for crushing his rebellion & killing him, while in the special he's effectively in control of the shogunate. Also, all of the playable characters have their own reasons for getting involved in the Amakusa incident in the game, while here we three distinct groups. There are the Holy Swordsmen (Haohmaru, Charlotte, Wan Fu, Galford, Tam Tam, & Nakoruru), a burgeoning rebellion within the shogunate (Yagyu Jubei, Senryo Kyoshiro, & Hattori Hanzo), & Amakusa's Evil Army (lead by Earthquake & Shiranui Gen-An). Still, that only accounts for 12 of the 13 characters from the game... Where the hell is Ukyo Tachibana (a.k.a. the coolest character in the game)?! Sadly, Ukyo is not in the special at all, minus a short bit during the credits that looks to be from a deleted scene, alongside other shots while the credits roll. Also, there is no cameo from the iconic Kuroko that judges each fight (though, granted, he'd become more iconic through the sequel). Therefore, I can't judge this as a direct adaptation, so allow me to review this as a standalone product... But even then it's pretty lackluster.
Quite frankly, this TV special's biggest problem is that its pacing is just all over the place, which in turn results in a ton of awkward or simply mind-boggling moments. For example, Amakusa has absolutely no trouble whatsoever outright killing his fellow Holy Swordsmen right at the beginning, which instantly makes it hard to believe that Haohmaru & company have any chance 100 years later, especially when Haohmaru is the only one to really do much of anything. Every character gets to deliver at least one of their respective special moves (and Galford & Charlotte actually do some things), but this is obviously Haohmaru's story, which makes it all the more depressing when the character is both rather dull & his story feels absolutely rushed.
Not just that, but the actual usage of time is completely insane. The biggest culprit here is that, after his village & mother are killed & he's told that Amakusa was behind it, Haohmaru immediately runs off the Edo Castle to fight. After that first skirmish, he & Charlotte retreat back to Haohmaru's ruined village, where it's stated that it takes the Evil Army an entire week to find & catch up with them. Not only does that make me scratch my head more than it should, especially since his village would naturally be the first place to check out, but then you realize that Nakoruru & the other Swordsmen have been captured against a wall in the castle for an entire week, yet show no signs of being starved. Really, if the whole "one week" line was never stated I wouldn't have to bring this up, but even without that the entire story just feels like it's trying to rush to its natural conclusion; the seeming inclusion of deleted scenes during the end credits makes me feel that even more, too. It's as if Fuji TV reduced the amount of time the special would have at the last moment, which necessitated ruining the pacing in order to make it fit into the new time span.
Besides the pacing, though, is the fact that this is just a really barebones story that doesn't have much meat to it, which in turn makes it feel just weak. Haohmaru's story is simplistic & cliché, propped up slightly only by his overall personality, the other Holy Swordsmen have nothing more to them than their supposed roles (like Wan Fu [of all characters] being the apparent leader... & Tam Tam being the most useless), Jubei's side of things doesn't do much outside of Hanzo helping keep Haohmaru safe when he's unconscious at one point (hell, Kyoshiro appears early on, only to be completely missing for the rest of the special, minus one shot of him fighting at the end), and it's not exactly a lie or exaggeration for me to say that Galford's dog Poppy is the best character for the heroes. On the other hand, Amakusa is actually way more interesting than the heroes, giving a strong sense of assured power, a commanding presence, & even a bit of a sad backstory when he explains why he decided to revive Ambrosia & welcome the Dark God into his soul. Sure, he's not that much more developed than the rest, and he only uses his iconic orbs a single time, but at least it was never boring whenever Amakusa was on screen.
Aside from the multiple Fatal Fury productions, SNK's 90s TV specials didn't really share much in terms of staff working between them (minus various producers & key animators), though Samurai Shodown does feature some carryover. Character designs & animation direction were done by Art of Fighting's Kazunori Iwakura (Rune Soldier, Aria the Scarlet Ammo), but much like that other special, Iwakura's style just doesn't resemble SNK's characters ideally. While you can tell who is who in this special, none of them can possibly match what Shinkiro was doing back then with character design, which results in this looking like nothing more than a highly watered down version of SNK's game; Amakusa really hurts the most here. The Fatal Fury productions managed to avoid this by having Masami Obari redesign the characters, & Obari's style is stark & wild in its own way. At least Obari did help out with some key animation here, though I couldn't tell where he contributed. The only other carryover was via the script, which was done by Art of Fighting's Nobuaki Kishima (Eyeshield 21, Reborn!), and I've already covered how this special drops the ball in terms of the story it tells; it is sad that SNK's worst specials feature the same character designer & writer. The special was directed by Hiroshi Ishiodori (Bubblegum Crash, Peach Girl), who at least lead a consistent staff, as the overall product doesn't look terrible in terms of animation & production; it's simply middling. Finally, there's the music by Kaoru Wada (InuYasha, Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas), which is fitting for the time period the story takes place in, but otherwise is like the special in general by being nothing really memorable.
The biggest link between all of SNK's TV specials was the use of stage actors & singers for their lead characters, obviously to help promote them as being something special. All of Fatal Fury had Kazukiyo Nishikori as Terry Bogard, Art of Fighting had Tetusya Bessho & Ayumi Hamasaki as Ryo & Yuri Sakazaki, respectively (with the latter having to be replaced with Kaori Horie for the DVD release), & Samurai Shodown has Shingo Katori, of SMAP fame, & Yuu Daiki as Haohmaru & Amakusa. To be fair, Katori isn't actually a terrible actor, he was voicing Riiya in Lil' Red Riding Hood Cha-Cha at the time & would eventually play Ryo-san in the live-action J-Drama adaptation of Kochikame, but he's just not a good match for Haohmaru, & it all comes down to his voice. Haohmaru is best identified as a gruff-voiced tough guy, inspired by the likes of Miyamoto Musashi, Dororo's Hyakkimaru, & possibly even Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai, and Katori just doesn't have that kind of voice. For what it is, Katori's Haohmaru is fine, but it's just not the voice that the character should have. Daiki's Amakusa, on the other hand, is perfectly fine, with the fact that she doesn't even bother trying to mask her feminine voice actually working really well for the character, as this take on Amakusa is very much meant to be a bit gender ambiguous. After them, the best performances come from Wataru Takagi (Galford), Sakiko Tamagawa (Charlotte), & Reiko Chiba (Nakoruru [& later Cham Cham in the actual game series]), who all match their characters well. Following them are the likes of Takehito Koyasu (Tam Tam), Tessho Genda (Wan-Fu), Shigezou Sasaoka (Earthquake), Takeshi Aono (Hanzo), & Takeo Chii (Jubei), with Chiba & Chii also being nominally stage actors.
|Seriously, Ukyo is hidden beneath the credits! What the hell?!|
Then we get ADV's English dub, which was made back in 1998, i.e. the early days of ADV dubbing anime, and it's not really all that great. Haohmaru is voiced by Milton Lawrence (Kenji in Burn Up!), who's honestly one of the best performances, but even he just doesn't quite deliver the right performance for the character; much like Katori, Lawrence's non-gruff voice just doesn't fit Haohmaru at all. Marcy Rae (Natasha in Gunsmith Cats, Ryoko in Blue Seed) plays Amakusa without masking her feminine voice, but it just doesn't quite work as well as with Daiki, mainly because Daiki's voice (seemingly naturally) had a hint of gender ambiguity to it, while Rae is 100% a woman, making it seem more like director Matt Greenfield didn't realize that Amakusa was a man in real life. A notable oddity in the dub is that some characters are given this bizarre extra modulation to their voices, whether it's Greenfield's Earthquake having a constant echo, or Rob Mungle's Hanzo sounding more like a monster than a badass ninja. The rest of the cast is really more of the same, with some decent performances (Carol Amerson's Nakoruru, Brian Matthews' Jubei), some poor players (Drew Scroggins' Tam Tam & Kurt Stoll's Galford), & some odd choices, like how Tiffany Grant's Charlotte has a heavy French accent, even though no one else puts on one, making her sound a little too different from everyone else. This anime gained a lot of bad word of mouth back in the day because this dub was the only way to see it in North America, and after hearing it I can really see why.
When I first really started getting into anime, even before I became a full-on fan in 2004, I had heard of Samurai Shodown: The Motion Picture, but I had never taken the time to watch it. I liked the game series well enough (though I had not played much of it by then), but I just didn't have any interest in seeing it as an anime. Seeing it now, however, makes me realize that I made the right choice, because it really is nothing special, though how bad it really is depends on which language you see it in. The original Japanese TV special isn't exactly terrible, as I've seen much worse, but it is rather middling, blasé, & just kind of dull. I'd say that it's one of the better uses of a fighting game as a short OVA or special, but that bar is so low that it doesn't matter. ADV's "Motion Picture" dub, on the other hand, is just worse, with a bunch of uninspired performances, and an obvious example of how ADV was just starting out with dubs at the time. Whereas Discotek has since license rescued the Fatal Fury productions, even giving the movie an HD remastered Blu-Ray, there really is no reason for Samurai Shodown to be given another chance here in North America. In all honesty, the only reason I even bothered to watch & review this TV special is so that I could say that I covered all of the Samurai Shodown anime there is, since I had already covered the 2002 Nakoruru OVA back in 2011; I'd argue that OVA was better than this special, & that never got finished! At least I now only have one last SamSho anime to cover, and though it's likely the most obscure of them all, I've generally heard that it's also the best, so here's hoping.