An Introduction to the Samurai Way in ‘The Challenge’ (1982)
Scott Glenn, Toshiro Mifune and the Way of the Samurai.
The Challenge is a 1982 martial arts masterpiece and one of my all time favorite action movies. Set in modern day Japan, it tells the tale of two brothers. One a corporate titan and the other a modern day Samurai – fighting to reunite two swords called The Equals that have been in their family since Feudal times. They were separated after one of the brothers betrayed the family and stole both the swords. One of the Equals was then lost during World War Two. What follows is both brothers quest to find and reunite the swords.
An American Samurai Story
When the second sword is discovered in America, plans are made to smuggle it back into Japan using a broken down American prize fighter named Murphy, played by Scott Glenn. Once in Japan, the whole plans goes to hell as Murphy is taken hostage and brought before Hideo, the evil brother who will stop at nothing to get the sword he stole back. It is then revealed the sword he was smuggling was actually a decoy. Before Murphy can be killed, he escapes but is gravely wounded before being rescued and brought back to the ancient compound by the other brother’s forces.
Here, he meets Yoshida, played by the legend that is Toshiro Mifune, who lives life as an ancient Samurai where he trains his disciples in Bushido and the ancient arts of the Samurai, as he prepares to fulfill his life’s destiny in reuniting the swords. We are given a window to this strange world through the eyes of our ugly American Murphy, as he is nursed back to health and eventually sent packing back to America.
If it ended here it would be a short movie but the fates have other plans as the evil brother’s minions make Murphy an offer he can’t refuse. Go back and ask to be taken on as a pupil and when the opportunity presents itself, steal the sword. For this, he will be paid handsomely. Refuse and be killed dead. Needless to say, Murphy chooses the former, is accepted and begins his training. But something in Mifune’s teachings about honor takes root, and when presented with the opportunity to abscond with the sword, he has a change of heart. Good thing because the Master seen through his ploy and had a number of archers ready to put Murphy down if he attempted to leave the compound with the sword.
Murphy Goes Full Samurai
So having proved himself, Murphy’s training begins in earnest. As any action movie aficionado will tell you, the training montage is always a highlight of these movies. This is no exception, as Murphy is trained using ancient methods. After proving his humility by being buried in the ground for five days, rivaling the Masters record, he is then given a crash course in the exquisite samurai sword, archery, throwing stars and the empty hand martial art of Aikido. And none too soon, because Hideo again comes calling, kidnapping the Master’s niece. Yoshida-San will now need all the help he can get rescuing her and reuniting the swords.
Gone was my disconnect of Samurai films set in feudal times. Here, we get to see Mifune running around in the modern day in all his glory in full Samurai regalia, as he and Murphy use the ancient ways to infiltrate the compound, defeating the modern security measures and an armed paramilitary force. The then fight their way to the final showdown on the top floor of the villain’s corporate headquarters.
The brothers duel of honor for the swords in one of the finest sword fights put to film as we are treated to the ancient art of clean cuts and beautiful parries, before a bullet fired by one of the baddie’s minions renders Yoshida incapable of finishing the duel. Luckily, neophyte Samurai Murphy is up to finish the battle. What follows is pretty much the opposite of the first round as Murphy is slashed and chased around an office as he turns the sword fight into a bruising brawl using everything at his disposal, including his western boxing skills to survive. Needless to say, honor is bestowed and the swords are reunited.
Steven Seagal, Choreographer
The martial arts choreography was done by some guy named Steven Seagal, who I understand went on to bit parts in the action genre. His Aikido is evident in a scene where Murphy takes on an assailant armed with a tanto blade wielded in a reverse grip. The movie has also gone by the titles The Equals and Sword of the Ninjas. If this were made today, we would have a spinoff TV series on Murphy’s continuing adventures and training at the feet of the master.
With The Challenge, we were gifted with a true Samurai movie geared toward American audiences and our attention span. It serves as a travelogue of Japan, as well as an introduction to Bushido and the ancient arts of the Samurai This is a truly important movie that is only masquerading as an action film. Dare we call it art?
This author wishes to maintain his secret identity goes by the name of his favorite comic book hero Iron Fist. When he’s not collecting comics from his childhood, watching action movies or raising his three kids, he works a a police officer, trains Muay Thai, Jeet Kune Do, Kali and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Needless to say, he takes poor martial arts or sloppy gun handling skills personally. And he lives and trains in Chicago.