If I’d have to name my favorite historical setting in a movie, my answer would undoubtedly be Japan’s Sengoku and subsequent Azuchi-Momoyama periods, spanning from halfway through the 15th century up to around 1600. This is probably due to the grand epics Akira Kurosawa has crafted using these historical backdrops for Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) among others. The characters of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu hold a towering position in Japan’s history as the three great unifiers, and whenever I hear one of these names my interest is immediately piqued. The Azuchi-Momoyama era begins when Nobunaga was truly kicking ass and taking names, the ‘Azuchi’ part of the era’s name comes from Azuchi Castle; the castle the title of this film refers to.
Although I was secretly hoping for some samurai action and big battle scenes, I quickly realized this wasn’t that type of movie at all. Castle Under Fiery Skies is pretty much no fiery skies and all castle. The main protagonist of this film is Okabe Motaemon [Toshiyuki Nishida], a carpenter of low standing, who is assigned the task of building Nobunaga’s dream castle. This castle is supposed to become the grandest that has ever been witnessed, positioned at the supposed center of Japan. The location is to be on Mount Azuchi, overlooking Lake Biwa, so that it would be able to be seen from the capital Kyoto, and thus also functioning as a guard for the capital. Nobunaga [Kippei Shiina] initially considers two other famous architects, so he organizes a blueprint-contest where he is eventually swayed by Motaemon’s passion and attention to detail, and grants him the assignment.
After the initial preparations have been made, Motaemon realizes they are going to need one gigantic, perfect tree to form the base pillar of the castle’s keep. Problem is, trees like that only grow on rivaling lord Takeda Shingen’s territory. Motaemon quickly offers himself up to enter enemy grounds and attempt to persuade a local ruler to give them one of their 2000-year old trees. Though this ruler is obviously against it, Motaemon’s display of kindheartedness once again seals the deal by convincing the head lumberjack to deny his coldhearted leader and he is promised the tree. The rest of the film deals with the construction of the castle piece by piece, and of course the many troubles that Motaemon and his crew have to face in the meanwhile; workers being taken away to fight in Nobunaga’s war campaigns, the declining health of his loving wife, and other factors diminishing morale. It all feels a little formulaic and unoriginal, but, in line with the theme of the movie, the heart is definitely there. The climactic scene where the half-finished castle threatens to collapse during a storm and everyone has to give it their all to save it is quite powerful indeed, if only because after watching for 2 hours you want that darn castle to be finished already.
The running time is definitely a main point of critique, though the construction of something so massive is an engaging process to watch, the story could have easily been told in 100 minutes instead of 140. Another thing that is completely beyond me is the tiny little action sequence in the middle involving some near-flying ninjas attempting to assassinate Nobunaga. This scene is completely random and out of place, and not even all that good. The underwhelming CGI effects here and in other parts of the movie unfortunately also take away some of the film’s charm. But, as I mentioned before, despite its many flaws, Castle Under Fiery Skies has a whole lot of heart, exemplified by Nishida. The director of this film had a grand vision and succeeded in crafting a heartwarming tale about determination and perseverance.