Appellate Judge Dan Mancini takes a close look at this box of four classic pulp samurai flicks: Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion, Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast, Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy, and Kihachi Okamoto's Kill!.
Our reviews of Kill!: Criterion Collection (published November 1st, 2005), Samurai Rebellion: Criterion Collection (published November 1st, 2005), Samurai Spy: Criterion Collection (published November 1st, 2005), and Sword Of The Beast: Criterion Collection (published November 1st, 2005) are also available.
"Understand now what samurai are really like?"—Genta, Kill!
The 1960s were a time of cultural upheaval in Japan, just as they were in America and Europe. The decade saw the generation who came of age immediately prior to and during World War II ascend to the nation's seats of power and influence. This generation tried to assimilate Western democracy with Eastern tradition while recognizing that those traditions had led to the cultural tragedy of the war, and brought the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (a revisionist epic chambara (sword fight drama) in the sense that its warriors' motivations had more to do with human psychology than adherence to a code of honor) was released in 1954, but the reinvention of the genre began in earnest with his 1961 film, Yojimbo. The picture starred Toshiro Mifune as a flea-bitten, 19th-century ronin named Sanjuro. His personal sense of honor, decency, and duty to others melds with his outsider status to cast a critical eye on the dying feudal system and its reliance on propriety and duty-bound compliance. The financial and critical success of Yojimbo opened the door for other filmmakers to critique the darker aspects of their national history and cultural customs. This radical overhaul of the style and substance of the chambara became a tool which young directors like the four represented here—Masaki Kobayashi, Hideo Gosha, Masahiro Shinoda, and Kihachi Okamoto—used to examine the radical overhaul of Japanese culture in the wake of World War II.
Facts of the Case
The Criterion Collection's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set collects four swashbuckling adventures made during this decade of tumult. The pictures share their period settings and an anti-authoritarian bent, but are otherwise unrelated. Here is a breakdown of the movies:
• Samurai Rebellion (1967)
Their lives are thrown into tumult, though, when Matsudaira's eldest son dies of an illness and Kikuchiyo becomes heir. As mother of the heir, Ichi must be restored to the castle, but Yogoro is reluctant to give her up. The majority of the Sasaharas are eager to comply with the lord in order to avoid his ire, but Isaburo—who, after years of being henpecked in a marriage of convenience, is deeply moved by the young couple's genuine love—is resolute in backing Yogoro. A deadly feud between the Sasaharas and the rest of the Matsudaira clan becomes inevitable when the lord and his advisors kidnap Ichi instead of presenting Yogoro with a formal request for her return. The move, which would make Yogoro the wronged party in the eyes of the Shogunate, is a major miscalculation and Lord Matsudaira does everything he can to keep the situation quiet so that he can maintain face. Unfortunately, Isaburo happens to be the clan's most skilled swordsman: If Matsudaira resorts to force in order to resolve the situation, the death toll among his retainers and officials is likely to be high…and difficult to explain to the Shogun.
• Sword of the Beast (1965)
Gennosuke eventually falls in with a reprobate who knows where to find gold in the waters surrounding nearby Mount Shirane, which is owned by the Shogun. A trio of gambling rogues is also out to illegally pan the riches, but a deadly samurai named Jurota Yamane (Go Kato, Samurai Rebellion) and his wife are already working the mountain, stealing from the Shogun in order strengthen their clan. As Gennosuke moves upriver, determined to have the gold, he knows it means a face-off with Jurota. But when he saves Jurota's wife from the bandits, a shaky alliance is formed between the men. Our hero's situation is dire, however, as Misa's search party and Jurota's clan converge on the mountain.
• Samurai Spy (1965)
Sasuke learns from a Toyotomi spy named Mitsuaki—with whom he has a cautiously friendly relationship—that one of Tokugawa's top spies, Tatewaki Koriyama, is planning to defect. Mitsuaki is the double-agent's contact with the Toyotomis, and stands to gain much money and prestige if he can safely deliver the traitor to his superiors. But when Mitsuaki is murdered, the Toyotomis blame Sasuke and demand he deliver Tatewaki. The Sanada clan's chief spy is also being tracked by Tokugawa's formidable lieutenant, Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tamba, You Only Live Twice), who wants to ensure his former colleague doesn't successfully defect to the enemy camp. In the process of navigating this dangerous territory between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans, Sasuke discovers a secret about a young Christian captured and tortured by the Toyotomis that reveals startling information about Tatewaki's past.
• Kill! (1968)
When Ayuzawa kidnaps the uncle of one of the seven samurai, the men realize their boss may be out to kill them in order to cover up the crime. The samurai head to a nearby boundary fort to hide out, while their friend Shinroku (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Seven Samurai) heads to Edo to alert the Shogunate of the dastardly goings-on in Joshu. Genta takes pity and joins their cause when he realizes they've been betrayed by Shinroku and will be ambushed at the fort. Meanwhile, Hanjiro becomes involved in the plight of a disgraced samurai whose wife has been indentured into prostitution. Unfortunately, the warrior intends to earn the 30 ryo he needs to free his wife by collecting a bounty on the seven samurai…and he'll kill Genta if he must.
Masaki Kobayashi was a troublemaker, a boat-rocker, the great iconoclast of the classic era of Japanese cinema. Among the directors who entered adulthood prior to the beginning of World War II, he is distinguished by his relentless, uncompromising challenges to Japan's cultural assumptions, and by his radical deconstruction of genre forms like chambara. A left-wing pacifist much like the hero of his nine-hour epic trilogy, The Human Condition, he was physically beaten for refusing to follow orders during his inscription in the military and combat service on the Manchurian front in the 1930s. He also flatly refused to be promoted above the rank of private.
This biographical information is important because it lends weight and authenticity to the resolute anti-authoritarianism on display in pictures like The Human Condition and Harakiri. Kobayashi didn't merely talk radical politics, he lived by and suffered for his own deeply held beliefs about the role of the individual in society. Many Japanese artists in many media explore the question of the individual's duty to society. Kobayashi was more interested in the question of society's duty to the individual.
In Samurai Rebellion—as in Kobayashi's most famous picture, Harakiri—the entire political system of feudal Japan and the samurai code of fealty (Bushido) that was its foundation are set in direct conflict with the more intimate social foundations of marriage and family. In this way, Kobayashi exposes the moral bankruptcy and absence of compassion in a duty-driven code of honor that fails to value the individual human being. Ichi is the catalyst of this revelation: her sexual union with Matsudaira is false because it is not built on love and mutual respect, while her marriage to Yogoro is the real deal. Bushido fails as a system for governing the lives of real human beings when it demands that she leave the true relationship in order to protect the honor of the false one.
The strength of Kobayashi and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto's (Rashomon, The Sword of Doom) storytelling is their ability to express moral complexity by way of some deeply intriguing turns of plot. Samurai Rebellion's story is built on progressively intricate convolutions of the regulations governing ceremony and propriety in feudal Japan. The convolutions eventually (and delightfully) snare the corrupt powerbrokers in their own deceptive political machinations. In one of the picture's most satisfying scenes, one of Lord Matsudaira's lackeys arrives at the Sasahara fief with orders for Isaburo and Yogoro to commit seppuku. To Yogoro's surprise, his father agrees to obey the order—on the condition that the heads of Matsudaira, his superintendent, and his chamberlain are brought to him as recompense for their conspiracy to kidnap Ichi. This is a typically Kobayashian turn of plot: Isaburo maintains his honor and heroism by accepting the dictates of Bushido, while simultaneously exposing the cravenness, corruption, and hypocrisy of his superiors by demanding that they do the same, even though he knows they will not.
Samurai Rebellion is a chambara that doesn't get around to swordplay until its final act. The director builds enough tension and suspense into the political maneuvering to make the film feel tightly paced despite the absence of action. There's a visceral thrill when swords are finally drawn, with Toshiro Mifune and his feral physicality dishing out the punishment. Mifune's top billing is a function of his stature in Japanese cinema, not the centrality of his role in the film. But his fans need not fear that Isaburo is the sort of walk-on, rote character that is all too common in the vast sea of his disappointing work during this post-Kurosawa phase of his career. Isaburo is complex and dynamic. He is the picture's moral compass, its wise elder statesman, and Mifune is given a wealth of screen time. The character's only flaw is his set up as a henpecked husband. It's a great source of comedy, especially given Mifune's powerful screen presence, but in the end it's more a plot contrivance than an organic character attribute. Despite flaws in the presentation of Isaburo's marriage, Samurai Rebellion offers Japanese film buffs the subtle joy of the friendship between Isaburo and Matsudaira's other great swordsman, Tatewaki Asano (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). After their antagonistic face-offs in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro, it's entertaining to watch Mifune and Nakadai interact as compatriots. The camaraderie between their hardened warrior characters is warm and genuine.
Though Mifune's presence is powerful, Yogoro and Ichi are the true stars of the show. Go Kato's chiseled features had already made him a bona fide movie heartthrob by the time of his appearance in Samurai Rebellion, but Ichi is the juiciest role in the picture and Yoko Tsukasa's performance easily steals the show. Tsukasa's work in the film is magnificent. Our sympathy for her effectively paints Matsudaira as a villain, though he spends two-thirds of the picture off screen. Ichi is an honorable woman whose sense of duty is grounded in her love for Yogoro and their child. The character's controlled passion makes the tragedy of her story that much more poignant.
Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast may lack the substance of Kobayashi's film, but it's still smart, well-constructed, and a heck of a lot of fun. Gosha (Three Outlaw Samurai) isn't among the top-tier of Japanese directors, but he was a fine genre filmmaker, and Sword of the Beast is tightly constructed and a lot of fun. The picture's most notable structural attribute is the hard parallel drawn between rivals Gennosuke and Jurota. The latter's illegal mining of the Shogun's gold on behalf of his clan provides Gosha an excuse to revisit Gennosuke's past. In flashback, we learn he was used and betrayed by his superiors during a reform plot in his clan. His experience gives him insight into Jurota's plight, and eventually the rivals become wary allies. Gosha handles this rigid, calculated narrative structure so precisely that it feels organic and character-driven.
The journeyman director proves adept at manipulating narrative time, too. There's a quiet scene near the beginning of the film in which Gennosuke is holed up at an inn while his pursuers close in on him. Gosha's shooting and cutting is delicate and precise. He builds tension deliberately, and with much patience, paying the scene off at just the right moment. One takes such scenes for granted in a swashbuckling action-adventure, but Gosha deserves credit for his handling. Action sequences (and the scenes building toward them) rely on sound construction, and can easily go wrong in the hands of a filmmaker who doesn't know what he's doing. Throughout Sword of the Beast, Gosha makes all the right decisions.
To his credit, Gosha juggles a number of styles and storylines that coalesce satisfactorily at the foot of Mount Shirane. In addition to the slowly evolving relationship between Gennosuke and Jurota, we're given a bit of a murder mystery in the quiet ruminations of Gennosuke's longtime friend (and now pursuer), Daizaburo. He struggles to reconcile his friend's character and sense of honor with the horror of his crime. Things don't add up. Gosha's screenplay (written with Eizaburo Shiba, his collaborator on Three Outlaw Samurai) juxtaposes the Gennosuke-Jurota and Gennosuke-Daizaburo plotlines for maximum effect. Not only do the two stories allow for a slow and nonlinear revelation of Gennosuke's troubled past by way of a series of flashbacks, but they combine to emphasize the film's theme of corruption in feudal Japan. We witness cycles of low-level samurai manipulated by their superiors. Their belief in honor, duty, and loyalty are used by corrupt bureaucrats trying to secure and maintain their own power. Daizaburo's cognitive dissonance is grounded in the clash between Bushido's dictates and the incongruous behavior of a flesh and blood man he knows, respects, and loves. He comes to learn by picture's end, of course, that it was the man who deserved his trust and loyalty all along.
With Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy, we finally arrive at high style. Not only is the picture's plotting a labyrinth of intrigue, but it offers acrobatic ninja action, and a swinging '60s score by Toru Takemitsu (Ran). Samurai Spy is a lesser work by director Shinoda, but an entertaining chambara nonetheless. Shinoda was a prime mover in the Japanese New Wave, making bleak little pictures in which characters choose love over custom and suffer annihilation as a consequence. There's no better example of Shinoda's personal aesthetic and thematic fixations than Double Suicide, his heavily stylized live-action adaptation of a Bunraku puppet play. Those hoping that Samurai Spy will deliver a similarly self-conscious and arty experience will be sorely disappointed. Its outlandishness stands in stark contrast to the other three pictures in this set, but is entirely appropriate to a story about the legendary Sasuke Sarutobi. The spy is a highly-skilled ninja who may or may not have been an actual historical figure, but has become a legend in Japan based on his many appearances in simple, action-packed tales designed mostly for consumption by children.
Shinoda's movie is breezy and entertaining, but not specifically designed for kids. The plot is a tangle of political maneuvering bound to lose anyone who doesn't have at least a modicum of knowledge about the political landscape of early 17th-century Japan. The good news, though, is that one need not pay close attention to the many turns of plot to have a good time. It's enough to know that loyalties among all the characters are in continual flux, and everyone has an ulterior motive. Through this complexity the film earns its place in the Rebel Samurai box, as well as Shinoda's oeuvre: The romance of feudal Japan's honor and duty is exposed as a sham in the director's tale of subterfuge, deceit, and murderous self-interest.
Samurai Spy opens on the gloriously epic scene of the Battle of Sekigahara as the picture's political landscape is established in voice-over narration—easily the most grandiose moment in this set. The scene is staged and shot impressively, with samurai clashing on foot and horseback in the foreground and stretching all the way to distant hills on the horizon. Though the rest of the film is more intimate, focusing our attention on the adventures of a relatively small group of characters, it never quite gets intimate enough. This is likely attributable to Sasuke's legendary status: As in movies about Robin Hood or the Lone Ranger here in the West, Sasuke's acts of derring-do play out with little revelation of our hero as anything but an archetype. That doesn't prevent the movie from entertaining us, but it does relegate it to the status of a straight genre piece—a bit of a disappointment in light of the personal idiosyncrasies that define Shinoda's best work—and the least of the pictures in this box.
If Kill!'s plot sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Peaceful Days by Shugoro Yamamoto, the novel that was the inspiration for Sanjuro, Akira Kurosawa's sequel of sorts to Yojimbo. Fear not; director Kihachi Okamoto's (The Sword of Doom) film is different enough from Kurosawa's that the two make interesting companion pieces without feeling repetitive—they'd make a great double-feature, in fact. I've never read Yamamoto's book, but I'm guessing that Kill! is a closer adaptation than Sanjuro. Comparing the two films, Kurosawa's penchant for lean, concise narrative shines through, as well as his standard operating procedure of rifling source materials for the elements he finds interesting, jettisoning the rest, and embellishing his adapted script with his own material. Kurosawa's film begins in roughly the middle of Okamoto's, the gang of naïve samurai already holed up and ripe for ambush after having murdered the corrupt official. Kurosawa also, in order to translate Yamamoto's novel into a sequel to his wildly successful Yojimbo, distilled the dual heroes Genta and Hanjiro into his iconic ronin Sanjuro Tsubaki, who doesn't much resemble either of the men in Okamoto's film.
Perhaps the most delightful aspect of Kill! is Tatsuya Nakadai's wonderful comic performance. A successful stage actor who made the leap to the silver screen in the '50s, Nakadai is known almost exclusively as a dramatic actor. His earliest roles were heavies, including the itinerant rogues Sanjuro faces off against in the climax of both Yojimbo and Sanjuro. His performance in Kill! is a revelation, proving the actor has genuine—mostly untapped—comic skills. Genta is more wistful and passive than Mifune's Sanjuro. His fallen state, poverty, and disillusionment with the waning Shogunate are more palpable because he lacks Sanjuro's swaggering bravado. Genta is careworn, beaten down by life, and no longer naïve enough to believe in Bushido, but he's not cynical. He views his plight with a kind of wry humor, not taking himself any more seriously than he does the entire samurai class. The one thing he does share with Sanjuro is a sharp, calculating mind forged of experience in battle: He knows the next turn of plot long before the other characters do; he's the smartest guy in the picture.
Okamoto's movie is entertaining not only for its switchblade humor (in one fight sequence, the staging and crisp editing somehow make a severed finger funny), but also for its wit in throwing a dense mélange of chambara clichés at us (feuding local bosses, tea house prostitutes, a farmer longing to rise to the samurai class), while twisting the perspective enough to make it feel fresh. That said, the film works as a rousing action-adventure even as it deconstructs the genre. Considering the same can be said for Kurosawa's movie, this tenuous balance of postmodern intelligence and old-fashioned storytelling may be rooted in Yamamoto's novel (the author also wrote the source material for Kurosawa's Red Beard and Dodes'ka-den, as well as Masaki Kobayashi's Inn of Evil). In any event, Kill! is a more artful film than its pulp title indicates, yet its title is entirely appropriate.
All four of the movies in the Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set were shot on black-and-white stock, and framed at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Criterion's transfers of the films preserve their theatrical ratios, of course, and are enhanced for widescreen displays. The liner notes for each disc indicate the transfers were sourced from 35mm fine-grain masters, and all look excellent. Samurai Rebellion (which comes to us courtesy of a composite master) is of slightly lower quality than the others, while Samurai Spy is the best preserved. The differences between the four are minor, however, and none has flaws that are unreasonable based on the age of the source materials. The transfers are uniformly stable in fine-line detail, and offer excellent contrast that varies in quality from film to film based solely on the aesthetic choices of the directors. Grain levels are appropriate, and digital artifacts like edge-enhancement haloing are essentially non-existent. The movies look terrific.
The original Japanese mono audio tracks on all four films have been digitally restored, and are presented in a Dolby Digital 1.0 mix that places the soundtracks in a surround system's center speaker. Hiss, pops, clicks, and other flaws from age have been cleaned up, leaving clearly discernible dialogue and crisp music. The only noticeable problems are isolated instances of distortion—rooted in the sources—during moments of intense action or bombastic scoring. Criterion has done a marvelous job of preserving limited audio source materials.
Each of the films is available as part of this set, or individually (spine numbers 310 through 313) as part of Criterion's supplement-light budget line of releases. Samurai Rebellion and Samurai Spy have the widest offering of extras, though nothing to write home about. Both offer video interviews with the films' directors, as well as essays by film scholars Donald Richie and Alain Silver in their respective fold-out inserts. Samurai Rebellion also comes with its original Japanese theatrical trailer, and Samurai Spy has a character gallery that will help viewers sort out its many players and their roles in the convoluted plot. Sword of the Beast has no extras on the disc itself, but its insert contains an essay by film critic Patrick Macias. Kill! comes with two trailers, and an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
None of the movies in The Criterion Collection's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics are important Japanese films. Samurai Rebellion comes closes to top-tier status, perhaps, but its impact is dulled by its similarity (and inferiority) to Kobayashi's masterpiece, Harakiri. That said, each of the pictures offers a fun ride for fans of samurai flicks, and by collecting them together in a box, Criterion has made them available at a bargain-basement price.
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Scales of Justice, Samurai Spy
Perp Profile, Samurai Spy
Distinguishing Marks, Samurai Spy
• Interview with Director Masahiro Shinoda
Scales of Justice, Sword Of The Beast
Perp Profile, Sword Of The Beast
Distinguishing Marks, Sword Of The Beast
• Essay by Japanese Film and Culture Critic Patrick Macias
Scales of Justice, Samurai Rebellion
Perp Profile, Samurai Rebellion
Distinguishing Marks, Samurai Rebellion
• 1993 Interview Excerpts with Director Masaki Kobayashi
Scales of Justice, Kill!
Perp Profile, Kill!
Distinguishing Marks, Kill!
• Theatrical Trailer
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