With sword in hand, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini dissects this samurai flick.
Our review of Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics: Criterion Collection, published November 1st, 2005, is also available.
"I have to believe that war can be stopped."—Sasuke Sarutobi
[Editor's Note: This review is part of a full examination of Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set.]
Facts of the Case
The year is 1614. Tensions have again flared up between Ieyasu Tokugawa and the rival he defeated at the Battle of Sekigahara, Hideyori Toyotomi. Samurai loyal to Toyotomi have been joined by ronin displaced by the Tokugawa victory in the great battle, and spies from both sides roam the land gathering intelligence. Caught in the middle is the Sanada clan, who refuse to declare loyalty to either the Shogun or his rival. They have a network of their own spies, led by Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex).
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.
Samurai Spy is a lesser work by director Masahiro Shinoda, but an entertaining chambara nonetheless. Shinoda was a prime mover in the Japanese New Wave, making often 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 Samurai Spy delivers a similarly self-conscious and arty experience will be sorely disappointed. It is stylish, though. Not only is the picture's plot a labyrinth of intrigue, but it offers acrobatic ninja action, and a swinging '60s score by Toru Takemitsu (Ran). Its outlandishness 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. The scene is staged and shot impressively, 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, but it does relegate it to the status of a straight genre piece, and a bit of a disappointment in light of the personal idiosyncrasies that define Shinoda's best work.
Samurai Spy is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection (spine number 312) both as a stand-alone disc and as part of the four-disc Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set. According to Criterion's liner notes, the disc's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes directly from a 35mm fine-grain master, digitally remastered. It's a nearly flawless transfer. Shot in black-and-white, the picture is beautifully detailed. The transfer offers a rich and natural range of grays, as well as solid blacks and pure whites. Criterion's restoration work has left almost no evidence of damage or other source flaws. Audio has also been restored, and is a simple but clean center-speaker presentation of the original mono track. The punchy score sounds great, with only isolated instances of distortion from the source.
The feature is accompanied by a decent array of extras considering the movie's quality. A video interview with Shinoda—shot in 2005, exclusively for Criterion—runs 16 minutes, is indexed into six chapters, and covers not only information specific to the film, but to the filmmaker's style in general. A character gallery, includes biographical information for 11 of the film's characters and is helpful in making sense of the convoluted plot. The fold-out insert booklet contains a lengthy essay by Alain Silver, author of Samurai Film, that covers not only Samurai Spy, but also the general cultural landscape of the Japanese film industry in the '60s, and the central role directors like Shinoda, Hideo Gosha (Sword of the Beast), and Kihachi Okamoto (Kill!) played in reinventing genre films in order to maintain their relevance in Japan's postwar society.
Samurai Spy isn't a great movie, but it'll entertain fans of Japanese period films, and maybe that's enough. Don't let its convoluted plot confuse you; just sit back and enjoy the adventure.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Masahiro Shinoda
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