Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (the man behind The Incident At Blood Pass and 1962 version of 47 Ronin), Samurai Banners would prove to be the director's penultimate film before his untimely death in 1980.
Set in the mid 1500s during Japan's Feudal times, the film follows a lone Ronin named Kansuke Yamamoto (the legendary Toshiro Mifune of The Seven Samurai) who is basically out wandering around looking for work. Seemingly by chance, he approaches the Kai Lord, Takeda Shingen (Kinnosuke Nakamura of The Yagyu Conspiracy), who is quickly impressed by Yamamoto's resolve and he takes him on board as one of his men. Little does Takeda realize that Yamamoto is a much more ambitious man than he at first realizes, however, and that it wasn't a chance encounter that brought them together after all. Takeda is no slouch, however, and he's able to see his new acquaintances ambitions as mutually beneficial, particularly when Yamamoto is able to convince him that he stopped a rival Lord from making an attempt on his life. While this may or may not have been true, it's at this point that we as an audience realize that Yamamoto has the ability to sway the more powerful Takeda towards his way of thinking and thus exert his influence on him… for better or worse.
The daughter of the Lord that Takeda, Yu (Yoshiko Sakuma), had killed feels distraught enough that she decides to take it upon herself to commit suicide as she would rather die than become a concubine for the enemy. However, again Yamamoto shows considerable people skills and he talks her into sticking around and honoring her family by keeping the line going. Twisted logic? You bet, but she buys it and of she goes to work and soon enough it becomes painfully obvious that Yamamoto is falling in love with her despite the very obvious hatred she harbors towards him. Takeda sees her as his property, however, as only an object to be used for pleasure until he too gets to know her and soon, he's got feelings for her as well. Eventually Takeda gets Yu pregnant and a son is born. Yamamoto pledges his loyalty to them but his ulterior motives are becoming more and more apparent. As time passes, it seems like through Takeda he is preparing the kingdom for war that may or may not further Takeda's goal of a unified Japan.
Low on action but high on character development and Shakespearian plot twists, Samurai Banners is pretty interesting stuff. Watching Mifune's character bend people to his will to further his own agenda is interesting stuff and he does a fine job as the heavy in this film. While Mifune has played less than noble characters plenty of times before and since, the film gives him a fantastic opportunity to show how well he can play a conniving contrast to some of his better known 'mischief loving samurai' roles. Kinnosuke Nakamura's turn is also quite good, he's very believable and what makes his role interesting is that you don't know if he realizes what Yamamoto is up to or not, which makes his own motives doubtful as far as their integrity is concerned. The soap opera that unfolds between the two men and Yu is the true story here, the feudal background merely a setting for some introspective and curious human drama.
Samurai Banners is wonderfully photographed by cinematographer Kazuo Yamada (responsible for plenty of samurai films throughout the sixties and seventies and even a couple of Godzilla movies!) and while at almost two and a half hours in length the abundance of emotion and drama might put off fans looking for balls to the wall action and swordplay, the film remains an interesting character study and a fine documentation of a military power struggle.
The near spotless 2.35.1 anamorphic transfer is pretty close to perfect. Aside from some mild edge enhancement and a tiny shimmer here and there, the picture quality is gorgeous. There's a little bit of mild film grain noticeable in some scenes but there's almost no print damage at all and the colors look beautiful on the widescreen image. The black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish and the flesh tones look very lifelike and very natural. The picture is very sharp and quite detailed in both the foreground and the background and quite honestly, overall this film looks spectacular on DVD.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack on this DVD comes through with excellent clarity and doesn't suffer from any hiss, distortion, or feedback. There is some of the flatness associated with older mono tracks but that's to be expected and in terms of overall clarity, this mix is top notch. There aren't any issues with understanding the performers and Animeigo once again earns high marks for adding little cultural notes to their subtitles that help Anglo viewers such as myself better understand some of the intricacies of the plot that might get lost during the translation or go unnoticed due to cultural differences. Having these notes available is a definite asset to the presentation and I wish more companies that release Japanese films, especially those set in feudal times, would follow their lead.
While this is hardly a super deluxe special edition, it isn't completely barebones either. Lurking deep within the confines of its menu system you'll find a few trailers, some brief biographies in text format, and a modest still gallery. Nothing to write home about, but it is something and we all know that something is better than nothing.
Samurai Banners is a must own disc for Mifune fans and Animeigo's DVD looks and sounds gorgeous. Despite the lack of any seriously meaty extras, the film is strong enough to come highly recommended and the overall quality of this release is excellent.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.