Available separately or as a boxed set, these latest Japanese samurai classics from Criterion are all a little different from the norm in one way or another. Here's what you'll find lurking within the confines of that eye catching card board slipcase that the four movies are housed in…
Samurai Spy: The first film in the set tells the story of Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi), a man who has spent the last few years of his living serving the reigning shogunate as a spy. Now that he's a little bit older, he's tired of the lifestyle and really just wants to settle down and live a more peaceful, subdued life. Things become more complicated in his world when one of his superiors, Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada), jumps ship and decides to go work for the opposing clan, bringing many of their secrets with him.
This surprising turn of events understandably upsets the shogunate and his clan, and of course, Sasuke becomes tasked with the job of tracking down the defector to kill him before he can spill the beans about what they've all been up to. After quite a bit of work, Sasuke finally tracks down and meets up with the rival spy, and soon they realize that there's a third party involved in all of this – a mysterious man (the perpetually omnipresent Tetsuro Tanba) who no one is really able to recognize because he's always dressed in a white hood that hides his face. He seems to be trailing the two of them, but neither of them are sure why or what he's up to.
Shot with some really oddball angles and at times rather bizarre cinematography, Samurai Spy makes some interesting political points and does an interesting job of having the different parties in the film play off of one another. When the violence occurs in the film, it never feels gratuitous or over the top and instead is simply there to further the events of the story being told in the film. Parts of the film are rather subdued, such as some of the subtle character development scenes that occur, others are a little more abrupt and this makes for a movie that is ripe with contrasts both visually and in terms of the rather layered plot.
Kill!: Playing out very much like a Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Western, a lone ronin (read: a 'man with no name' type character) named Genta (Tatsayu Nakadai) wanders into a small, destitute looking town in search of a hot meal and somewhere to rest for a while. When he shows up to the town's solitary hotel, he finds that the proprietor is dead – a victim of foul play? The samurai still needs to eat, however, and so he sets back out and happens to come across a farmer who is also looking for somewhere to stay for the night. The two begin talking and soon find out that the town has been got it's share of problems – aside from the obvious, a samurai clan and a Yakuza gang have opted to use the town as the location to settle their ongoing disputes.
The samurai and the farmer figure that there might be more to this than first meets the eye. The more they poke around the town, the more they learn and the more they learn the more they realize that the town isn't really so deserted after all….
Based on the same source material as Kurasawa's Sanjuro, Kill! has as much in common with the Italian westerns of the day as it does with Kurasawa's work, though one must keep in mind that Kurasawa's work is at least partially responsible for Leone's kicking off that movement in the first place so in a sense things have come full circle here. The themes are interchangeable in spots – a drifter teams up with an unlikely counterpart to right the wrongs of a community in which he has found himself rather than chose for himself. There are plenty of opportunities here for drama and tension and the theme music does a very nice job of sounding Morricone-esque, further solidifying the east meets western blend that Kihachi Okamoto has created.
With everything laid on as thick as it is in the film, some elements are obviously meant to parody the samurai genre. There are some obvious nods to better known films of the genre in here and the performances are intentionally upped to come across as unbelievably intense in spots. This all works, despite the fact that it might sound rather strange reading about it. There's plenty of style, plenty of mood, and some very effective humor here.
Sword Of The Beast: Another samurai film possibly influenced by Italian westerns, Hideo Gosha's Sword Of The Beast is considerably more serious in tone than Kill!, thought not quite as heavy on action and swordplay.
The movie follows the story of a samurai named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), who is tricked into killing one of the bosses of his clan. He ends up on the run for although his deed was done with the most noble of intentions, the rest of the clan now see him as a murderer and are out to take him down in cold revenge. While on the run, he ends up hiding out in the mountains where he finds a samurai named Yamane and his wife panning for gold. He meets up with a thief and the two plan on stealing the gold from the samurai and his wife until a different band of thieves shows up first and take the woman hostage. Gennosuke ends up saving Yamane's wife, and the two develop a mutual, if begrudging, respect for one another.
As the vengeful members of Gennosuke's former clan close in on him while he's hiding out in the mountains, he learns of a grave danger facing Yamane and his wife and he sets out to warn them before it's too late, but there are more than a few small complications he's going to need to take care of before that's going to happen and one delay too many might be end up being very costly indeed.
Dark, moody, and plenty atmospheric, this one takes a little while to get going but once the pace picks up, it's really easy to get sucked into the film. The cinematography does an excellent job of capturing the natural beauty of the mountainous terrain where the bulk of the film was shot but also manages to heighten the action scenes when they occur by pulling in closer and creating a rather claustrophobic effect. While not as bloodthirsty a film as something like the Lone Wolf And Cub films or even Sword Of Doom, there's still plenty of action in here, especially during the final half hour where everything comes crashing down all at once, that the movie remains fairly exciting stuff.
Performance wise, Hira is perfectly believable as the noble lead ronin trying to save his own skin because he really doesn't have much of a choice other than to die at the hands of his former clan. Go Kato as Yamane delivers an intense performance – his honor means more than anything else in his life, a lesson his wife will soon learn the hard way.
Samurai Rebellion: Saving the best for last, Masaki Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion is the best film in a boxed set compiled of great movies. Toshiro Mifune stars as a samurai named Isaburo who is getting on in years. His life takes a strange turn when the lord of his clans orders Isaburo's only son, Yogoro (Takashi Kato), to marry the woman, Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), he has been keeping as a mistress. Despite the fact that the poor woman has born him a son and possible heir, he's not too happy with her anymore and he wants to pawn her off on the poor guy.
Isaburo makes it very clear from the start that he is not in the least bit happy with this idea. He's pretty opposed to things and tries to talk his son out of accepting the ludicrous offer but it doesn't do any good, and before you know it not only has he taken the woman for his own but the two actually find love in one another's arms. Once Isaburo realizes that they do truly care for each other, he softens up a bit until the clan lord's own son is killed and he now wants his mistress back to bring on the illegitimate son she bore him as his new heir to the throne – unfortunately for all involved, Ichi is now pregnant with Yogoro's daughter and soon delivers a healthy baby girl. Once again, Isaburo gets irked by the situation and this time he confronts the lord about things.
The lord of the clan orders that Isaburo, Ichi, and Yogoro all kill themselves as retribution for disobeying his direct orders. They again refuse and so the lord sends a small army of his samurai to take care of things for him. Isaburo knows that the only hope he has of making things right is to head to Edo and plead his case, in turn exposing the clan lord as the bastard that he is, but with a gang of sword wielding soldiers on his tail, things could get very ugly for him.
It's pretty hard to find fault with Samurai Rebellion - it's a truly great film in every sense of the word. The cinematography is fantastic, capturing all the splendor of the time and all the detail of the costumes and sets that the film makes such excellent use of. The pacing is as tight as it needs to be without sacrificing character development or skirting on the story details, and the direction is solid and workmanlike.
While everyone in the film gives a great performance, it will surprise very few to hear that Mifune is the real star of the show. Filmed when he was completely on top of his game he brings such range and such sincerity to his performance that it makes the finale of the film all that much more poignant and understandable. The story of a man who gets pushed too far, who finally has no choice but to do what he thinks is the right thing regardless of where it's going to land him in the long run, Samurai Rebellion is a masterpiece of period filmmaking.
Samurai Spy: This transfer looks great in its original aspect ratio of 2.35.1 and enhanced for anamorphic sets. Transferred in high definition, there's a very revelatory level of fine detail present throughout the film, strong black levels, and the picture is quite clean. Debris and print damage aren't a problem here and while there is some fine grain throughout it never proves to be problematic. Black and white contrast levels look good, and there aren't any mpeg compression or edge enhancement issues to note.
Kill!: receives a high definition 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from a restoration done on the original negative. Some scenes are overly heavy on the grain but other than that, the film looks pretty nice. The contrast is set properly, the black and white photography looks great in its original aspect ratio, and there's plenty of detail even in the darker scenes. This is the weakest of the four transfers in this boxed set, but it's still definitely above average and a very solid effort none the less.
Sword Of The Beast: The 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer on this film is a true thing of beauty. It's got tons of fine detail, very little line shimmering at all, and no mpeg compression problems to report. The contrast levels on the black and white image are great, and the movie looks fantastic on this DVD. There's a little bit of natural looking film grain, as should be expected, but there aren't any problems with print damage at all and the picture is clean and detailed from start to finish.
Samurai Rebellion: Also presented in a solid high definition 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen black and white transfer, this is another solid effort. Though there is some mild flickering present in some scenes, print damage and grain are kept firmly in check and the contrast levels look nice and well balanced aside from a scratch or two in a couple of scenes. There's a nice level of fine detail present here, and for the most part the image is very clean and it looks quite good.
All four of the films in this boxed set are presented in their original Japanese language mono mixes, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Quality is pretty consistent across the four films, with dialogue coming through clearly and cleanly and without any hiss or distortion issues coming into play. Every once in a while there's some shrillness in the higher end of the mix but that's really the only minor complaint worth mentioning. Levels are balanced properly, sound effects come through nice and clear and with a fair bit of strength, and the background scores for the four films all sound quite nice. There are no frills mixes, but there's no problem with that and they do a fine job of representing the films in the way that they were originally designed to be heard.
Here's where, unfortunately, this set doesn't rank so high…
Samurai Spy: Masahiro Shinoda shows up for an on camera interview on this release that runs about sixteen minutes in length, and he gives us some background on his career and also some good information on the making of this film. There's also a lay out/gallery that explains the different characters from the film. He comes across as quite amicable and his memories make for interesting material. Aside from that, there's a liner note insert inside the keepcase that contains an essay on the film from Alain Silver in which he puts the film into context in terms of where it fits in the evolution of the samurai film as a genre.
Kill!: Extras on the DVD itself are limited to a quick teaser for the film and the original theatrical trailer for the film. Aside from that, there's a liner note insert inside the keepcase that contains an essay on the film from Howard Hampton that makes some interesting and very valid comparisons to the Italian Spaghetti Westerns that were being made in Europe around the same time as this film.
Sword Of The Beast: This disc is barebones but inside the keepcase is a liner note insert containing and essay on the film from Patrick Macias, who gives us a very interesting look at the career of the director of the film, Hideo Gosha.
Samurai Rebellion: Aside from the film's original theatrical trailer, there's also an excerpt from a video interview from 1993 with the film's director, Masaki Kobayashi, which details the history of the film, and covers his involvement in the project nicely. There's also a liner note insert that contains an essay from Donald Richie, in which he explains the history of the events in the film and how Toho marketed it upon its initial theatrical release.
The Criterion Collection release of the Rebel Samurai - Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set looks and sound great and even if the extras are very slim, this set is still an easy recommendation for fans of Japanese samurai cinema. All four films are a lot of fun and quite enjoyable and the transfers are all top notch. Recommended, despite the high price tag and lack of any real supplements based on the strength of the material and the video quality.
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.