Despite the natural screen presence of star Yujiro Ishihara and some fine fight choreography by legendary Ryu Kuze, Shadow Hunters (Kage gari, 1972) is a undistinguished chanbara film with lots of action set pieces and little else.
The film was released in the summer of 1972, when actors like Ishihara, Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi) and Tomisaburo Wakayama (Lone Wolf and Cub) converged on Toho Studios after their longtime home bases of Nikkatsu and Daiei fell into a state of financial collapse. Ishihara, who enjoyed a long and successful career at Nikkatsu, was among the very first Japanese actors to form his own production company, and several late-'60s titles he produced, including Tunnel to the Sun (Chikado no taiyo made, 1968) and Safari 5000 (Eiko e no 5000 kiro, 1969) had been big hits. Indeed, Ishihara was so successful that actors like Katsu and Toshiro Mifune aped Ishihara's model of independent production with their own burgeoning companies.
By the early 1970s, however, movie attendance had fallen so sharply that, like the Universal Studios monsteramas of the 1940s, Ishihara, Mifune, and Katsu desperately began teaming up for all-star extravaganzas like The Ambush: Incident at Blood Pass (Machibuse, 1970), which featured Mifune, Katsu, Ishihara, Ruriko Asaoka, and Kinnosuke Nakamura, all of whom were big stars at the time. Shadow Hunters, which is rather like those all-star epics minus the all-star cast, was one of the last gasps of its era. By 1973, Ishihara, Mifune, and Katsu were all pretty much washed up as movie stars and all retreated to the relative comfort of Japanese television.
Shadow Hunters follows warrior rogues Jubei (Ishihara), Moonlight (Mikio Narita, with strange gray make-up smeared across one cheekbone) and lusty Sunlight (Ryohei Uchida) in their fight against the greedy Shogunate's ruthless spies and fast-footed ninja. These wandering ronin ("masterless samurai"), we learn in flashbacks and stoic soliloquies, each saw their family butchered and fief destroyed by such corruption, and now each man is single-mindedly determined to inflict as much vengeance in return as is possible.
The film's swordplay choreography was staged by Ryu Kuze, who set the high standard for such action in films like Hiroshi Inagaki's Musashi Miyamoto trilogy (1954-56) and Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no sanakunin, 1958), Yojimbo (1961), and Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjuro, 1962). Yojimbo's dark humor, violent bloodletting and purposely exaggerated sound effects had genuinely shocked 1961 audiences, but what was excitingly innovative then had become hopelessly cliched by 1972. Here, dismembered limbs, decapitated heads, and super-pressurized blood sprays are like something out of a cartoon. It's entertaining in its basic outrageousness, but that's about it. And in an attempt over the years to constantly top last month's model, the genre was starting to imitate the visually spectacular but utterly mindless movies emanating from Hong Kong's Shaw Bros., films that themselves had themselves been influenced by Japanese movies a decade before.
Ishihara's Jubei, with his piercing, glowering stare and unkempt beard is visually striking, but is as expressive as a cigar store Indian. His character has an especially contrived relationship with a former fiancee, Chitose (Ruriko Asaoka), who has been chasing Jubei all over Japan trying to die nobly in his arms. This relationship goes nowhere except to clumsily move the narrative forward at awkward moments.
Ryohei Uchida's Sunlight is much better, a lusty Anthony Quinn type who may be out to avenge his family, but is anxious to have some fun along the way.
Director Toshio Masuda, who directed Ishihara in countless films dating back to the late-1950s, keeps things moving and shows some imagination in the dizzying camera angles and cutting of the varied ninja attacks. Kenjiro Hirose's score has a distinctly and anachronistically '70s sound that dates the film needlessly.
Video & Audio
Shadow Hunters is presented in its original CinemaScope format in a clean 16:9 transfer that has very good color and grain, and almost no age-related wear or damage. The image, formatted to about 2:1, does look very slightly vertically squeezed, however, as if the 'scope image had not been stretched horizontally far enough. The Japanese mono track is typical of the era while the English subtitles, despite some lapses into contemporary slang, are excellent with intelligent use of multi-colored text so that viewers can better follow some of the faster-paced dialogue. Full and Limited Subtitles are offered, the former helpfully annotating some of the less familiar Japanese and period terms.
Trailers are included for both Shadow Hunters and its immediate sequel, Echo of Destiny: Shadow Hunters II (1972), as well as the unrelated Demon Spies (1974). All are presented in 4:3 letterboxed format, but they are subtitled and complete with text and narration.
Both the Program Notes and Image Gallery, while good, would work better if the material could be gone through at the viewer's pace via step frames, rather than as it's presented here.
You can do worse than spend 90 minutes with these self-described "stray dogs" righting wrongs against evil ninja and corrupt government officials, though Shadow Hunters is far from the genre's peak, and ultimately is for genre completests only.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.