Kihachi Okamoto's Samurai Assassin (aka Samurai, 1965) is one of the better examples of classic Japanese cinema...that wasn't directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring one of Japan's most popular leading men, Toshiro Mifune (seen above), Samurai Assassin was released just prior to his final collaboration with Kurosawa, Red Beard. The basic storyline takes place during the course of just over two weeks---February 17 to March 3, 1860---and follows a group of assassins planning to kill a powerful government official. Right from the start, there's suspicion that one man in the group is a traitor...and all eyes point to Tsurochiyo Niiro (Mifune), a poor ronin who's looking to become a samurai. Also suspected as part of the plot is Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi, also appearing in The End of Summer and 47 Ronin), a wealthy samurai and friend to Niiro.
A number of elements make this film work well; for starters, it breaks the typical cliche of "good vs. evil" by leaving an element of mystery and intrigue throughout the film. There's a terrific amount of character development here, and the acting by several of the key characters is top-notch. The cinematography is quite good, and chances are you'll be sucked in by the beautiful visuals alone (though the DVD is far from beautiful, as you'll learn soon enough). There's also a fine amount of action, highlighted by some well-staged, memorable fight sequences that rival anything seen in the genre (the bloody final confrontation is especially noteworthy).
My sole complaint with the film is this: in hindsight, it's a stepping stone to perhaps the director's greatest work, The Sword of Doom (1966). Although Samurai Assassin is very entertaining in its own right, it's definitely geared towards the more seasoned samurai fan---those new to the genre would be better off starting off with something a bit more accessible, such as Seven Samurai or even early Zatoichi. By and large, though, it's a classic that you'll want to watch sooner or later.
Overall, Samurai Assassin is certainly a great film, but you'd never know that by looking at AnimEigo's recent DVD release. Although it's discussed in greater detail below, here's the bottom line: the technical presentation is way below average and there's little to no bonus material to speak of. It's not the most disappointing release of a classic film ever produced, but there's a lot of room for improvement here. If this were a budget title, the poor level of quality might be excused---but with a $30 price tag, you certainly don't get a lot of bang for the buck here. With a stronger presentation, the film's rating (and replay value, of course) would have scored a bit higher, but it's a real challenge to sit through this film and not notice how bad things really are. Let's look closer, shall we?
It may not look as bad from the small screen captures seen above, but this video transfer is downright terrible. As rough as this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks, one could only imagine how bad a pan-and-scan version might be (*shudder*). It's roughly on the same level as a second or third generation VHS dub---in fact, a source from AnimEigo stated that a Betcam transfer was used after a more reliable print wasn't available. Besides for a fair amount of ghosting and smearing, the lack of image detail and a high amount of edge enhancement really kills this disc. I can't imagine why such an awful video presentation would be approved---especially since AnimEigo has done a fine job with similar titles---but it's more than enough to stop any recommendation dead in its tracks. The Japanese 1.0 Mono audio presentation fares slightly better, though it's still a bit thin compared to films of a similar age. English subtitles have been provided for the Japanese impaired.
Great movie, not-so-great DVD. It may not the worst looking and sounding disc I've ever seen, but quality films like Samurai Assassin deserve better treatment than what AnimEigo's lackluster effort provides. Unless you're chomping at the bit to see this one---regardless of quality or lack of bonus materials---most casual fans should wait for a better version somewhere down the line. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is a surprisingly agile art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.