Shinoda Masahiro’s first historical film “Assassin”/”Assassination” (Ansatsu, 1964) had a lot of exposition, starting with two minutes of text, though I was still confused about who was fighting for which side (the emperor or the shogun as the shogunate was about to be supplanted, in1863). There are some striking, noirish (or at least very dark) visuals from Masao Kosugi (Pale Flower, Samurai Spy) and a typically eerie, dissonant Takemitsu soundtrack. Shots from above are frequent in this, as in other Shinoda films.
Shinoda s “Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke” (Samurai Spy, 1965) is very, very confusing with a deluge of names thrown at the viewer at the start. At the end, I knew more or less what had happened, what the sides were, and who was on what side, but I felt quite lost several times on the way to the end. In the 2005 Criterion interview of the genial-seeming director Shinoda says that he aspired to show the human condition of not knowing how things will turn out. He doesn’t come out and say that he wanted the audience to share the confusion of the characters, but what he says makes me think he did.
Before writing anything about the plot, I want to note that “Samurai Spy” has what I consider the best of the many Takemitsu (Toru) film scores I have heard, with Japanese instruments and a Latin beat (and some trademark Takemitsu sound effects). It also contains great cinematography (Kosugi Masao, “Assassin,” “Pale Flower”). The widescreen black-and-white compositions are striking, in the highest tier of Japanese cinematography (which is to say the best of the best). Movement is well shot (though in very longshots in the final confrontation), and each frame could be contemplated separately as a work of art.
The movie also has a stalwart, strong/silent protagonist in Sarutobi Sasuke (Takahashi Koji , Ghost in the Shell) who would not be out of place in a Sergio Leone western (or in whichever spy movie you can think of with the most complicated plot). Takahashi has eyes almost as large as those of Nakadai, sculpted cheekbones, very prominent brows, and produced looks of totally controlled ferocity in the many fight scenes.
(After taking a deep breath:) The movie is set in 1614, fourteen years after the battle of Sekigahara that I thought was decisive and began the Pax Tokugawa, beginning the Tokugawa Shogunate. The prologue shows a bit of that battle and explains that though the Tokugawa side defeated the clan, Toyotomi Hideyori survived and gathered various disaffected samurai (who needed warfare to justify their high status) at Osaka. Both the Toyotomi (Osaka) and Tokugawa (Edo, which is now called Tokyo) had many spies.
The Sanada clan refused to take either side and had its own network of spies, spying on the Toyotomi and Tokugawa spies. The skilled swordsman Sasuke (Takahashi) is a high-ranking Sanada spy. From a Toyotomi spy (double-agent) named Mitsuaki (and, as the movie unfolds, from many others), Sasuke learns that one of Tokugawa’s top spies, Tatewaki Koriyama is going to defect and reveal the names and missions of all the Tokugawa spies.
The corpses start to pile up and they are all attributed to Sasuke. Everyone (there is also a fourth side, but I will not try to explain it!). In particular a ninja in white, Takatani (Tamba Tetsuro) is in pursuit of all the characters so far named. There are also two love interests, though nothing I would count as a sex scene.
Sasuke swims through very shark-infested waters and makes some personal choices of whom to help (without betraying the Sanada clan, which stayed on the fence during the proceedings). Sasuke does not play both sides, trying to have them kill each other off (contrast “Yojimbo”). They need no encouragement to do that. Nor does he pick one side with whom to throw in his lot (as in “Sanjuro” and “Kill! “) or pursue personal vengeance (as in “Samurai Rebellion” and “Harakiri”).
In some sense, Sasuke seems to me to be a synechdoche of Japan during the Cold War. (I guess this makes the Tokugawa side a stand-in for the USA and the Toyotomi for the USSR.) I don’t know what Shinoda’s politics are or were. The interest he reports is in the poignancy of absurdity and for the soldiers consumed by the earth rather than celebrated in legends.
Shinoda says that the killings “take place discreetly.” Nonetheless, there are severed body parts flying about and blood-splattered victors in the many duels, so that most viewers would classify the movie as very violent.
The very interesting (16-minute) Shinoda interview is the main bonus feature. There is supposed to be an insert with an essay by Alain Silver about samurai films and the Japanese movie industry of the 1960s, which I have, unfortunately, not seen. And there is a gallery with biographical descriptions on eleven of the film’s characters that can help make retrospective sense of the labyrinthine plot.
I think that the Kosugi’s visuals and Takemitsu’s music are what is great in the movie, so it is a pleasure to report that Criterion (yet again) has rendered remarkably clear sound (the original monaural sound) and crisp picture (except for scenes of fog and a subjective meltdown the genesis of which Shinoda relates in his interview). The blacks are very black (and black is as ubiquitous as in any noir!), the whites are very white, and the grays have a considerable range.
In sum: looks great, sounds great, and keeps viewers reeling in a very complex plot involving four sides and various double agents and side-switchers.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray