The Criterion Collection DVD of Samurai Spy, issued as part of the four-disc set Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics, comes with a dramatis personae which lists characters according to their clan affiliation. It's an essential tool for any viewer not versed in 17th century Japanese history who hopes to make sense of the movie's plot. It's not that the broad outlines of this 1965 samurai film are unusual. Our hero, Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi), is a warrior spy who has grown cynical about the honorable role of samurai and the desirability of war. He finds himself torn between two warring clans, each on the hunt for a lieutenant for one of them who's prepared to switch over to the other side. Almost against his will, Sasuke finds himself drawn into protecting this turncoat, as well as the innocent folks swept up in the drama. But to fully appreciate the narrative intricacies, it's imperative to keep Takatani separate from Tatewaki, and to know that the Toyotomi clan can also be referred to as Osaka (their home city) or Kansai (their home region), while the capital city of Edo and its region of Kanto denote the ruling Tokugawa clan. The subtitles in Samurai Spy are not "dumbed-down" to appeal to American audiences an admirable decision that also means that bloodthirsty swordplay fans may be put off by the amount of mental exercise called for. The action scenes (and there are several) feature a unique style from director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide), who employs the unexpected angles, quick cuts, swish pans, and zooms familiar from countless '60s chambara (swordplay films). But these elements are given a theatrical ingenuity, and a restrained grace, not seen elsewhere. A fog-shrouded final confrontation is spine-tingling, right up to the disappointing deus ex machina finale. Shinoda also excels at making use of the negative space of the widescreen frame a trait he shares with many Japanese filmmakers of the era. With its individualistic approach and jaded attitude towards the conventions of both genre and history, Samurai Spy brings to mind the similar deconstructions of the American anti-Westerns of the '60s and '70s. Both movements emerged in response to wars that tarnished their nations' self-images, and both resulted in spectacular revisions to cinema convention. Criterion's DVD release offers a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that highlights the black-and-white cinematography, while the Japanese audio (with optional English subtitles) is available on a DD 1.0 track. Extras include a video interview with Masahiro Shinoda in which he talks about the effect of the Cold War on his thinking and also points out the surprising use of rumba music over the film's opening credits (16 min.) Keep-case.
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