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Samurai Spy - Criterion Collection
Samurai Spy - Criterion Collection
Actors: Jun Hamamura, Yasunori Irikawa, Shintarô Ishihara, Takeshi Kusaka, Seiji Miyaguchi
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Genres: Action & Adventure, Indie & Art House, Drama
UR     2005     1hr 39min

Years of warfare end in a Japan unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, and samurai spy Sasuke Sarutobi, tired of conflict, longs for peace. When a high-ranking spy named Koriyama defects from the shogun to a rival clan, how...  more »


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Actors: Jun Hamamura, Yasunori Irikawa, Shintarô Ishihara, Takeshi Kusaka, Seiji Miyaguchi
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Creators: Masao Kosugi, Shizuo Yamauchi, Koji Nakada, Yoshiyuki Fukuda
Genres: Action & Adventure, Indie & Art House, Drama
Sub-Genres: Classics, Indie & Art House, Drama
Studio: Criterion
Format: DVD - Black and White,Widescreen - Subtitled
DVD Release Date: 10/25/2005
Original Release Date: 01/01/1965
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1965
Release Year: 2005
Run Time: 1hr 39min
Screens: Black and White,Widescreen
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 14
Edition: Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: Japanese
Subtitles: English

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Movie Reviews

Masahiro Shinoda's 1965 samurai noir ninja spy film
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 11/01/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

""Ibun sarutobi sasuke" ("Samurai Spy") was made by director Mashario Shinoda in 1965 and the title is quite apt because this really is a spy movie in which the spies are samurai. To be accurate many of them are ronin, and most of them are Yagyu ninjas, but even though they run around with swords and throw deadly little stars you may well find yourself thinking more of James Bond than Akira Kurosawa. Actually, when it comes to being reminded of other famous directors the one that will most come to mind when watching this film should be Orson Welles because Shinoda is obviously into film noir and has a great love for deep focus camera techniques.

The story, based on a novel by Koji Nakada, is set in the year 1614 during the period of uneasy peace that followed the years of warfare that led to Japan being unified under the Tokugawa shogunate . Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi) represents a clan that has avoided taking sides in the conflict between the Tokugawa and the Toyotomi clan. Even though he is a spy he has grown weary of war and desires peace. However, when Tatewaki Koriyama defects from the shogunate to another clan, Sasuke is drawn into the tangled web of intrigue. While Sasuke trails Tatewaki a strange white-hooded figure, Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba), is hunting them both. Then there is the young Christian who the local magistrate wants to crucify and the women who cross the path of Sasuke, including Omiyo (Jitsuko Yoshimura). The politics here gets a bit confusing, especially since even the honest people are involved in some sort of double cross, which may explain why Crierion has actually included a character gallery as one of the special features that tells you who is on what side and what they are trying to do. You just need to know that is there so you can look it over before the movie, because afterwards it is just not going to be as useful.

For many viewers this will be their introduction to an atypical samurai film, but they will notice that Shinoda is not enamored with sword fights. Shinoda more often than not will point Masao Kosugi's camera at those who die rather than those who stand posed with their swords in triumph. When we get to the final big fight of the film Shinoda puts the camera far away, reducing the two figures to barely the size of ants. But the dominant cinematic technique of "Samurai Spy" is a deep focus: Shinoda especially likes to shoot down an alley towards what is happening on a street where we can see only a small bit of the action. This becomes the signature shot of the film and a major reason why I recommend this one more for the aesthetics than the action, although Shinoda does not present a unified cinematic vision. For all of the beautiful black & white long shots or deep focus shots there are moments when characters jump into the air during fights like they were bouncing off of trampolines, but the net effect is well worth watching.

This Criterion Collection DVD contains an interview with Shinoda, and I was stunned because so much of what I was thinking while watching the film about the use of ninjas rather than samurais, the deep focus technique from "Citizen Kane," the Cold War subtext of the clash between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi, and his love of film noir all come up in the director's conversation. Shinoda also makes it clear he was rebelling to the definite sunny-style of filmmaking done at the Shochiku studio. "Samurai Spy" is part of the "Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics" collector's set, which also includes Shinoda's "Sword of the Beast," Masaki Kobayshi's "Samurai Rebellion" with Toshiro Mifune, and Kihachi Okamoto's Italian western-influenced "Kill!" The films are available separately or as a set; my guess is that it will be all or nothing with most people who check out these eclectic samurai films."
Samurai pulp fiction filled with spies and improbable action
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 08/18/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"To enjoy Samurai Spy, you'll find three things are helpful. First, some knowledge of Japanese history. Second, the ability to keep straight a lot of Japanese names, some of which sound alike to Western ears, such as Tatewaki and Takatani. And third, a fondness for pulp adventure stories.

So, history first...and take notes because this is important to what the story is all about. Hideyoshi Toyotomi had succeeded in unifying Japan, but he spent a lot of money and time in two brutal invasions of Korea. When he died he left a lot of unrest and a young heir, Hideyori. Ieyasu Tokugawa was a noted general, a leading supporter of Hideyoshi and one of the regents for Hideyori. He also was smart and ambitious. He managed to maneuver things in such a way that he could not be blamed when his forces and the forces supporting Hideyoshi's young son came to blows. In 1600 Tokugawa decisively beat his enemies in the great battle of Sekigahara. But now the forces of the Toyotomi, based in Osaka, are gathering their strength again. Tokugawa, shogun since Sekigahara and based in Edo, will not tolerate this and is gathering his forces. And both sides are employing ruthless spies.

Now all those names. Sarutobi Sasuki (Koji Takahashi) had been a spy for a clan allied with the Toyotomi. Now he is sick of war and has left all that behind. He is a strong man of noble character. Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada) had been a key spy for the Tokugawa but has defected to the Toyotomi. Sakon Takatani (Tetsuo Tamba) is the main spy for the Tokugawa and is determined to find and destroy Koriyama. Takatani is a master swordsman and skilled in all the ways of the spy.

The story is a kind of pulp samurai mystery-adventure. The conflicts of good and evil, of the horrors of war and the desire for a peaceful life, are played out -- and talked about a lot -- by characters who are either brave and good or who are really bad. We have Sarutobi Sasuki drawn in against his will to help protect and defend weaker men and women. He, too, is a master swordsman as well as highly skilled with the shuriken, the throwing star. He's played by an actor who is almost Hollywood pretty, a tall man with ascetic, chiseled features who looks like a combination of Ray Danton and George Nader. The relentless Sakon Takatani is always dressed in white, with a white turban-like head-covering that allows us only to see his face. He can leap from high bridges and never sprain an ankle. The search for Tatewaki Koriyama puts everyone into a boiling political stew of betrayals, murder, kidnappings, torture, family secrets, even a bit of leprosy. This is pulp fiction, but good pulp fiction. I think most people will enjoy Samurai Spy, but most probably won't remember much of it a year later. But like a good Jim Thompson tale, this just means you can enjoy it again almost as much as you did the first time.

The Criterion DVD, one of those in Criterion's Rebel Samurai four-movie set, looks just fine. The extras include a video interview with the director and a gallery of key characters. I'd suggest you study the gallery before you watch the movie. The DVD case includes a brochure with a substantial essay on samurai movies and Masahiro Shinoda by a fellow named Alain Silver. While interesting, the essay seemed to me to take the film and the samurai genre far too seriously. There are many excellent samurai films. Samurai Spy, for me, however, is simply a good rouser with plenty of improbable action.

And one last history lesson. By 1616 Ieyasu Tokugawa finally eliminated his Toyotomi problem through a campaign of siege and trickery. Hideyori Toyotomi performed seppuku at 22. The Tokugawa shogunate lasted for 250 years in a time capsule. Then, even Tom Cruise couldn't save the samurai way after Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay."
Not Your Typical Samurai Film: Ninja Elements Thrown In!
Ernest Jagger | Culver City, California | 12/30/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This samurai film, directed by Mashario Shinoda, is set in the year 1614. It is after a time of relentless warfare by the two major warring clans: The Tokugawa and Toyotomi. After the Tokugawa clan has become victorious, it is a time of uneasy peace. The Tokugawa shogunate has been able to unify Japan. However, the Toyotomi clan still has a base of power in Osaka. The Tokugawa shogunate is wary and extremely concerned about this, and therefore engages in spying activities. One of the characters in the film, Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi) comes from a clan that did not take sides during the battles between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans. His is a very interesting character in the film: His samurai skills are also matched by his ninja skills. And I would have to write, it felt like a samurai film, but with more of a twist of ninja.

However, Sasuke Sarutobi was employed as a spy by one of the clans that was allied with the Toyotomi clan. Sasuke is tired of war, and is an honorable man; but the latest intrigue that is about to engulf him will require his use one more time. Meanwhile, there is a fissure in the uneasy peace in this newly unified Japan. One of the Tokugawa spies, Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada) has defected to the Toyotomi clan. Sakon Takatani (Tetsuo Tamba) is the main spy for the Tokugawa shogunate, and he is determined to kill Tatewaki Koriyama. The Toyotomi clan is still bent on overthrowing the shogunate, and the use of a spy within the Tokugawa shogunate would be a feather on their cap concerning the inner dealings of the spy network and secret plannings of the Tokugawa shogunate. While the Toyotomi clan are gathering forces, the film takes off into a somewhat Cold War type mystery film: And what ensues is a atypical samurai spy film.

This is a film which was released in 1965, and one can easily see that the Cold War was definitely on the minds of those who were behind the making of this film. Afterall, this was an era when the Soviets and Americans were at the height of the Cold War, and many films of the era focused on this type of intrigue for the audiences at the time. What I like, is that the film gives us a 17th-century version of this intrigue. In the film, Sasuki Sarutobi is not only a skilled swordsman, but it also highly skilled with the shuriken: giving the film an even more noirish flair. With all the intrigue and backstabbing going on in the film, I would highly recommend that viewers look at the special section that CRITERION has placed in the special features section on the DVD, listing the characters are their sides, in order to understand the film better, as it can be a bit confusing. It is definitely a different type of film than one expects from the genre. Highly recommended. [Stars: 4.5]"