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The Criterion Collection presents
Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics (Samurai Rebellion / Sword of the Beast /Samurai Spy / Kill!) (1965-68)

"Isaburo, you're too attentive to your superiors."
- Tatewaki Asano (Tatsuya Nakadai)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: November 02, 2005

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Go Kato, Yoko Tsukasa, Mikijiro Hira, Koji Takahashi, Tatsuya Nakadai, Etushi Takahashi
Other Stars: Shigeru Koyoma, Masao Mishima, Isao Yamagata, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Tatsuo Matsumura, Takamaru Sasaki, Jun Hamamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Michiko Otsuka, Hisano Yamaoka, Tomoko Nitto, Tatsuya Nakadai, Shima Iwashita, Eijiro Tono, Shigeru Amachi, Kunie Tanaka, Toshie Kimura, Kantaro Suga, Takeshi Kato, Yoko Mihara, Shintaro Ishihara, Eitaro Ozawa, Kei Sato, Mutsuhiro Toura, Tetsuro Tanba, Eiji Okada, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Hodaka, Misako Watanabe, Yasunori Irikawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Jun Hamamura, Atsuo Nakamura, Tadao Nakamura, Shigeru Koyama, Eijiro Tono, Hideyo Amamoto, Yuriko Hoshi
Director: Masaki Kobayashi, Hideo Gosha, Masahiro Shinoda, Kihachi Okamoto

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, sensuality)
Run Time: 07h:00m:58s
Release Date: October 25, 2005
UPC: 037429210123
Genre: foreign


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AA-B- C

DVD Review

During the 1960s, the movie industry saw the weakening of Hollywood's studios, the importing of European art house hits, the demise of the production code, and the rise of enthusiastic, independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Arthur Penn, and Mike Nichols, to name only a few. What seemed largely missed during this period of monumental change was the radical departure from traditional chanbara (a term originating in the Japanese theater that means "dramas depicting realistic swordplay").

On the cutting edge of this trend one would find, of course, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, two ambitious pictures released in the first part of the decade. The titular ensemble of Seven Samurai is as far away from these new cinematic samurai as LA is from Tokyo. This new wave of jidai-geki came into its prime during the mid-'60s, bringing new aesthetic sensibilities and a booming narrative voice of discontent. The Criterion Collection now releases four classic installments in this seditious exercise of filmmaking, coming together as the slicing Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics.



"I wonder what I've done all my life, though it's not like me to do so." -Isaburo Sasahara

Samurai Rebellion (Joiuchi)
1967
(02h:01m:10s)

During the dictatorial rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a lowly retainer, Isaburo Sasahara (Toshiro Mifune), fulfills his duties to a remote clan with a subdued, obedient demeanor. Isaburo's daily life consists of peaceful activities, such as conducting inventories and chewing the fat with his friend, Tatewaki (Tatsuya Nakadai). Chaos comes to the Sasahara household, however, when the clan lord decides to pawn off a mistress on Isaburo's eldest son, the equally docile Yogoro (Go Kato). The family fails to form a consensus as whether to accept her, for she comes bearing the stigma of having attacked her lord. Yogoro usurps his father's authority, however, when he accepts the lord's offer and marries Lady Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa).

Upon arriving, the allegations of Ichi viciously assaulting the clan's leader seem contrary to her behavior, for she and Yogoro form a loving bond that is the envy of Isaburo, whose marriage is as barren as the film's landscapes. Everything becomes quite ideal for the Sasaharas when Isaburo retires and Yogoro assumes the patriarchal mantle, but just then the lord's heir dies and he demands the return of Ichi, since she is mother to his other son. Yogoro follows his heart and principles, refusing to let Ichi be treated as property anymore. Now the entire clan turns on the Sasahara family, with the threat of death looming overhead unless Yogoro and Isaburo yield to the lord's demands.

Director Masaki Kobayashi's Rebel Samurai (Joiuchi) resembles his Harakiri in more than a few ways. Both feature aging samurai who shift their loyalties away from the clan to the family and both serve as strong anti-authoritarian statements. Kobayashi's trademark cynicism is on full display here, especially in the film's conclusion when Isaburo must duel with Tatewaki, and works, in some respects, better than his earlier work. His camera is less adventurous than before, but Kobayashi's storytelling is more astute. The casual conversations between Isaburo and other members of the clan combine with convincing swordfights to create a Jacobean samurai film. When blood is shed, it stains the whole corrupt system of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Juxtaposed against the meticulous mannerism of the era, Kobayashi's vivid depiction of the swordplay effectively captures the absurd futility of violence.

The stellar acting from Mifune and Kato make the central conflict all the more engrossing. Mifune's work is another convincing entry in his prestigious career, with him vividly creating a man whose willingness to turn a blind eye has finally diminished. Kato and Yoko Tsukasa make for an electrifying pair, with Tsukasa's spirited, soulful performance illustrating clearly the injustices of the clan. Accompanied by Kobayashi's assured direction, the cast's acting instills the fervor of rebellion in the audience.



"To hell with name and pride! I'll run and never stop!" -Gennosuke Yuki

Sword of the Beast (Kemono no ken, aka Samurai Gold Seekers)
1965
(01h:25m:21s)

From the opening credits to the film's conclusion, Sword of the Beast left me breathless. Disgraced samurai Gennosuke Yuki (Mikijiro Hira) flees the bloodthirsty Misa (Toshie Kimura) and her fiancée Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga). Accompanied by their clan's master swordsman, Gundayu (Takeshi Kato), the couple seeks vengeance on their former comrade, for he murdered Misa's father, the clan's counselor. In a joyfully energetic opening scene, Gennosuke alludes his captors in a wheat field, despite being seduced by a local woman in the process, and begins his life on the lam.

The narrative shifts its focus between the prolonged chase of Gennosuke and the happenings of a married couple mining for gold. Jurota (Go Kato) and his wife Taka (Shima Iwashita) are trespassing on another clan's mountain, but Jurota's swift sword dispenses of a half-dozen witnesses as he waits for his own clan leader to arrive and grant him the rank of retainer. Meanwhile, Gennosuke heads up the mountain with a newfound assistant, the avaricious Tanji (Kunie Tanaka), and soon learns of Jurota's stash of gold. Inevitably, Misa and company will catch up with Gennosuke, who needs to procure gold in order to disappear forever. How events play out is unexpected, with numerous plot twists layering the film in a misty realm of ambiguity. None of the characters act as you would expect and, by film's end, there's no telling who the true beast is.

Director Hideo Gosha's pacing is relentless, pushing his story along at a brisk 85 minutes. These samurai aren't rebelling against a corrupt society, nor do any of them probably think of their actions in terms of rebellion. Mikijiro Hira's Gennosuke is caught up in his own survival, but principled nonetheless. His very survival being on the line, Gennosuke cannot afford the luxury of deriding bandits or preaching lofty ideals. Hira brings an earthy virtue to the character. Go Kato is equally impressive as the na•ve Jurota, who's so caught up in his work that not even the threat of his wife's death gives him pause. The mixture of these characters, one who desperately wishes to live and the other who is indifferent to his own survival, plays out beautifully.

Gosha confines many scenes to uncomfortable quarters and depicts swordplay more viciously than in other works of the period. Yet, at the same time, the greatest conflicts in the story do not involve swords, but Gennosuke and Jurota battling with themselves as each man strives to do what he thinks is right. Looking back on Sword of the Beast, I suspect that Gosha and his co-screenwriter, Eizaburo Shiba, see the beast as Mankind. Perhaps the characters are rebelling against the pitfalls of their own essence, which makes the ensuing drama all the more unpredictable and compelling.



"I believe nothing is certain these days." -Sasuke Sarutobi

Samurai Spy (Ibun sarutobi sasuke)
1965
(01h:39m:55s)

In 1600, the Battle of Sekigehara ended years of civil war and Japan became unified under Tokugawa clan assumed control, despite opposition from various clans. This is the backdrop for Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy, a delicious tale that encompasses virtually everything about humanity. The title character is Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi), a spy for the Sanada clan who is weary of war and more content to philosophize than to slice-and-dice his enemies. Scouring through Japan's countryside, he encounters an old associate, Mitsuaki (Mutsuhiro Toura), who fails to grasp Sasuke's enlightened worldview. Soon enough, however, Sasuke finds himself caught up in a violent conspiracy, not knowing who to trust.

The prominent Tokugawa lieutenant Tatewaki (Eiji Okada) defects from his clan to its rival, the Toyotomi clan. Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba), cloaked in gorgeous white samurai dress, believes Sasuke knows Tatewaki's whereabouts and is determined to use his ninjas to uncover the Toyotomi clan's conspiracy. Narrowly escaping death at every turn, Sasuke corroborates with members of the Toyotomi clan and even falls in love with Omiyo (Jitsuko Yoshimura), an orphan taken in by the clan. The script, by Yoshiyuki Fukuda from a novel by Koji Nakada, is layered with various double-crosses and populated by so many characters that a repeat viewing may be necessary in order to fully comprehend everything that is taking place, and why. However, despite providing an occasional information overload, the screenplay is full of acute insights into the human condition. I'll refrain from divulging any of these insights, since doing so will ruin many key surprises.

Looking at Samurai Spy from a purely aesthetic framework, it is a smashing success. Shinoda's battles are epic, with ninjas and samurai making their way through every nook and crany of a host of locations, and wildly bold. Limbs fly through the air with poise, characters move in-and-out of slow motion majestically, and the outcome of a fight is never certain. Shinoda's camera captures these events without flinching, pushing the audience into the heat of the battle and never letting go. At no point did I view the events on screen without wondering what would happen next and whether our characters would be alive to enjoy it. Ordinarily it is a given that the lead character will survive to the end, but so many themes and plot devices are running simultaneously that, until the conclusion arrives, it is not entirely clear what end Sasuke will serve in the narrative.

Each performance brings a quiet power and mystery to the plot, especially Takahashi who plays Sasuke with restraint, making the philosopher-turned-warrior believable and downright awe inspiring. As a part of Japan's shift in jidai-geki during the 1960s, Shinoda's film stands in a class of its own. Samurai Spy is a multilayered exploration of mankind's nature. Words cannot describe its effect, they can only cheapen it.



"Samurai are no good." -Genta

Kill! (Kiru)
1968
(01h:54m:32s)

Made immediately after the initial impact of Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy, Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! owes every bit as much to the spaghetti western as it does to the works of Kurosawa. Few movies are more entertaining, and even fewer use their entertainment value more wisely. Based on the same novel as Sanjuro, the film depicts two wanderers who arrive separately in a desolate, dustbin of a town. Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) and Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) come looking for food, hearing that the town's yakuza element treats ronin well, both ragged men come in search of a meal. Unfortunately, their information is outdated and the local samurai clan, headed by chamberlain Tamiya Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), is beginning to assume control over the whole town.

Ayuzawa lusts for power and when seven of his men desire to assassinate another chamberlain, he takes the opportunity to do away with his competition. Now he must cover up his involvement in the plot and hatches another to kill the seven assassins. Ordering Jurota (Shin Kishida) to assemble a team for the job, Ayuzawa recruits Hanjiro, despite the vagrant's lack of experience. The clumsy, dimwitted Hanjiro is ecstatic with the prospect of becoming a samurai, but Genta is hesitant to embrace Ayuzawa. It turns out that Genta is, in fact, a disillusioned samurai who abandoned his clan years earlier after committing a heinous act under the guise of duty. The current divide in Ayuzawa's clan mirrors Genta's checkered past and, before long, he covertly aids the seven men who are stranded in a cabin and surrounded by Jurota's forces.

Masaru Sato's score contains a few hints of Ennio Morricone and sets the right tone for the film. Okamoto's direction brims with excitement and up the ante in every fight scene, beginning with the spirited assassination mentioned above and ending in a bloodbath foreshadowing Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Each swordfight is simultaneously fun and unsettlingly, letting the character's sort out the consequences of violence while creating a visual splendor. There seems to be no bound to Okamoto's enthusiasm or inventiveness, and his insatiable quest for killing is remarkably tempered by a keen eye for the human drama involved.

Nakadai is astounding as Genta, making the character's transition from enlightened sage one moment to numbskull the next captivatingly realistic. Genta's analysis of the samurai being an empty way of life, while simultaneously fighting to preserve that life, is the kind of dichotomy art necessitates. Takahashi is a genuine delight as Hanjiro, providing huge laughs as the story's comic relief (look at his reaction when Genta returns to Ayuzawa's house after Hanjiro claimed to have killed him).

Watching Kill! and Sanjuro together, you'd never think they spring from the same novel. Each is a great movie in its own way, but I actually prefer Okamoto's film to Kurosawa's. There's a primal energy and unyielding excitement to Okamoto's direction that technically makes his film inferior to Kurosawa's, but his divergent approach to telling the story appeals to my sensibilities more. Considering the fact that I elect to watch Okamoto's Kill! over a better adaptation of the same material, perhaps it is a masterpiece beyond reproach. After all, it's instilled me to rebel against the master of Japanese cinema.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Each film is presented in an anamorphic RSDL transfer, preserving their 2.35:1 black-and-white pictures. On the whole, these are highly successful transfers. There's some flickering on occasion, but nothing distracting. Print defects pop up on infrequently and detail is impressive in all of them. Samurai Spy is the best of the four, coming across astonishingly crisp and resounding. All contain strong filmlike appearances, with sharp contrast and rich blacks. Samurai Rebellion is the weakest picture, containing some debris and grain, but still looks quite good.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoJapaneseno


Audio Transfer Review: All four movies are presented in their original Japanese monaural audio mix. Music and sound effects come across well and the audio is almost always crisp. Each track contains a noticeable amount of hiss, but otherwise these mixes work well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 84 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—a specific insert containing an essay for each film in the set.
  2. Interviews—a pair of video interviews with directors Masaki Kobayashi and Masahiro Shinoda.
  3. Character Gallery—a guide to the vast cast of Samurai Spy.
Extras Review: Each of the DVDs included in the boxed set is available separately, but when purchased as a whole they come in a packaging reminiscent of the Hitchcock and Kurosawa packages Criterion released a few years ago. Each individual DVD is in its own Amaray keep case, just like any other Criterion, and then a cardboard cover slips over all four cases. The artwork is consistent from cover to cover, making this a nice presentation.

Each film has its own collection of supplemental material. Samurai Rebellion contains an insert with an essay by preeminent Japanese-film historian Donald Richie. Kobayashi's Rebellion is an intelligent analysis of the movie, discussing the original Japanese title and comparing the story to Harakiri. His critique of the aesthetics and themes common to Kobayashi's work, and how this film fits into his larger filmography, is astute and thoughtful. There's also a video interview, Masaki Kobayashi (03m:08s), with the director by Masahiro Shinoda. This is a clip from a longer interview conducted back in 1993 and features a quick discussion of Mifune's work on the set, as well as critical reception to the movie. Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is shown in 2.35:1 widescreen, but beware because it gives away the ending.

For Sword of the Beast, the only extra is an insert containing Patrick Macias' essay, I Wish I Could Be a Beast. Macias gives a nice sense of Japanese culture in the 1960s, as well as the jidai-geki's place at that time. He doesn't provide the most keen insight into the movie, focusing more generically on director Hideo Gosha's career as a whole.

On Samurai Rebellion an insert containing an Alain Silver essay kicks things off. The Thin Line Between Truth and Lies sheds light on director Shinoda's career and the characters in the film. Silver writes eloquently and expresses director Shinoda's intentions, or at least his understanding of them, rather well. Following that is Masahiro Shinoda on Samurai Spy (16m:39s), a newly recorded video interview in which the director explains his career, discusses learning from Ozu and then graduating to directing. His views on intermixing fact with fiction in a story are insightful and he sheds some perspective on the movie that I totally missed on my first viewing, but look forward to taking into account my next time round. There's also a Character Gallery that features a headshot of each actor and a paragraph about the character he depicts in the film.

Lastly, with Kill! the insert features an essay by Howard Hampton. Pardon My Dust is a spirited exegesis on the film. His affection for the movie is explicit and the analysis biased, but it's tough to hold this against Hampton. Rounding out the special features are the film's original theatrical trailer and teaser, each being shown in 2.35:1 widescreen.

While the special features are not extensive, they are a nice supplement to the DVDs.

Extras Grade: C

 

Final Comments

Beginning strongly with Samurai Rebellion, Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics only gets better with each subsequent film. Available separately or together in this boxed set, each of the four films is lovingly brought to life on DVD. Don't hesitate to add this collecion to yours.

 


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