As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a small town essentially in the middle of nowhere. Things like foreign films didn’t exist. There were no arthouse theaters in my one-horse town. Likewise, the small private college I attended really didn’t do much to change that aspect of my reality; while the Speech and Theater program did have some film classes, the bulk of that curriculum was centered around American-made classics, so I just had so little exposure to these films. Granted, I did start to find more titles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: a brief career in video retail swung open this door slowly, and I was glad to finally have access to an increasingly global library of content to inspire my film likes and dislikes.
So much has been written over the years suggesting how much the quintessential American Western owes to the Japanese samurai film and vice versa, so I don’t feel the need to explore that further. Suffice it to say, these two genres have so much in common that some might even find it difficult to tell them apart. The bottom line – so far as I’ve ever considered it – is that each has something to offer the other, and talented storytellers on both sides of the ocean have maximized crossover appeal to benefit of the audience.
Today’s treat – Hideo Gosha’s Samurai Wolf – is a picture I’ve long been aware of but unable to locate a suitable copy of for viewing and review purposes. So a hearty thanks goes out to Film Movement for continuing to bridge the cultural gap and deliver some of the lesser known productions to life again, especially on home video (as opposed to streaming). Don’t get me wrong: I’m all-in on streaming when I can, but – being as old school as I am – I still prefer physical media as it gives me greater opportunity to spend time with a gem like this.
And, yes, it is a gem.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A charismatic ronin gets snared into a conflict between officials at a waystation, and gains the enmity of a group of thugs.”
One of the aspects I’ve always enjoyed about samurai films is that – stylistically – I’ve always seen them functioning with a great degree of minimalism so far as the central story goes. (Mind you: I’ve been told by my cultural betters that this isn’t always the case, but – as this is my review – I can only go with what I’ve seen.) Whatever the main premise of the flick is, it’s usually very lean; and the time-consuming substance of the picture tends to gravitate toward the shifting alliances of its many characters.
For example, in Samurai Wolf writer/director Hideo Gosha crafts an interesting yarn about the movement of 30,000 pieces of gold from one city to another. In terms of bare bones, that is the story on the bottom line. However, the true flavor of this visual meal is how all of these players – Ôkaminosuke aka Kiba (played wonderfully by Isao Natsuyagi), Nizaemon (Tatsuo Endô), Akizuki Sanai (Ryôhei Uchida), and others – are reasonably always in flux as it pertains to who they’re pledging their allegiance to. These changing terms redefine relationships and reshape conflicts, always elevating the otherwise routine affair. Intelligent viewers (or anyone watching closely) know full well that – in many, many, many samurai pictures – the hero and the villain inevitably end up allies (of a sort) at some juncture in the action. True, they rarely finish the adventure as friends, but it’s grand for a time when even good and bad respect and abide by the warrior’s code of honor instead of sticking to their guns (erm … swords?) out of sheer convenience or contrivance.
As a director, Gosha kinda/sorta experiments a bit here and there in Wolf with some curious techniques. An awful lot is done with the accompanying soundtrack – musical and otherwise), and the picture is sprinkled with moments of silence and even a (say it isn’t so!) short sequence of slow motion here and there. I suppose that film students might have a bit more reflection on that sort of trickery than I do. My position is that I’m not certain some of it really accomplished anything reverential where it’s applied here; in fact, the occasional loss of audio comes across more like a production flaw (in one case, specifically), and – were I a gambling man – I wonder whether or not Gosha would’ve excised these with greater wisdom learned as an auteur later in his career.
When style trumps substance, I – as a viewer – always find it intrusive. It pulls me out of the experience of watching a film, reminding me that it’s just a movie and – at this point – I begin contemplating what the storyteller was trying to say. For a brief moment, I stop actively watching and start thinking, and this effect kinda/sorta spoils the mood. It definitely interrupts the flow. Though I’ve no doubt such techniques might find license elsewhere, they just felt more like a distraction here than I would’ve liked.
In the end, I can forgive any director a few sins, especially when the entertainment is as solid as Wolf is. Gosha’s picture is a lean masterpiece, one that should tickle the delight of samurai fans everywhere.
Samurai Wolf (1966) was produced by Toei Tokyo. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good people at Film Movement. As for the technical specifications? After a quick review of the Film Movement website, I’m not seeing any information regarding whether or not these were new scans of existing material, so I can’t comment on that. I can say that the film looks and sounds fabulous from start-to-finish, though some viewers might believe that there’s a loss of audio (on occasion) due to stylistic choices director Gosha employed. (FYI: there isn’t, and that sudden silence was part of his master plan.)
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc includes a video short exploring Gosha’s carrer, and the collection includes a 20-page booklet exploring some of the same. Samurai Wolf comes with an audio commentary track from Chris Poggiali, and – as commentaries go – I’d have to rate it as fair-to-middling. Typically, what I look for is information pertaining specifically to this production, and the track is reasonably light on that. There is a wealth of info regarding the stars, release dates, and some cultural tidbits; I just didn’t feel I learned enough about this flick, and that was a tad disappointing.
Highest recommendation possible!
Samurai Wolf (1966) is a warrior’s delight, and the flick offers damn near everything and anything a viewer could want from a samurai picture. Its story is compact, allowing for its characters to bend and shape as they will, switching from hero to villain – from lover to betrayed – at the drop of a hat or the subtle change in circumstance. Natsuyagi is particularly impressive as his Kiba doesn’t give things like money, credit, and reputation much thought, instead allowing his actions to speak for themselves once swords are crossed. Scruffy yet fiercely independent, he’s the kind of ronin whose reputation precedes him … and God help the man or woman who stands in his way.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Movement provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Samurai Wolf 1 & 2 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.