In the 1950s, the samurai film evolved definitively from the early narrative and visual conventions that had restrained it. Although they often worked outside the genre, Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi were the principals in a first wave of directors who redefined chanbara—a term taken from theater that refers to any drama, including a movie, that features realistic sword-play—culminating with the release of Yojimbo (1961) and Harakiri (1962). In the years immediately following those films, a second wave of chanbara innovators emerged, directors who were children during the decade of imperialism leading up to World War II and who approached questions of tradition and authority from an even more critical perspective. Under a host of new graphic influences, from television drama to more realistic detail in manga (comic books), these directors took the thematic and stylistic innovations of Kurosawa and Kobayashi to new extremes. As were many postwar moviegoers, the period characters created by these filmmakers were estranged from their environment—Japan’s feudal society—so that violence in these films functions both as existential definition of a protagonist’s being and as the most direct method for expressing his (or, on rare occasions, her) oppressed relationship to that society.
In Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1965), Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy (1965), and Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (1965), a new type of samurai was defined: pitiless, obsessive, perhaps more alienated than any other genre hero. And the directors supported these new character emotions through heightened violence and stylization: unnervingly orchestrated details, from the muffled rasp of steel ripping into flesh to dark blood spurting from wounds; placid shots of sword blades being carefully cleaned or kimono sleeves being tied back into fighting position; simple inserts of a protagonist’s darting eyes, focused and confident even as he senses imminent attack.
Still, while these new chanbara directors sought to break new ground, they had to grapple with the traditions of their predecessors. They could not completely ignore what the general audience expected from the samurai genre. Kurosawa, in Yojimbo, introduced that audience to a ruthless title figure, who can unheroically remark to a family he has just saved: “If you cry, I’ll kill you. I hate pathetic people.” Kobayashi exposed the sham of Bushido, the warrior code of behavior, in Harakiri. For the even more sardonic and anarchic aspects of their narratives, Gosha, Shinoda, and Okamoto had to find newer and more expressive complements.
In an ironic way, all these directors occupy a position similar to that of their characters, relative to the genre itself. On the one hand, they are presented with a closed or preestablished generic identity with which to work, an identity substantially defined by and reinforcing, if not glorifying, a feudal system. On the other hand, there is a possibility for breaking away from that system, an open, generic potential, grounded in both the postwar evolution of the samurai character and in their own appreciation of the genre as a medium for serious expression.
Shinoda’s films are somewhat distinguished from those of his contemporaries by his pointed use of static pictorialism and theatricality. Shinoda could create stylized montage with the best of them (Gosha and Okamoto). But his camera is just as often in repose, creating a more subtle tone of apprehension as his characters await the inevitable eruption of violence. As Shinoda himself has said in introductory essays to several of his motion pictures, he considers film a form with the potential for expressive continuity with the traditional arts of Japan. “The idea that truth can be approached through deformation and abstraction is essential to all forms of contemporary art,” he wrote regarding his movie Double Suicide (1969). This belief inspired Shinoda, like the Japanese writer Chikamatsu, on whose Bunraku, or puppet play, Double Suicide is based, to seek “the thin line between truth and falsehoods.”
For Shinoda, that material distinction is analogous to the equally thin line between reality, or verisimilitude, and fantasy in art. Pictorialism and theatricality are the alternately deforming and abstracting qualities in film that define that line. Based on this aesthetic assumption, Shinoda opted to insert kurogo into Double Suicide. These black-clothed figures act “invisibly” to change the scenery in Japanese theater, but their appearance on-screen, in another medium of expression, automatically transforms the conventional surface reality. Filmic devices—long takes, with their intensified sense of real time; low-key lighting; or unusual framing, all of which occur in Samurai Spy—become formal transliterations and analogues for the deformation and abstraction that Shinoda perceived to be at work in painterly and theatrical traditions.
In terms of narrative in postwar chanbara, the disparate versions of events featured in such films as Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) soon evolved into the multilayered narratives of Harakiri, Gosha’s Goyokin (1969), and Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin (1965): often achronological, overlapping, and/or linked to various character points of view. “Normal” plot flow was not required, and the complexities of unexpected action and unexplained motive could be piled on rather than sifted through. Samurai Spy exemplifies—and then some!—this new approach. Its labyrinthine story line centers on the pursuit, by the legendary title figure, Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi), of a man named Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada), an agent of the Tokugawa clan who plans to defect to the Toyotomi faction. From this, Shinoda elaborates a maze of assumed identities and false trails. Wandering through a countryside where he regularly encounters the residual violence of the recently ended civil war, Shinoda’s personage moves with the guileless self-assurance of a Dante passing from a dark forest into a darker and murderous inferno.
Shinoda, like his contemporaries, exploits genre typing as both expository shorthand and a source of viewer expectation against which he may play dramatically. As a result, Sasuke often appears to be more of a spectator than a participant in the film’s events. He does, however, serve as a catalyst for other characters to begin “acting,” in all senses of the word. Because Sasuke’s pursuit is so often passive, constructed of many individual scenes in which he literally waits for something to happen, a number of the audience’s normal expectations are diminished and redirected toward the less predictable supporting figures in the film, most notably the mysterious, white-hooded Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) and his band of Tokugawa spies, who are seeking Tatewaki to prevent his defection. The result is a narrative tone that strongly supports an observation made by Sasuke very early in the film, just before he and the ronin Mitsuaki Inamura eat rice cakes and discuss “Tokugawa politics” by a tranquil riverside: “I believe nothing is certain these days.”
The few minutes of movie that precede that remark are charged with the unexpected and uncertain. The opening seems straightforward enough. Over a montage of stock footage of war banners and battle scenes, a disembodied voice establishes the period: “At the end of the sixteenth century, the Battle of Sekigahara took place . . .” As the battle scenes give way to water-colors of the era, it is “1614, fourteen years after Sekigahara.” Some of the painted figures wear Western garb, including bowler hats and crosses on chains around their necks. Others are in kimonos, in dance poses. From this subtle visual confusion, a camera pans quickly across a rooftop at night, following a man’s legs. As he leaps from the roof, we get a longer shot that reveals dark silhouettes converging on him in a narrow alley. Then a close-up underscores the man’s entrapment. Slow motion and sound effects punctuate a short-lived escape attempt, as the trapped man is mortally wounded by the Tokugawa spies. A cut to a new location reveals another man scurrying through the uneven light under the eaves of a manor, clambering silently over the rafters of a portico, and also being caught. A brutal interrogation scene follows, as this captured spy, who is possibly one of the men from the preceding scene, is hung upside down and tortured by Toyotomi agents. Before any of this can be clarified, another cutaway occurs, and we’re following another man: Sasuke. He hurries through a misty daylit forest, while a voice-over laments: “I am pursued. I am always pursued by something.”
The effect of the complex prologue is less expository than it is evocative. What information the audience does receive—there are spies involved, people are being killed, someone is being pursued—is subsumed by the dissociative impact of Shinoda’s graphic scheme. As if to restrict identification, Sasuke is often in shadows, hidden behind objects, masked like a ninja, or seen from the rear. Dizzying effects, whether whip pans or unanticipated cutaways, create a visual confusion that immediately displaces the measured tones of the opening narration and the stable images of the historical paintings. It is in this context and at a sensory level that the viewer may embrace Sasuke’s assertion that “nothing is certain.”
According to Shinoda, the kurogo in Double Suicide “sometimes represent the eye of the camera, sometimes the desire of the audience to force their way deeper into the story, into the minds of the characters, and possibly even into the mind of the author himself.” In Samurai Spy, the surface realities of the film function in the same enigmatic way. Shinoda uses broken shots: images full of angular and conflicting lines of force; direct cuts to unexpected perspectives; and shots with actors partially blocked from the audience’s sight by foreground clutter. Such usage compositionally sustains the visual kinesis of the opening sequence throughout the film. While Shinoda may occasionally revert to a long take in order to concentrate or intensify an image and draw the audience “deeper into the story,” even those have unstable and unusual elements. For instance, the sequence in the communal baths at the inn combines comic relief, superficial eroticism, and the inherent tension of the long take with a distancing from Sasuke’s point of view. The camera stays back, panning from one side of the bathing area to the other, and never gives the viewer a close look at Sasuke’s face, never permits a reading of his reactions. Sasuke has already remarked that he does not know what is in the mind of the lord of his Sanada clan, does not know to which faction, Tokugawa or Toyotomi, his clansmen will ultimately give their allegiance. His disinclination to take sides or become too actively involved will lead to several deaths in the first half of the picture. Shinoda mirrors this sequence near the end of the film, when Sasuke decides that he must act. There the long take underscores the dramatic tension more typically: withholding a cut heightens suspense and anticipation.
Shinoda is often less interested in a striking visualization for its figurative meaning than for its sharp sensory impact. If there is a metaphorical value to the dark alleyways down which his main character must repeatedly move, or a cyclical implication to opening and closing scenes with Sasuke on misty mountaintops, there is also a prevailing sense of peril or mystery to which all these visual tropes are subsidiary. Above all, there in a constant undercurrent that says appearances are unreliable. “Who are you? Enemies or friends?” Sasuke must ask, because gestures, faces, and words are no longer trustworthy indices.
Despite his profession of greater interest in the aesthetic than in the social context of his films, Shinoda’s probing for that division between truth and falsehood creates the same ironies found in the films of Gosha and Okamoto, who also walk that thin line, a variant on the classic moral dilemma of the samurai who must choose between duty to clan (giri) and common morality (ninjo). There is an enforced anonymity in Samurai Spy’s conclusion: having survived and saved Omiyo, the young woman orphaned by the battle that brought the Tokugawa to power, and having, symbolically at least, withstood the feudal might of the shogunate, Sasuke stands with his colleague Saizo Kirigakure and Omiyo in an extreme long shot, as the swirling mists dissipate. A voice-over relates, “Six months later, the winter war took place in Osaka. The Sanada clan was approached by both sides but allied itself with Toyotomi and fought Tokugawa; but there is no record that Sasuke Sarutobi fought in Sanada’s army.” The audience is left with no real information about the nature of the title character, no exploration of his actions or inactions, nothing more than Sakon’s remark just before he dies: “Sasuke, you are an odd person. You really are.” Like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, who hates pathetic people but saves them nonetheless, Sasuke is both genre figure and ordinary character, both killer and savior, both larger than life and lost in the mists.
Alain Silver is the author of The Samurai Film, the third edition of which was just released by the Overlook Press. He has also written and edited director studies of David Lean and Robert Aldrich, three surveys of the horror genre, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, and eight books on film noir.