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by David Wilentz

Criterion’s Rebel Samurai box set features four gripping entries in the genre, all depicting men challenged by unscrupulous hierarchies struggling for power: Sword of the Beast; Samurai Spy; Samurai Rebellion; Kill! These four pictures offer alook at the second wave of post war samurai films and the key directors who emerged from that wave. Focusing on the perennial samurai dilemma of giri (duty) versus ninjo (morality) allowed each auteur to make his mark artistically despite genre convention. These directors were in a sense rebellious like the samurai of their films, and still very much aware of their duty.

Samurai, like cowboy heroes, lived and were defined by a code of honor and morality. But what does a samurai do when pushed to the limit of his convictions? After being tricked into killing the counselor of his clan, Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), the protagonist of Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (1965)faces his pursuers with the fervor of a cornered animal. Gosha’s film has an abundance of brisk paced, well choreographed chanbara (sword swinging) action but what really stands out is how his gritty, naturalistic style reflects the vehement angst with which this anti-hero reacts to the corrupt world around him.

Samurai Spy (1965) plays almost like a Saturday matinee serial with damsels in distress, ninjas leaping through the air, face- offs atop bridges and so forth. However, director Masahiro Shinoda, who brought us the lyrical yakuza noir Pale Flower, imbues his work with an impressionistic element through stylized montage and unusual framing, catapulting this yarn beyond formulaic conventions. All the films in this box are lusciously shot in B/W but Shinoda finds moments to utilize light and dark as a metaphor for the film’s diegetic as well as emotional complexities.

What makes the Criterion brand so transcendent, so necessary, is their ability to combine PBS-style austerity with an acute genre sensibility. Authors of the attached essays include Japanese film luminaries like Donald Ritchie (A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) and Alain Silver (The Samurai Film) as well as Patrick Macias, author of Tokyo scope, a study of Japanese cult and trash films. Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967), more so than the other films included, has the classic and prestigious feel that western audiences may be more accustomed to (being familiar with Kurosawa’s oeuvre or Kobayashi’s Hara Kiri and Kwaidan). The drama is Shakespearean, building slowly but intensely, perfectly mirrored by the extraordinary restraint that Toshiro Mifune’s character exhibits. Only in the final reel do the film’s dramatic tensions finally explode in a barrage of physical action. And do they ever explode.

Kihachi Okamoto offers the other extreme of the samurai film with Kill! (1968). All archetypes are exaggerated to the max, allowing a chaotic send-up of the chanbara genre. Tatsuya Nakadai gleefully wallows in the comic side of his ronin character, a stark contrast to the characterization of pure evil that he delivered in Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. The convoluted plot gets a little hard to follow (interestingly it was based on the same novel that served as the source for Kurosawa’s Sanjuro) but the odd assortment of characters and Spaghetti Western style abandon manage to bring it to a rollicking finish; thus making Kill! the perfect capper to the set.