Samurai Spy

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #312: Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy.

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Like any good spy movie, most of the time in Samurai Spy the view­er doesn’t know who is who, who is what and who is where. This is good. The film al­so has a bit of an Ian Fleming flair to the whole af­fair; spies bang­ing oth­er spies for in­for­ma­tion, for ex­am­ple. The film al­so re­mind­ed me very much of man­ga; it ap­pears that Shinoda used tele­pho­to lens­es quite of­ten, re­sult­ing in shots that feel com­pressed al­most to two-di­men­sion­al­i­ty. The cam­era crew must’ve been sim­ply amaz­ing though, be­cause there are many shots that re­quire ex­act ad­just­ments of fo­cus near­ly in­stan­ta­neous­ly, and just as many long-takes which start out in a com­pressed long shot, but end in close-up. The cam­era isn’t mov­ing, just the ac­tors. The film is beau­ti­ful and worth watch­ing sim­ply for the shot-fram­ing, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, and cam­era work. A mas­ter­piece of tech­nique.

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I think this film is al­so the first old Japanese film I’ve seen that us­es spe­cial ef­fect tech­niques that films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon owe a strong debt to. When they want to, samu­rai and nin­ja move ab­solute­ly silent­ly, thanks to a lack of sound track and the tac­ti­cal use of Foley to ren­der oth­er am­bi­ent sounds. This works at all points, ex­cept on­ce, where Sasuke jumps on­to a roof and we see the tiles shake and dust arise, but hear noth­ing. Pretty much all of the char­ac­ters have a su­per­nat­u­ral jump­ing abil­i­ty that goes along with their stealth. These stunts are ridicu­lous­ly cool, even 40+ years af­ter their film­ing; thanks in part, to more care­ful work with shot se­lec­tion and edit­ing.

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The sto­ry is more sat­is­fy­ing than many spy films as well. The per­se­cu­tion of Japanese Christians plays a small but im­por­tant role through­out the film; and Sasuke’s sta­tus as a third-par­ty samu­rai rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a rel­a­tive­ly neu­tral clan, is a new and wel­come an­gle on the of­ten over­played Toyotomi/​Tokugawa ri­val­ry. I’ve con­sis­tent­ly re­ferred to this film as a spy film, and not a samu­rai film, main­ly be­cause it is so dif­fer­ent than most samu­rai films. There is no fo­cus on hon­or, forth­right­ness and fair play that are typ­i­cal virtues of a samu­rai film. In Samurai Spy, al­though it is a pe­ri­od piece, the un­scrupu­lous na­ture of every spy [Sasuke ex­cept­ed] gives it a dis­tinct­ly mod­ern feel. Sasuke him­self isn’t a typ­i­cal hero, his cyn­i­cism re­gard­ing the “pre­car­i­ous peace” he has lived with for half his life al­so pro­vides a cer­tain per­spec­tive un­bound by clan loy­al­ty. Because of this, he is able to suc­cess­ful­ly nav­i­gate his way to safe­ty, leav­ing a trail of dead on both sides be­hind him. For a man who feels that vi­o­lence should be avoid­ed, this might seems strange, un­til you re­al­ize that those that die on his sword did so of their own choice.

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• Criterion es­say by Alain Silver.
Criterion es­say by Chris D.
• Kung Fu Cinema Review with stills.

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