Samurai Spy

Samurai Spy ★★★★½

Masahiro Shinoda has crafted one of the best of all Samurai films -- in widescreen black and white -- a broad canvas that seems to reflect, with it winds, mists, and vistas, the broad panorama of Japan's distant past of warring clans. It takes place a number of years after the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which United the country for awhile under the okugawa shogunate, and it ends right before the winter siege of Osaka in 1614.

All of the central characters appear to be spying or informing on one another for three competing clans as they move from town to town, and the brief battles with sword, knife, spike, and other samurai weaponry are heart-pounding confrontations that leave the victors as bloody as those they defeat.

The hero here, who has a more honorable code than most, is Sarutobi Sasuke (Kôji Takahashi), who with his aquiline nose, tall frame, and handsome features, fits perfectly the admirable character with whom we most sympathize. There's a lot of betrayal, switching of sides, and deception by the many characters, and at least two beautiful women, Okiwa, a festival dancer who may also be a spy (Misako Watanabe), and Omiyo, an orphan who serves in Joshinji Temple (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are prominently featured. Both of them of course are quite taken by Sasuke.

The number of names of officials, clans, priests, locations, and rōnin (wandering samurai) is daunting... so don't wear yourself out trying to keep them all straight. It's impossible. The important ones become apparent as the tale progresses.

This is an epic-looking and very artistic film. The warriors here are mostly engaged in espionage, and they move more like ninja, than the classic rowdies of the Kurosawa films, such as "The Seven Samurai." The fights seem personal and more stealthy than the broad-scale cut and slash bloodbaths of other Japanese samurai films.

The music too while relying upon traditional Japanese themes in part has some jazzy sections with intriguing percussion, giving it a sometimes modern feel. The two sections which involve the main characters moving among large festival crowds are especially suspenseful and exciting.

If you like this genre at all, you will like "Samurai Spy" which takes it in surprisingly dramatic and poetic directions.