Criterion Sunday 312: 異聞猿飛佐助 Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy, 1965)

Masahiro Shinoda is a filmmaker who makes distinctive pieces of work, and as such has a place at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave (amongst which Oshima and Imamura are probably the best known exponents). His 1969 film Double Suicide has already come up in the Criterion Collection, and it’s an odd kabuki-like performance piece that belies its gruesome title (and I confess it rather confounded me). You would think that the period swordplay chanbara film genre would be more straightforward — and there are indeed some bravura sequences of action and fighting — but Shinoda has a lot of the same visual style, cutting up the action into vignettes and rendering some sequences like abstract works of art in all their monochrome style. Unlike say the Samurai trilogy of Inagaki, or some other key texts set in this era (at the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early-17th century), the fighting isn’t noble and elegant, but rather can be bloody and brutal, with hidden daggers and throwing stars (usually more the province of the less-exalted shinobi or ninja warriors), and protracted fight sequences that lack the grace of some other Japanese works. Still, there’s plenty of style and you can see throughlines to a lot of modern cinema in the way Shinoda stages his action, even if the historical details and names can get a little overwhelming (though I’ve found it necessary to pause to do a fair bit of Wikipedia research at the start of most Japanese period films). This is one of the more striking examples of the genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masahiro Shinoda 篠田正浩; Writer Yoshiyuki Fukuda 福田善之; Cinematographer Masao Kosugi 小杉正雄; Starring Koji Takahashi 高橋幸治, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2020.

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