Not as samurai savvy as you’d like to be? Have trouble telling your Hattori Hanzos from your Musashi Miyamotos? Well, consider 1965’s Samurai Spy to be your own private, Criterion-catered crash course. The faint of heart and lax of attention need not apply, as so many names and affiliations are tossed about, you ponder taking an exam out of sheer decorum. Though its historical accuracy is a little suspect, Samurai Spy shines as a blade of a different caliber, applying a structure American cinephiles know by heart to the usual chambara hijinks.
It’s 1614 in jolly old Japan, and after a brief era of peace, war threatens to tear the nation in two all over again. As rival clans dispatch their finest spies in order to grab onto as big a piece of the pie as possible, Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi) is one ronin who couldn’t care less. Nevertheless, he’s yanked into the world of espionage by old friend and fellow warrior Mitsuaki Inamura (Rokko Toura). Mitsuaki’s been tasked with escorting Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada), spy supreme in the Tokugawa clan’s service, on his way to defect to their foes, the Toyotomis. But before Sasuke can bail, he finds himself branded a killer and targeted by Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tamba), a Tokugawa lieutenant assigned to cut down Tatewaki and anyone who dares give him a helping hand.
If you’re thinking this is an awful lot to absorb, then you’d best bust out the spreadsheets, kemosabe. It doesn’t take long for Samurai Spy to whip itself into a veritable maelstrom of swapped alliances and double-crosses upon double-crosses, making it easy to lose your mind and/or patience. But to put things into perspective, think of Samurai Spy as a classic film noir. Instead of a world-weary gumshoe on the case, you get a world-weary samurai in the midst of political upheaval. Instead of the rain-slick alleyways of some metropolis, you get the thatched-roof cityscapes of Edo days. This makes Sasuke our Sam Spade, and while not as anarchic as Raizo Ichikawa in the Sleepy Eyes of Death series, he shares the same Bogartian tendency to shake his head at the evil men do. The similarly complex plot reaches perplexing heights in the latter scenes, but both the main premise and the film’s overarching themes remain arresting.
Samurai Spy has been viewed as a response to the Cold War period during which it was released, and it’s not hard to see why. It makes wise observations on the paranoia of the era, on how opposing forces get so wrapped up in peeking in on one another, the slightest display of conscience or logic results in chaos. The film’s characters reflect this, as they’re divided into shameless opportunists or those too afraid to show common sense for fear of losing a limb. Director Masahiro Shinoda deals with the story’s action and overtones with equal footing, his visuals ranging from sparse but effective slo-mo swordfights to a literal and metaphorical fog enveloping the climax. Takahashi gets some great scenes early on, but he eventually becomes a placeholder for the viewer, someone just wandering around in search of what the flying flip is going on. Tamba, on the other hand, has no difficulty leaving an impression as the mysterious badass in white he plays to perfection.
Along with other genre delights, Samurai Spy can appropriately be found in the Criterion Collection’s “Rebel Samurai” line-up. It’s not traditional samurai fare, passing on most of its thrills to extend the story’s mystique and featuring a slightly detached lead in lieu of a stouthearted hero. How much you need to keep track of can be daunting, but Samurai Spy rewards you for your troubles with a sort of chambara flick you won’t see often.