The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut.
Isao Natsuyagi is Kiba, the Samurai Wolf, an affable, beguiling swordsman willing to lend a hand and smile. In Samurai Wolf, Kiba uses his quick-draw style help defend a small town messenger service against a plot to ruin it by stealing a 30,000 ryo delivery, while the sequel sees the young wanderer embroiled in the vengeful plans of a prisoner who reminds him of his long-dead father. Balancing chambara conventions with Spaghetti Western style, Hideo Gosha creates a pair of exhilarating films consistent with his dark, cynical portrayals of corruption and violence, while offering an unexpected brightness in the honest and honorable Kiba. Full of secret plans, hidden grudges, double-dealing, and lethal aggression, Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut are entertaining proof that good things come in small packages.
- New, restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Audio commentary by Japanese-cinema historian Chris D.
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A booklet featuring new essays by film critic Bilge Ebiri, Japanese-film and -culture critic Patrick Macias, and graphic novelist J. P. Kalonji
Following his take on Tange Sazen in The Secret of the Urn (1966), Hideo Gosha returned to black and white filmmaking with a pair of brief and bloody sword-fight flicks starring Isao Natsuyagi as the furious wolf, Kiba Okiminosuke (literally meaning “wolf’s fang”). The conventional wisdom surrounding these films holds that they are the least Gosha-like of the director’s chambaras, however care should be taken not to overstate how far the Samurai Wolf films deviate from this Goshan ideal. Hideo Gosha’s films are typified by pitch black examinations of corruption and failed moral codes through embittered anti-hero protagonists. Both of these films remain lean, violent pictures full of mercenary motivations and resolutions soaked in blood. The fact that Samurai Wolf and its sequel are considered Gosha’s brightest spots are testament to how dark a world Gosha typically wallows in and how brightly the performance of Natsuyagi shines.
It is fair to say that Isao Natsuyagi’s Kiba is as unlikely a chambara hero as one is likely to find in Japanese cinema. While first depicted in the opening title sequence of Samurai Wolf displaying his swordsmanship, the sequence that follows immediately dispels his aura as another ominously dangerous, man-of-few-words, chambara hero. Kiba is shown in close-up scarfing down bowls of rice, grains caught in his beard and stuck on his face. He cheerfully informs the old woman running the roadside restaurant/shack that he has no money to pay for his meals and quickly calms her anger when he offers to work off his meal, happily patching her roof and chopping wood. Kiba is a good-natured, slightly goofy looking, young man unburdened by the class and honour codes that weigh down so many chambara characters, often hypocritically. His is a positive worldview and a considerate nature based on individual respect and not status. This perspective persists throughout Samurai Wolf and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the darker Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut, and Kiba’s unvarnished and unequivocating humanity, along with his jovial demeanour, sets him and the films apart as something different from the genre and Gosha’s other work.
Samurai Wolf sees Kiba wander into a small town Yojimbo-style and become embroiled in the plight of a small messenger service relay station. Its proprietress, a young blind woman named Chise (Junko Miyazono), enlists the aid of Kiba against Nizaemon (Tatsuo Endo), a corrupt operator of the town’s shogunate messenger office with aims to take over Chise’s business. Chise agrees to transport 30,000 ryo, an official consignment that she is not equipped to properly handle and is an obvious trap designed to ruin her, however she hopes that the presence of Kiba is enough to protect her operation. Samurai Wolf speedily reveals a tangle of conspiracies and double-dealings including multiple different gangs of thugs and ronin employed by Nizaemon, a peasant girl-turned-prostitute with a grudge, a master swordsman with a secret history and a plot with the local brothel madam, and an aggressively pestering monkey. By the film’s conclusion, Kiba will have dispatched a plethora of nasty individuals, but will leave the town disappointed in the character of even those he admired and loved.
The sequel, Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut, features less of Kiba, although it does provide insight on the young swordsman’s background. Here, Kiba follows a group of officials transporting 3 prisoners and is fascinated by Kawazu Magobei, a murderer who reminds the furious wolf of his long-dead father. A flashback to a young Kiba traveling with his father as he makes his living challenging dojos, eventually cut down by representatives of an angry and embarrassed school, is our first glimpse into the events that shaped the young swordsman. Kiba provides Kawazu with an opportunity to escape his captors and the man heads up a mountain to confront a gang of criminals secretly working a goldmine closed down by the government. The furious wolf is naturally caught between his attraction to Kawazu, his love for the daughter of the evil gang’s leader, a seductress in love with Kawazu, and a dojo operator intent on duelling Kiba. Hellcut seems to riff on its predecessor. While he battles an injured swordsman in Samurai Wolf one-handed to make their duel fair, the dojo operator in the sequel offers no such compromise to Kiba. And as the fortuitous intervention of the monkey saves Kiba in the first film, fatal blows are similarly avoided in Hellcut thanks to Kiba’s splint and the sacrifices of other characters.
The Samurai Wolf films are stylish, efficient efforts by Gosha, feeling like a kind of back-to-basics reorientation by a director making increasingly ambitious films. Contrasts between blacks and whites are often stark, even harsh at times. Compositions are beautifully crafted, relying on close close-ups, depth of field, and reflective surfaces to create arresting images. The further use of still images, slow motion, and silence or isolated audio tracks over sequences of action add further flourish. At times, Samurai Wolf strongly evokes the contemporaneous Spaghetti Western movement and nowhere more prominently than in Toshiaki Tsushima’s score which relies on an odd but intriguing blend of harmonica, french horn, piano, and Japanese instruments. The trailers above suggest that Samurai Wolf was intended as a series, perhaps akin to the Zatoichi franchise, however little is available online to explain why Kiba’s adventures stalled at two films. Still, Gosha left us with a pair of fast-paced, adorably convoluted, action-packed chambaras starring an unusually likeable and accessible hero. While still darkly violent, this may be Gosha at his most light-hearted, making Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut a welcome alternative to the Criterion Collection’s other Gosha films that include disc releases of Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) and Sword of the Beast (1965) and Hulu releases of Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron (1978), Hunter in the Dark (1979), Death Shadows (1986), and Heat Wave (1991).
Clocking in at a mere 75 and 72 minutes respectively, it makes sense to release Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II: Hellcut together. (The Collection just announced 25 Zatoichi films all under the same spine number, so why not these two?) Swiss graphic novelist J. P. Kalonji would be an ideal and entertaining choice for a Criterion cover commission. Kalonji’s superb chambara trade paperbacks 365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice and Ningen’s Nightmares bring a street art sensibility to samurai-era Japan while preserving a strong reverence for the culture and seemingly paying respect to the line-work of Japanese brush calligraphy. Isao Natsuyagi’s wide eyes and happy-go-lucky smile, Kô Nishimura’s long, gloomy face, Ryôhei Uchida’s thick eyebrows, Junko Miyazono’s feminine resolve, Tatsuo Endô’s portly malevolence, and Yûko Kusunoki’s hard-bitten duplicity await Kalonji’s flattering caricature, promising unique and entertaining packaging for the films.
Credits: A number of different posts contributed to this proposal, including those at The Jidai-Geki Knights, Films from the Far Reaches, and Lone Wolves & Hidden Dragons. Chris D. is a highly regarded Japanese film scholar, has provided DVD commentaries to a variety of Japanese films, and has provided essays to the Criterion Collection, however he’s yet to supply a commentary to the Collection. These films seem like a good opportunity to remedy that omission. Bilge Ebiri wrote the essay for the Criterion edition of Three Outlaw Samurai, while Patrick Macias provided an essay for the Collection’s version of Sword of the Beast, making them suitable choices to comment on these films. J. P. Kalonji‘s comic book work in the samurai genre as a writer as well as an artist puts him in the rare position of being able to comment on the film as well as provide a cover treatment.