Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics

Sixties revisionism demanded that the samurai had to be re-imagined for a sceptical new age. Kurosawa had fired the opening volley with Yojimbo, featuring a paradoxically aloof and involved samurai antihero and subsequent filmmakers took the archetype to further cynical depths. Criterion's new collection offers a cross-section of approaches to the after-innocence samurai, ranging from the straight-ahead to the formally bizarre. The most "normal" title is Sword of the Beast (1965), in which a disgraced and pursued samurai stumbles upon a plot to illegally mine the Shogun's gold; he has to protect a couple of patsies from a conspiracy of bigwigs against his better judgment. Hideo Gosha's direction is nice looking but not terribly expressive, and his hero is more a series of anti-hero reflex actions than a real character, but it's all good, with a nice swordplay finale and a fine squinty-eyed lead performance by Mikijiro Hira. More enjoyable (and considerably more slaphappy) is Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! (1968), in which a world-weary Ronin and a bumpkin wannabe swordsman are entangled in a turf war between a clan leader and a pack of rebels. The film is no less jaded than Beast, but it has in its favour a rapid-fire wit, a willingness to send up some pompous samurai conventions and a sense of proportion about the level of its satire, plus the spaghetti western references are a hoot. Most visually accomplished is Samurai Spy (1965), in which new wave master Masahiro Shinoda unloads a labyrinthine conspiracy on one weary samurai desperate to maintain Tokugawa's shaky peace, drawing him into an espionage plot where he alternately pursues and is pursued by a brilliant ninja in white. Shinoda pulls out all the stops in this one, offering a world of alienation through both the sheer weight of deceit and the slowed-down, kinetically-defused action sequences. But the bona-fide classic of the collection is Samurai Rebellion (1967), in which swordsman Toshiro Mifune has his capricious lord's mistress foisted upon his son, only to see her called back when the two have married and sired a daughter. Where the first two films are mostly exercises in attitude and the third one is a formalist's delight, Rebellion has genuine moral outrage, which gives Mifune's final stand against the heartless authorities real power. Extras include director interviews on Rebellion and Spy, trailers for Kill!, and informative essay booklets for every title. (Criterion/Paradox)