Director: Hideo Gosha
Starring: Isao Natsuyagi, Yoshiro Aoki, Tatsuo Endo
Here's an early film (circa 1966) from renowned director, Hideo Gosha. This being only his fourth film, Samurai Wolf (clocking in at a mere 73 minutes) doesn't have the epic sweep or profound philosophical attributes that are to be had in his followup epics, Goyokin and Hitokiri. Instead this is a light (relatively speaking), action packed film that seems influenced not only by Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but also of the Italian Westerns that came in Yojimbo's wake and were so popular at the time.
The film opens misleadingly as our hero, Kiba (played by a perfectly cast Isao Natsuyagi) grunts and yells ferociously into the camera over the freeze framed title. Then as the credits continue to role, we are revealed a decidedly goofier character shoveling rice into his mouth (and on his beard). When he admits to the Inn keeper (an old woman) that he has no money, he offers to do chores to pay for the meal. The next shot shows him merrily fixing the roof, much to old woman's delight. In the first few minutes, we realize that we are watching a protagonist nearly unique to Chanbara cinema. This is not the tortured, damaged hero to be found in most of these films, nor is this the cynical and often nihilistic character that became popular starting with Yojimbo. What Gosha went for here was the seemingly unthinkable; a happy, good natured guy who wore much of his emotions on his sleeve and just happened to be a Ronin.
In the story, Kiba finds himself helping to defend a relay outpost that's being run by a blind woman. The first part plays like a straight foward adventure, maybe a little too straight forward as soon enough, double and triple crosses abound to the point where it becomes difficult for Kiba (and in turn, the audience) to figure out whom to trust. Matters get further complicated when a group of ronin assassins (who among them include a fighter who has a pet monkey) in a bid to defeat the seemingly unbeatable Kiba, hire a ringer to challenge him. But this fighter has a secret past involving the blind woman that's only exasperated by the fact that Kiba has fallen in love with her...
Gosha has a reputation for grim, heavy handed productions. It is quite an accomplishment then that he displays the very antithesis of that type of filmmaking here. This is a wonderfully enjoyable little film and in it's own way, can take it's place among his more well known and more revered works. That isn't to say the film doesn't know how to get down and dirty when it wants to. The swordplay in this film (much of it in supremely filmed slow-mo) is some of the finest and most savage that I have ever seen in a Chanbara pic of this vintage (the blood sprays and oozes most convincingly and frequently). That the film manages to introduce so many interesting and colorful characters and provide so much character depth in such a short span of time is breathtaking.
Samurai Wolf was popular enough that the following year Gosha filmed a sequel, the equally brief, though darker and yet not quite as memorable Samurai Wolf 2 (which may have hinted at what was to come from this director).
**** / ****