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Category:    Home > Reviews > Martial Arts Cycle > Samurai Assassin (1965)

Samurai Assassin (1965)


Picture: C     Sound: C     Extras: C-     Film: B+



Imagine a lush snowy terrain in Japan where Toshiro Mifune (of Kurosawa fame) is standing with a sword in hand and a look of vengeance on his face.  You know when the rusty gates of Endo Castle open up to unearth an unseen enemy that something EPIC is going to happen.  Which is exactly what Samurai Assassin (aka Samurai) is: one epic scene after the next that compliments not only the brilliant filmmakers that were involved, but also the extreme talent that went into making this film.  Based on a true historical event is the story of Niiro Tsuruchiyo and book “Samurai Nippon” by Gunji Jiromasa, a ronin desperate to gain a high position with one of the great houses and big on his dream to fulfill samurai status.  Knowing that by getting into the houses he can identify his Father, Nirro joins a thick assassination plot against a Shogunate Elder, who is suspected of being a traitor.  Waiting outside the gates of Endo Castle, Niiro waits to deal with his last revelation, sword in hand…


Directed by Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom, which happens to be getting issued by The Criterion Collection at about the same time), was actually the second film for Okamoto in 1965, the other being Chi to suna (The Fort Graveyard).  Samurai Assassin offers us some extreme ahead-of-its-time camera movements, ideas, and fight scene choreography.  The film is violent when it needs be so whenever the violence kicks in it’s very effective.  If you’re as big of a Kurosawa fan as I am, then you will be satisfied with the epic long shots and thought provoking scenes that really grip you into the ideas and personalities of the characters that Okamoto is presenting to us.  The most impressive scene of the film is its climax at the gates of Endo Castle where we are bombarded by fast cuts, quick violence, and fierce combat.


The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 image shows its age, despite the restoration efforts of Toho and AnimEigo of the original TohoScope footage.  The problem is that the monochrome does not look like real black and white, but the kind of grayer commercial black and white that does not have much silver content, used so effectively in Schindler’s List.  That puts the gray scale off a bit since the older monochrome would have had richer, more solid blacks.  Too bad the telecine operator did not use an older guide for the transfer.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is also aged, despite some work done to fix it.  This plays well enough, but do not expect what the company achieved on later color films they recently repaired and reissued on DVD.


Extras include theatrical trailers for the Lone Wolf & Cub series (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and a few other classic Japanese titles, filmographies, program notes, and the most intriguing – the “Character Biographies” feature, which provides detailed backgrounds for every character in the film.  The motion menu screens can be a tad bit annoying, especially the opening one which was obviously made quickly on an apple computer.  With a non-special edition release of a rare title such as this one though, I’m fortunate to have the film itself and am not too concerned with the varied extras.  The oddest thing about this release is all of the Japanese names listed on the back of the cover are put first name last.  Either way, Samurai Assassin is early in a long cycle of films that have become popular again and is excellent.



-   Jamie Lockhart


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