Samurai Wolf 1, Hideo Gosha
Courtesy of Film Movement

Hideo Gosha’s ‘Samurai Wolf’ Is a Man of His Sword

Hideo Gosha’s Samurai Wolf films contain scenes and elements that feel like nods to Akira Kurosawa.

Samurai Wolf 1 & 2
Hideo Gosha
Film Movement Classics
16 May 2023

Those who love 1960s samurai cinema may spew gouts of bliss over this Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics. Samurai Wolf (Kiba Ôkaminosuke, 1966) was shot back-to-back with its sequel, Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut (Kiba Ôkaminosuke: jigoku giri, 1967). Now they’re paired in their Region 1 debut, showcasing the high style of maverick Hideo Gosha.

Gosha was a new species of filmmaker who broke into the medium from his success in television. His 1963 series Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no Samurai) created such a flurry that he was asked to make a feature version with the same cast, and his film career was off and running. Criterion has released his first two features, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) and Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken, 1965), but most of his output never made it to disc on Region 1, despite being sought by fans.

The Samurai Wolf diptych epitomizes the 1960s evolution in “chambara”, also called sword-fighting or samurai films. Reflecting an era of disillusion, turmoil, and rebellion, Gosha uses scruffy, raffish anti-heroes who are usually ronin: wandering mercenaries without a master, tossed aside by the system and left to their own devices. They belong to the “lone wolf” species, and the protagonist, who calls himself Kiba Ôkaminosuke or “Furious Wolf”, is a perfect specimen.

On one hand, he presents himself as something of a disreputable rascal, as when he wolfs down a large meal in a restaurant and tells the old lady proprietor he doesn’t have money. On the other hand, he’s honorable enough to work for his rice, so he patches her roof and chops her wood in repayment. As one character diagnoses him, he likes to pretend he’s bad, but he’s inwardly a good person and defends the righteous side in disputes.

The obvious model for Samurai Wolf is Toshiro Mifune’s anti-hero in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (from 1961) and Sanjuro (from 1962), films that set off seismic waves and revitalized chambara. The Samurai Wolf films contain scenes and elements that feel like nods to Kurosawa.

Of course, Yojimbo also influenced Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Their worldwide success created an instant feedback loop in Japanese cinema such that a genre already influenced by Hollywood Westerns began crossing its Japanese-ness with Italian elements. One obvious example is Toshiaki Tsushima’s score in Samurai Wolf, which conjures a schizoid delirium of Japanese rhythms and percussion crossed with piercing harmonica.

On one level, the Wolf films can feel like mix-and-match knock-offs, especially since the stories are nothing special. Fans watch them because style is what matters. Sadaji Yoshida’s widescreen black and white photography employs a dingy, dusty, rainy scale of greys, with the sequel adopting a more high-contrast look for its night scenes. Kozo Horiike’s editing combines swiftness with syncopated disorientation.

More important is how the fights are shot and edited since these scenes are the equivalents of a musical’s dance numbers. Self-conscious devices are foregrounded for maximum spectacle. In a musical, the score will suddenly break out, but in the Wolf films, the soundtrack often drops into an abrupt silence punctuated only by a slash or clang as the image lapses into slow motion or adopts an eye-catching composition for pictorial effect.

We sometimes get the idea that Gosha is bored with fights as such and hardly bothers to stage them. He knows what he’s doing is more interesting than what they’re doing. He’s likely to obstruct our perspective with foreground elements like poles, turning the fighters into abstract lines. He’ll cut away entirely from the action to look at something else, then drop back in when he feels like it. To me, his method of filming fights seems to have influenced other filmmakers like Hong Kong’s Chang Cheh or Taiwan’s King Hu.

These filmmakers are special because they don’t focus obsessively on clearly presented fighting moves. They come up with other visual and audial ideas, like the presence of trees or animal sound effects, to create jarring juxtapositions. Gosha’s films exemplify this tendency, which isn’t to say he doesn’t spray whizzing fountains of black blood across the image just for spicy moments of abstract expressionism.

Samurai Wolf and its sequel are each over in less than 75 minutes after shuttling many striking characters through fast stories. The first installment is a typical tale of capitalist competition between a good clan and a bad one, both of whom are postal messengers.

The good clan is run by a beautiful blind woman, Lady Chise (Junko Miyazono), a masterful koto player of fallen fortunes who develops a thing for our scruffy hero (while giving him a bath) because she senses his innate nobility. Several other characters run around at cross purposes, including two headstrong geisha and a noisy capuchin monkey.

The main villains are a corrupt capitalist rival (Tatsuo Endô) and his weary hired sword (Ryôhei Uchida), who turns out to be – but that would be telling. Anyway, there’s hardly time to process who’s doing what before the harmonica yowls, the monkey chatters, and another violent setpiece is upon us in more compositional abstraction.

Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut begins with Wolf helping to escort three prisoners in bamboo cages. He’s drawn to one of the prisoners because of a resemblance to his own ronin father, which leads to a flashback. The larger story involves a clan stealing gold from a mountain belonging to a shogun. That plot device harks back to Sword of the Beast, although this incarnation is arguably more complex in its shifting alliances and sexual strategies. Meanwhile, the cawing of ravens functions as an almost continual memento mori.

Both Wolf films have three strong women with conflicting agendas, and this element foreshadows that Gosha’s 1980s films will focus on the struggles of women. Both Wolf films also express the contempt for materialism and money-grubbing that implicitly criticized Japan’s postwar “economic miracle”. And both films, as writer and director Robin Gatto writes in the Blu-ray’s booklet, are examples of what Japanese critics called “cruel period pieces” and “anarchy films”, which were trends in social commentary.

One quality of many 1960s and ’70s chambara and yakuza films is the murky, contingent morality in which whom we’re rooting for shifts as everyone mixes good and bad motives. These films tapped into a cultural feeling that old clear-cut values were either changing or had never been valid, yet they still had to move heroes through action-packed stories. The same balancing act was happening in Western (and western) films, like Richard Brooks’ The Professionals from 1966, Martin Ritt’s Hombre and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen from 1967, and even the James Bond series.

The Wolf films key into that sense of cynicism and malaise while providing action. They’re not yet channeling the cultural anger that would emerge in Nagisa Oshima, Kinji Fukusaku, or Shunya Ito‘s Female Convict Scorpion series of 1972-73. At this point, Gosha’s films are closer to signaling the mislabeled style-over-substance approach of Seijun Suzuki’s eye-popping 1960s yakuzas. All these creators are connected in their big, wide, wonderful world of kinetic mayhem and stylized poses.

Author Chris Poggiali’s commentary on Samurai Wolf explains the background of those involved and situates these 2K restorations within Gosha’s career. That career is much more extensive and interesting than what’s currently on disc, and we hope this release signals a positive change in that direction.