Call me crazy, but I came away from this disc feeling like I had just watched a samurai western. On one side, the film is filled with Japanese warriors, fantastic swordfighting and talk of honor and revenge. On the other hand, a major subplot of the film revolves around panning for gold in the mountains, and fighting over the claims. This excellent 1965 film has much in common with great westerns, such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, including interesting plot twists and a complicated-yet-comical sidekick t… the main character that is surprisingly similar to Eli Wallach’s character in the Italian epic.
Of course, there is plenty of samurai action in this film as well. It is interesting to see the rapid zooms that are such a trademark of this style of film used in a black-and-white format. These conventions are even more interesting when juxtaposed with some of the other delicately framed deep focus shots in the film. The cinematography alone is enough to elevate this film out of the category of a basic samurai film and into that of art, but the script and the wonderfully-choreographed fight scenes really put this film into a whole new level.
This is simply one of the finest mono audio presentations that I have ever heard. The track is filled with subtlety, yet also handles loud moments easily. Dialog is very clear (though obviously in Japanese), and the music cues transfer well. Of course, the track would be better if it were in stereo, or had the benefit of a subwoofer channel, but I give kudos to Criterion for keeping the presentation true to its original format, while still making that format as clear as flawless as possible.
I have spoken some already of the fantastic cinematography in this film, so allow me say that the transfer that Criterion has put together has done this film justice. While it is true that I have seen better black and white transfers, this one is still a first rate product There is some very slight grain from time to time, but the picture is, for the most part, crystal clear. I was also very impressed with the contrast on this disc. Whites are bright, blacks are consistent, and the picture has real depth… which is sometimes a challenge for black and white stock.
When it comes to Criterion titles, “special features” really are special. With discs from most studios, I have come to expect a sizable number of trailers, featurettes, production notes and the like. With Criterion, however, the fact that the film is on disc at all is usually enough to warrant something special.
It’s good that I feel that way, because the only extra on this disc is an essay by Patrick Macias, a Japanese film and culture expert. This essay provides some background on the filmmaker, as well as some insightful comments about the film itself. It is a nice addition to this disc; even if it is the only extra here.
If you are already a fan of Japanese samurai films, purchasing this disc is a no-brainer. This disc is also a great product for Criterion fans, and for those that enjoyed such films as Kill Bill, The Last Samurai and the aforementioned The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Buy it alone, or even better, buy it in Criterion’s fabulous Rebel Samurai – Sixties Swordplay Classics box set. Once you see one film, you will want to see them all, so why not save the money and purchase the entire set at once? True, the disc is short on extras, but this release is still the best way for movie fans to see this classic film.
Special Features List