Criterion doesn’t put out too many box sets, so you know that when they do, it is really going to be something special. Their Brazil set is a benchmark release that all other single-film, multiple-disc sets are measured against. The Wrong Men & Notorious Women – Five Hitchcock Thrillers set is a brilliantly-themed way to showcase five of the director’s most devious films. They have taken that same approach with Rebel Samurai – Sixties Swordplay Classics. The four films in this set, Samurai Re…ellion, Kill!, Samurai Spy and Sword of the Beast, represent unrelated productions that turn the proven conventions of the samurai film genre on its ear.
In the sixties, rebellion was occurring worldwide; not just in the United States. These films show how revolutionary thoughts of freedom were affecting the citizens of the East. While each of these films is different in its style and tone, the unifying message is the same. The Japanese were starting to see that the ruling class may not be the flawless entity that it had been perceived to be for so many hundreds of years. It is not only a citizen’s right, but their duty to question authority, and to stand up for injustice, even when that injustice comes from within. These are powerful and controversial ideas in a culture devoted to duty, honor and respect. The examination of the fall of the samurai through film may have been the best way to safely share these new national feelings. The films in this boxed set may be one of the best examples that I have ever seen of the power of art to affect and change the collective conscious of a society.
The audio on all four of these discs is in mono. However, they are also some of the best mono tracks that I have ever heard. Each film features a clear and nuanced audio presentation, which I was actually quite surprised to find on foreign films of this age. A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is not always the answer, and it is great to see how Criterion was able to keep the original audio format of these films intact, while still getting the absolute maximum amount of impact out of the existing tracks.
The video presentation is similar on each film in this set as well. Each film is presented in its original widescreen black and white. There are several little problems here and there, depending on which film you are watching, but nothing is too major. In fact, as bad as it gets is that the contrast level on Samurai Spy is a bit higher than I would like. On average, the films transfers are bright, balanced and clean, with little grain and virtually no blemishes to speak of.
The only area in which this set falters in when it comes to extras. Each film has a couple of extra features, but nothing is all too valuable. The best thing here is the unique essay that is included with each film. The irony is, these essays are also available for free on Criterion’s web site.
I have reviewed each film in this set individually on this site, so feel free to look up more information on each film if you so choose. If you can only afford one film from this set, I highly recommend the excellent Samurai Rebellion. However, let it be known that Criterion has provided yet another excellent boxed set with the inclusion of these four films. While each piece is interesting on its own, it is only when they are seen as a collective that their true impact really becomes clear. This is a snapshot in time that proves that art can change the world.
Special Features List