In an odd sort of way, Samurai Spy has the feel of one of the Sean Connery Bond films. The plot seems to be more convoluted than it really needs to be, and there are many scenes that show a character quiet and alone, as they discover a new piece of the plot puzzle for themselves. I would say that parts of the film could be a bit too complex for some American audiences to follow, as so much of the story is driven by Japanese character and clan names. It seems that Criterion anticipated this problem, as they hav… included a character gallery in the extras, complete with brief character bios.
However, as is the case with many of Criterion’s releases, patience is well rewarded. Those that put in the effort will find a film that is rich in its message and quite modern in its tone. While most samurai films up until this point rested on the fact that a samurai can always trust completely in his shogunate, this film is full of double-crosses and wavering allegiances. No longer is what is good for the community always best. Sometimes, this film teaches, personal interests are more noble than those of the collective.
This disc features a very clean mono audio track. Nuances can be heard in the score, and the dialog is very clear. Speaking if the score, is is very modern, and much of it sounds like it was written for an American film. In fact, was surprised to find just how much of this film has modern traits. Possibly what is most surprising is not what is heard, but the power of what is not heard. There are several scenes that are played in complete silence, and the strength of that silence is powerful.
The camera work also exhibits a modern style. Many of the camera movements are similar to films of today, though this piece was shot forty years ago. The transfer is quite clean, with only one minor issue that needs to be addressed. Namely, the excessive level of contrast present throughout the film. The black levels are sometimes so dark that they often lose detail, while the bright areas appear washed out.
Grain is not an issue here, however, as the detail on the video is near-perfect. Blood (which there is a surprisingly large amount of) even shows up well here; always a challenge in black and white photography. If it weren’t for that pesky contrast problem, the images would be simply spectacular.
There only a few extras on this disc, I’m afraid. The aforementioned character gallery is here, and it may prove to be quite valuable to some viewers. Also included is an essay from film scholar Alain Silver that discusses the film’s background and importance. Finally, there is a 16-minute interview with director Masahiro Shinoda. This is an all-new interview piece conducted in 2005 especially for this DVD release, and that fact alone is proof of Criterion’s prowess in the field of world cinema.
For those that are brave enough to take on the challenge, this is a fine film that deserves to be seen. However, the barriers to entry for many westerners are great. No matter how much it annoys me, many people will discredit this film before they even see it because it is in black & white, has subtitles, and does not star Adam Sandler. However, this is a fantastic film that features warfare, betrayal, women, and of course, spying. Michael Bay wishes he could make films as rich and wonderfully realized as this one.
Special Features List
- Character Gallery
- Interview with director Masahiro Shinoda