I briefly considered just submitting a boatload of screencaps from random spots in this film as my review - this is simply one of the most beautiful looking black and white films I've seen on DVD (of course Criterion's pristine transfer helps a great deal). If one of the purposes of reviewing films is to hopefully encourage others to see something they may have missed, then I can think of worse ways to engage the readership to track down this film. But I'd hate to lose sight of the terrific story, it's political commentary (it was released in 1965) and the many stylistic choices director Masahiro Shinoda makes throughout. There's a lot going on in this movie...
As a member of the Sanada clan in the early 17th century, Sasuke Sarutobi is a samurai without allegiance. The recent battle of Sekigahara has left Tokugawa in control of the country, but there are rumblings of further battles to come with the previously defeated Toyotomi clan. Toyotomi has found support in Osaka from many feudal lords and displaced samurai, so as tensions mount between sides so does the use of espionage - there are literally spies everywhere. Sasuke unfortunately gets involved with this network and the many betrayals within it by meeting up with old friend Mitsuaki Inamura - he's trying to play both sides against each other for profit. Because of Mitsuaki's actions, several murders result and Sasuke is now thought to be the cause. As well, both sides are looking for Tokugawa espionage leader Tatewaki Koriyama since it is believed he wants to switch sides to Toyotomi. The imposing and ruthless Sakon Takatani (another of the leaders of Tokugawa's spy ranks) is chief among the pursuers and has targeted Sasuke as his main source to find out the whereabouts of Tatewaki.
But it's not as simple as all that...The story changes rapidly as we find out that characters aren't who or what they are supposed to be. Along with the continuing mystery of the murders, this constantly shifting environment keeps the viewer on their toes as much as Sasuke. It's also fertile ground for pointing out the general immorality of political gamesmenship (especially in the time of the Cold War) - lives are sacrificed and dispatched without much thought by those who have their own agendas. Sasuke sees all this as he moves through the murkiness of the back alleys of the villages. "No one seems to give any thought anymore to the meaning of death...Or the meaning of life for that matter" he says to Mitsuaki, though it's really more to himself at that point.
Shinoda builds a very expressionistic landscape for the story and his commentary to play out. Those shadows of the alleyways also find themselves in the houses, brothels and rooftops of just about everywhere the characters go. Usually only portions of their faces get bathed in light, so these spies are mostly living, not just lurking, in the shadows. This environment also lends itself to the slightly surreal battle scenes that take place throughout the film. Be wary - these are not typical action filled sword fights. Shinoda seems less interested here in who actually wins or the skill of the fighters than in the feeling of the battles. Several fights contain leaping samurai in slow motion with a total drop out of the soundtrack. As well, high angles, rapid pans and long distance shots are all used to separate these conflicts from the rest of the story. It's very effective in putting you a bit off balance.
So if you aren't looking solely for samurai slicing and dicing (not that there's anything wrong with that), "Samurai Spy" offers a great deal of beauty. commentary and shear entertainment.