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Thursday, February 13, 2014

IBUN SARUTOBI SASUKE / SAMURAI SPY (1965)

Don’t be fooled by the generic title, Masahiro Shinoda’s period piece isn’t your typical Samurai action vehicle. It’s 1614 and authority in Japan has split between a ruling clan, a regrouping challenger clan and a third nonaligned party. Naturally, everyone’s spying on everyone else, so its natural for 'everyone' to assume that independent samurai master Sarutobi Sasuke (memorably played by Hiroshi Aoyama) is working for . . . for whom? That’s the question no one seems able to answer, in spite of much blood letting. (Oops, stylized samurai kills, so minimal blood letting, but lots of falling bodies.) And while a Western audience is bound to have some trouble keeping tabs on the constantly changing alliances, Shinoda brings such a master’s touch to his WideScreen compositions and to editing choices that are like close-up magic, slipping us away from expected action, that he seems to be rewiring samurai tropes as he goes along. And just as impressively, bringing us along with him, even when he tosses in some paranormal wire-assisted leaps. Probably not for chop-socky fanboys, but adventurous art house types may find his abstract kinetic style addictive.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: As Sarutobi Sasuke, leading man Hiroshi Aoyama stands out in a film loaded with fine character perfs. Yet after a mere 18 pics, his career petered out in the early ‘70s. It’s hard to find info on him (Googling bring up a popular motorcycle racer of the same name), but with a nose Jean-Paul Belmondo might not sniff at, his striking presence has no trouble selling a samurai stand-off with a One-against-Forty fighting ratio. Listen for a great bit where he tells some prisoners he's rescuing to wait until he can kill off enough of those pesky guards.

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