The reliably excellent Criterion Collection presents these four diverse and intriguing 1960s samurai films. Not as well known as those of, for instance, Akira Kurosawa, these movies nevertheless make important contributions to the genre in their own ways, and they play with its conventions even as they add to its myths and legends.
Director Masahiro Shinoda weaves a complex, twisty narrative in the aptly named SAMURAI SPY, which follows war- and subterfuge-weary warrior Sasuke Sarutobi (Tetsuro Tamba) as he gets drawn into one last mission, tracing a wily defector named Koritama. Defying the genre conventions of samurai films, Shinoda's story is full of noir-ish intrigue and double-crosss. It takes place in a world where none of the characters, not even samurai, are what they seem.
After killing one of his own clan's ministers in a reform plan gone awry, proud samurai Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) flees his former comrades and, thoroughly shaken, goes to live alone in the wilderness in SWORD OF THE BEAST. There he falls in with a group of illegal miners and a master swordsman named Yamane (Go Kato), who eventually shows him how to recapture his lost honor. Director Hideo Gosha is a master at shooting swordplay, but here he handles the more interior, emotional moments with just as much skill.
Two scruffy swordsmen, Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Hanji (Etsushi Takahashi), are the focus of Kihachi Okamoto's bleakly comedic KILL!, which is loosely based on the same novel that inspired Kurosawa's SANJURO. Genti, a weary ex-samurai, and Hanji, a former farmer and aspiring warrior, arrive in a small town and promptly get sucked into a dispute between a brutal, corrupt clan leader and a group of brave but hapless rebels. Full of dark, irreverent humor as well as plenty of action, KILL! keeps up a quick pace, and features music by Masaru Sato (who also composed YOJIMBO's terrific score).
Set in 18th-century Japan, SAMURAI REBELLION stars the great Toshiro Mifune as Isaburo Sasahara, swordsman and official at the court of Lord Matsudaira (Tatsuo Matsumura). Ichi (Yoko Tsukasa), a mistress of the Lord, is banished after striking her master, and Matsudaira orders Isaburo's son Yogoro (Takeshi Kato) to marry her. The family obeys with great reluctance--but Ichi proves to be a wonderful wife, and to everyone's surprise the marriage is a happy one. Everything goes well until Matsudaira orders Ichi to return to the castle, and the family shocks everybody by openly refusing him. Mifune is tremendous as the proud Isaburo in Kobayashi's exposure of the innate injustice of Japan's feudal society. The film's severe, formal beauty is complemented by Takemitsu's colorful and traditional score.