Alongside Kihachi Okamoto’s Dai-bosatsu toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966) and Hideo Gosha’s Kedamono no ken (Sword of the Beast, 1965), Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke (Samurai Spy) presents a new type of samurai protagonist: refined from the prototypes of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, pitiless, obsessive, even more alienated. But Shinoda’s films are distinguished from those of his contemporaries by his pointed use of static pictorialism and theatricality. Shinoda could create stylised montages as effectively as Gosha or Okamato; but his camera is more as often in repose, resonating with a subtle tone of apprehension as his characters await the inevitable eruption of violence.
Shinoda has said in introductory essays to several of his movies that film is a form with the potential for expressive continuity with the traditional arts of Japan. “The idea that truth can be approached through deformation and abstraction is essential to all forms of contemporary art”, he wrote regarding his movie Shinju: Ten no amijima (Double Suicide, 1969) (1). This belief in turn inspires Shinoda, like the Japanese writer Chikamatsu on whose bunraku or puppet-play Double Suicide is based, to seek “the thin line between truth and falsehoods”. For Shinoda that material distinction is analogous to the equally thin line between reality, or verisimilitude, and fantasy in art. Pictorialism and theatricality are the alternately deforming and abstracting qualities that define that line. Filmic devices from long takes, with their intensified sense of real-time to low-key lighting or unusual framing, all of which occur in Samurai Spy, become formal transliterations and analogues to the deformation and abstraction that Shinoda perceived to be at work in specific painterly and theatrical traditions.
Samurai Spy’s labyrinthine storyline centres on the legendary title figure Sasuke Sarutobi’s (Koji Takahashi) pursuit of a man named Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada), an agent of the Tokugawa who plans to defect to the Toyotomi faction. From this Shinoda elaborates a maze of assumed identities and false trails and exploits genre typing, both as expository shorthand and as a source of viewer expectation against which he may play dramatically. Because Sarutobi’s pursuit in so often passive, constructed of many individual scenes in which he literally waits for something to happen, a number of the audience’s normal expectations are diminished and redirected toward the less predictable supporting figures in the film, most notably the mysterious, white-hooded Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) and his band of Tokugawa spies who seek Tatewaki to prevent his defection. This results in a narrative tone that strongly supports an observation made by Sarutobi very early in the film, just before he and the ronin Mitsuaki (Rokko Toura) eat rice cakes and discuss “Tokugawa politics” by a tranquil riverside: “I believe nothing is certain these days”.
The few minutes of movie that precede that remark are charged with the unexpected and uncertain. Under footage of war banners and battle scenes, a disembodied voice establishes the period. Watercolours of the era are followed by a chase across rooftops that ends with the fleeing man mortally wounded by Tokugawa spies. Before any of this can be clarified, another cutaway occurs, and the audience is following another man: Sarutobi. He hurries through a misty day-lit forest, while a voiceover laments, “I am pursued. I am always pursued by something.” This complex prologue is less expository then it is evocative. What information the audience does receive – there are spies involved; people are being killed; someone is being pursued – is subsumed into the dissociative impact of Shinoda’s graphic scheme. As if to restrict identification, Sarutobi is often in shadows, hidden behind objects, masked like a ninja, or seen from the rear. Dizzying effects immediately displace the measured tones of the opening narration and the stable images of the historical paintings. It is in this context and at a sensory level that the viewer must embrace Sarutobi’s assertion that “nothing is certain”.
Shinoda repeatedly uses images full of angular and conflicting lines of force, direct cuts to unexpected perspectives and actors partially blocked from the audience’s sight by foreground clutter. Occasionally he reverts to a long take in order to concentrate or intensify an image and draw the audience “deeper in the story”; but even those have unstable and unusual elements. The sequence in the communal baths at the inn combines comic relief, superficial eroticism, and the inherent tension of the long take with a distancing from Sarutobi’s point-of-view. The camera stays back, panning from one side of the bathing area to the other, and never gives the viewer a close look at Sarutobi’s face, never permits a reading of his reaction. Shinoda mirrors this sequence near the end of the film, when Sarutobi decides that he must act. There the long take underscores the dramatic tension more typically: withholding a cut heightens suspense and anticipation.
Shinoda is less interested in a striking visualisation for its figurative meaning than for its sharp sensory impact. If there is a metaphorical value to the dark alleyways down which his figure must repeatedly move or to opening and closing the scenes with Sarutobi on misty mountaintops, there is also a prevailing sense of peril or mystery to which all these visual tropes are subsidiary. Above all there is a constant undercurrent that says that appearances are unreliable. “Who are you? Enemies or friends?” Sarutobi must ask, because gestures, faces, and words are no longer trustworthy indices.
Shinoda’s probing for that division between truth and falsehood is a variant of the classic moral dilemma of a samurai who must choose between duty to clan (giri) and common morality (ninjo). There is an enforced anonymity in Samurai Spy’s conclusion: having survived and saved Omiyo (Jitsuko Yoshimura), the young woman orphaned by the battle that brought the Tokugawa to power, and having symbolically at least withstood the feudal might of the shogunate, Sarutobi stands with his colleague Saizo Kirigakure and Omiyo in an extreme long shot as the swirling mists dissipate. The audience is left with only questions about the nature of the title character, no exploration of his actions or inactions, nothing more than Sakon’s remark just before he dies: “Sasuke, you are an odd person. You really are.” Like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, who hates pathetic people but saves them nonetheless, Sarutobi is both genre figure and ordinary character, both killer and saviour, both larger than life and lost in the mists.
Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke/Samurai Spy (1965 Japan 102 mins)
Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Shizuo Yamauchi Dir: Masahiro Shinoda Scr: Yoshiyuki Fukuda, based on the novel by Koji Nakada Phot: Masao Kosugi Ed: Yoshi Sugihara Art Dir: Junichi Osumi Mus: Toru Takemitsu
Cast: Koji Takahashi, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Misako Watanabe, Shintaro Ishihara, Eiji Okada, Tetsuro Tanba