Sunday, October 03, 2010

NYFF ’10: Samurai Spy

When their lords died in battle, surviving ronin (masterless samurai) did not have a lot of career options. Fortunately, in early Seventeenth Century Edo Japan there was considerable demand for spies and assassins, jobs certainly compatible with their skill-sets. One still noble samurai finds himself drawn into the clash of shadowy agents working on behalf of two rival clans in Masahiro Shinoda’s Cold War action allegory Samurai Spy, which screens during the 48th New York Film Festival as part of their Masterworks retrospective tribute to the director.

Sasuke Sarutobi is one cool customer. He is a member of the Sanada Clan. Though officially “unaligned,” they are suspected to the support the recently defeated Toyotomi Clan rather than the Tokugawa Shogunate. Despite his “plague on both your houses” protestations, Mitsuaki, a Toyotomi spy tries to recruit him into a rather nefarious scheme he has cooked up. A top Tokugawa spy-master plans to defect to the Toyotomi Clan with Mitsuaki’s aid, but the treacherous spy plans to betray him to their current masters in a manner that would allow him to collect from both sides.

When karma catches up with Mitsuaki, everyone assumes Sarutobi can deliver mystery man Tatewaki Koriyama, the elusive Harry Lyme of Samurai Spy. As a result, the honorable but jaded samurai becomes the focus of intrigue for a host of agents from the rival clans, whom he has no trouble keeping straight, unlike the rest of us mere mortals. Still, if you follow Sarutobi’s lead, you won’t go far wrong, unless you count the unfortunate Okiwa. A beautiful pawn in the game, she is brutally murdered after launching a brief but intense affair with Sarutobi. For his part, Sarutobi is determined to make the guilty party pay, good and hard.

Like Pale Flower, Spy is stylistically dazzling, yet it still tells a darkly compelling morality tale. At times the hack-and-slash action is surprisingly gory, complete with severed limbs and gushing blood. Yet there are moments when it approaches the unreal, as clashing combatants seem to hang in the air Crouching Tiger-like. Yet despite employing liberal elements from the martial arts and spy movie genres, Shinoda has really crafted another film noir in the tradition of Flower. Sarutobi is definitely a hard-boiled lone wolf, instinctively cynical towards authority. Again, Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi’s striking use of fog and shadows feel like pure noir.

Koji Takahashi is all kinds of bad as Sarutobi. Though not quite as jaundiced as Ryô Ikebe’s Muraki in Flower, he still projects quite a cool presence. Yet, when another woman in his orbit is kidnapped, his righteous seething is downright fearsome. Jitsuko Yoshimura brings a touch of humanity to the film as Omiyo, the woman Sarutobi must save, while Misako Watanabe adds quite a bit of heat as the woman he must avenge. Indeed, it is a great ensemble cast, even though viewers might need a cheat sheet to track their characters’ allegiances.

According to conventional wisdom, Sarutobi’s Sanada Clan represents Japan, while the Toyotomi and Tokugawa factions are stand-ins for the United States and Soviet Union, respectively. Intriguingly, Spy seems to suggest neutrals must ultimately align themselves, with Sarutobi eventually siding with the Toyotomi Clan, the supposed Americans. It also explicitly addresses the persecution of Christianity in Edo-era Japan—not exactly a fashionable topic in Japanese (or western) pop culture, then or now. Highly entertaining as well as historically significant, Spy is another masterful film from the Japanese auteur. It screens this Tuesday (10/5) and Wednesday (10/6) at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the 2010 NYFF’s Masterworks tribute to Masahiro Shinoda.