Samurai Wolf I + II: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th January 2024).
The Film

"A duo of chanbara masterpieces from one of the genres greatest directors, Hideo Gosha! Out of a desire to make what he felt was a truly no-holds-barred sword-fighting film, Gosha took inspiration from the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa as well as the spaghetti Western sub-genre they had inspired. Working with a low-budget to free himself from the restrictive oversight of his producers, the result was Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II, the story of a charismatic ronin named Kiba (played by Isao Natsuyagi)."

Samurai Wolf: Although he is known as "The Furious Wolf" wandering ronin Kiba (Violent Streets' Isao Natsuyagi) is a man of his word, gorging himself like a starving animal and running up a large tab but offering to work it off when the old proprietress seems satisfied to berate him and throw him out into the street. In the process of doing repairs on the lady's house as she boasts of him being her "husband", Kiba goes unnoticed as the witness to a brutal assault on a passing convoy. Kiba carries the body of one of the men to the nearly Arai Relay Station where he learns from the men who work for blind owner Lady Chise (The Chivalrous Life's Junko Miyazono) that shogun messenger Nizaemon (Daimajin's Tatsuo End) has been trying to wrest control of the post house from Chise by sending his guards to rob the convoys and have escalated to killing her men. Because of his position, no one dares accuse him without proof. Kiba is just about to intervene in a skirmish between Chise's men and Nizaemon's expert swordsmen when shogun inspector Iwazo arrives. He castigates Chise for not being able to ensure the safety of cargo along the route. She offers to compensate him for the lost cargo, but he avers that she may lose her business altogether if she cannot compensate the thirty-thousand ryos that are being transported on the next convoy.

What Chise does not know is that Iwazo is in league with Nizaemon who sends his men to eliminate the obstacle that is Kiba who has become a guest of Lady Chise and of the relay station's brothel, particularly in the company of Okinu (Rumiko Fuji) who reveals that, in spite of her hatred for madam Ohide ('s ), she stays there waiting to meet again the man who destroyed her life and kill him. After Kiba makes short work of Nizaemon's men, Iwazo sends formidable ronin Sanai Akizuki (Poem's Ryhei Uchida) to eliminate Kiba. The two face off in a showdown in the street, but Sanai becomes distracted after wounding Kiba and postpones the fight for reasons he will not even explain to his employers. When Nizaemon puts Sanai in charge of the raid on the convoy, Ohide tempts him into double-crossing his bosses for the money; however, Chise has begged Kiba to protect her men and the money until it reaches the next relay station. Neither may make it to the day of the transport, however, as Sanai discovers a previously-unknown enemy with a score to settle and Kiba is also set upon by a gang lead by Onryu (Outlaw Gangster VIP's Misako Tominaga) who are out to avenge their chief who was one of Nizaemon's swordsmen.

In Samurai Wolf II, Kiba's nap in the eaves of a derelict mill is disturbed when he witnesses three men attempting to rape young Oteru (Rumiko Fuji again). In fending the men off, after which mute Oteru flees in terror from him as well, Kiba manages to offend the master of the Kazema school whose pupils mimic Kiba's fighting skill, assuring Kazema that he knows how to beat it. Walking along a road, Kiba comes across a convoy escorting prisoners to the capitol for sentencing. Kiba takes pity on the prisoners among them Magobei (The Bad Sleep Well's K Nishimura) who murdered the guard of a shogun gold mine and man-killer Oren (Goke, the Body Snatcher From Hell's Yko Kusunoki) and offers them water against the orders of the captain of the guard. When a gang attacks the convoy, Kiba discovers that they were supposed to spring Magobei but instead double-crossed him and attempted to kill him. Kiba learns that Magobei actually took the rap for bandit Jinroku Higasa (Sword of Doom's Ichir Nakatani) whose family discovered a new vein of gold in the tapped out mountain and had to silence the guard. Since Magobei reminds Kiba of his father who he traveled with as a child as he went from dojo to dojo fighting until he was beaten, Kiba decides to help Magobei escape so that he can avenge himself on Higasa and his family. Kiba has agreed to give satisfaction to the master of the Kazema school with a duel, so he is not there when Higasa's men attack the relay point for the convoy but Magobei and Oren are able to get away. When Magobei abandons Oren to hunt down Higasa's sons one by one, she attempts to seduce Higasa in exchange for information about Magobei's whereabouts but his jealous mistress Otatsu (Cash Calls Hell's Chiyo Aoi) would rather torture the information out of her. When Higasa's sons capture and crucify Kiba in the Valley of the Ravens to avenge their dead brothers, however, Higasa's unstable daughter Oteru may be his only hope.

While Akira Kurosawa's uncredited transposition of Raymond Chandler's "Red Harvest" to the samurai genre Yojimbo is the acknowledged uncredited influence on Sergio Leone's trend-setting A Fistful of Dollars not the first spaghetti western, but the one that set various stylistic trends and character tropes in motion Hideo Gosha's Samurai Wolf and its sequel return the favor with Leone-esque stare-downs, blocking that maneuvers performers into wonderfully-contrived comic strip shot compositions, and a score that is more Ennio Morricone than Masaru Sat (apart from a brothel scene where the diegetic musical accompaniment is more traditional than the experimental work of either). With both films running roughly eighty minutes, however, Gosha balances visual style and the twisty plots in which rarely anyone is truly innocent but for the characters killed most ruthlessly and callously by economically stripping everything else down to the bone including narrative, presumably even knowing that even the most obvious of twists and coincidental relationships revealed will not be seen by the audience so much as ludicrous as predestined with characters damning themselves to their fate in search of revenge and the need for the hero to either walk away from hopeless corruption or realize that he never truly settle down anywhere or with anyone.
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The two films bear structural similarities with our wandering hero encountering both people who see beneath his feral veneer and those who only see a wild dog, villains and heroes undone by their honor against those without any, the hero realizing that he and his chief rival are not so unlike, and said rival warning that he will be the same in a few years in response to his disgust at how the other has become a for-hire weapon for the corrupt, and a final fight to the death once it is established where Kiba draws the line and the other crosses it. Both films feature duels mid-film that are postponed by the fighter who has administered a temporarily debilitating blow against the other. That both films also feature characters who are visually-established early on as a formidable foe only to be quickly and abruptly dispatched by Kiba's sword suggests that the reason for this postponement is the desire of both fighters to be at their full power for a fair fight.

If the film's female roles are rather limited to vulnerable victims and schemers some initially vulnerable-seeming and other femmes fatales it is superficial to reduce the female roles in the film to casual period (sixties) sexism given that most of them are just as driven by the men and keep their wits about them. If Oteru seems like a clich hysterical female, it is less a plot contrivance than to do with the environment in which she has grown up with her father and brothers blaming her for her nearly getting raped and dismissing her as crazy when she cannot rapidly and coherently convey any feeling or information to them. Filmed back-to-back as seasoned TV director Gosha's second and third films for Toei after starting out at Shochiku and Toho, the Samurai Wolf films are a dazzling stepping stone between his earlier films and his works in the gangster genre and subsequent samurai films that felt more yakuza than cowboy.

Video

Unreleased in the United States or the U.K. theatrically, the Samurai Wolf films reached Western viewers primarily on the bootleg circuit. Toei's 2K restorations debuted on Blu-ray in the United States from Film Movement with somewhat grayish blacks evident on their streaming version although we have been informed that it is also an issue with their Blu-ray and DVD editions although grayish gamma levels are not unusual in Japanese B&W masters (color too, but it is more glaringly there in monochrome). Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfers are spread over two discs rather than one and utilize the same masters but with better results. Blacks are deep and inky without flattening the shadows apart from a few shots during the first film's pre-empted duel lit entirely by a bonfire; as such, there are times when either Kiba or one of his enemies lurches out of the dark corners of claustrophobic interiors. Textures are retained in clothing and faces, but the darker grading but faces seem more effectively "sculpted" by the play of light and shadow cast on them and skies retain and some bright whites in the wardrobe no longer verge on blending in with some sky backgrounds.
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Audio

Both films feature uncompressed Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono tracks. The dialogue is post-dubbed and always clear while the score and some hard sound effects have the jangly presence one expects from the best Japanese mono mixes of the period. Optional English subtitles are free of any obvious errors.

Extras

Ported over from the U.S. release is the audio commentary by film historian and writer Chris Poggiali for the first film in which he briefly discusses the Japanese chanbara film genre and the fixture of wandering ronin samurai including Japan's other Lone Wolf which is especially appropriate to the flashbacks of the second film and the literally wolf-like qualities of the samurai in the film in their heightened senses and use of echolocation to anticipate threats, and how this element was carried over from Gosha's earlier films. In addition to covering Gosha's career, Poggiali sheds light on a number of the supporting cast which suggests that viewers more steeped in the genre would find it fitted out with a choice cast of genre regulars, as well as reminding more casual fans of Uchida's much more outrageous (and gaseous) turn as a secondary villain in Blind Woman's Curse.

Also ported over is "Outlaw Director - Hideo Gosha" (15:25), an interview with the director's daughter Tomoe Gosha who provides background on her father's television work, and the original television series of Three Outlaw Samurai that lead to a film spin-off, as well as the ridicule and violence he experienced as a television director crossing over into film.

New to this release is an audio commentary by film historian Jasper Sharp on the second film in which he notes that, although they were shot back-to-back, the sequel is "less ostentatious" and is perhaps evidence of Gosha's evolving concision of style honed in television and adapted to film. While Poggiali's track is quite enjoyable and conveys palpable affection for the films, this is the track for listeners who want a more didactic discussion of the genre tropes employed here, the various borrowings and influences from the Kurosawa and Leone films, and tying in the film's backstory with the politics and social movements of the period.

In "Lineage of the Wolf" (21:47), critic and writer Tony Rayns discusses the two films in the context of the Hollywood B-film model.
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Packaging

The first 2,000 copies include a limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Tony Stella, reversible sleeve featuring original poster artwork, and collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes.

Overall

Filmed back-to-back as seasoned TV director Hideo Gosha's second and third feature films, the Samurai Wolf films are a dazzling stepping stone between his earlier television films and subsequent samurai and gangster films.

 


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