ONMITSU KENSHI (1964)
There were two feature films based on The Samurai released in Japan in 1964. The first was called simply Onmitsu Kenshi ("Spy Swordsman") and came out on 28th March of that year. The second was called Zoku Onmitsu Kenshi ("Spy Swordsman Continued") and came out on 2nd August. Alain Silver in The Samurai Film (2004 revised ed.) gives them the titles Searching Swordsman and Searching Swordsman Returns. Whether this means there was an overseas release I don't know. They were made at Tōei's Kyoto studios in glorious black and white. Unlike the big screen versions of Doctor Who, their near contemporaries, they had most of the original cast and production crew. In other words, Funatoko Sadao directed, the screenplays were by Igami Masaru and the music (what there was of it) by Ogawa Hirooki. Ōse starred as Shintarō, Maki as Tonbei and Amatsu was the villain. However, in the first film, Shūsaku was played by Takeuchi Mitsuru. The first film would probably have been shot while they were making Fuma Ninja Continued (it was plainly shot in winter as people's breath comes out in smoke in one or two scenes) and the second one probably during the making of Ninja Terror.
The first film is now available on DVD under the rather peculiar title of The Detective Fencer. I got mine from SamuraiDVD (it's a Region 1 DVD so you will need a multi-region player). The film is subtitled not dubbed and the subtitles are very clear, being in yellow so really stand out against the black and white film.
The story is loosely based on two of The Samurai stories: Iga Ninjas (Ninpō Iga Jūnin) and Black Ninjas (Ninpō Yami Hōshi). The framework is of a compact signed by assorted lords, engineered apparently by the Lord of Owari in order to bring down the shogunate (Black Ninjas) but the incidents are largely drawn from Iga Ninjas -the "In Memoriam" notice pasted up listing all the Iga Ninja just before the leader is killed; the trip down the Tokaido harassed by enemy ninja; the kunoichi who pretends to be a young woman going to her dying mother who has lost her pass at Hakone and needs Shintarō's help; the ninja who impersonates Tonbei in order to shove Shintarō over a cliff at the Utsunoya Pass; the tricky part where the highway splits in two at Kakegawa and both Shintarō's party and the enemy ninja have to discover which road the other party takes.
It starts with a bang - literally - as a group of Kōga ninja rather comprehensively blows up a daimyō and his procession. Cut to Sadanobu and his ministers who are outraged - you can't be having daimyō blown up like that all the time, people will talk, this is the sixth one. Not to worry, Sadanobu had sent out an agent (nowhere in the subtitling was the word "ninja" used though it is on the soundtrack) and the head of his Iga ninja reports that what he wanted (the compact) he will soon have. Well, sort of as the ninja in question is attacked by the Kōga in a river where Shintarō and Shūsaku are fishing. Shintarō drives off the Kōga and pulls the Iga ninja out of the water but he is dying, gives Shintarō a cryptic message and drops back into the drink. Shintarō later rescues Tonbei who he hasn't met before and passes on the message which enables Tonbei to retrieve the compact from its hiding placed in the river. Sadanobu sends this down to Owari with ten of Iga's finest but has a hard time persuading Shintarō to head the expedition., Shintarō being contrary and would rather go fishing. However, he changes his mind and does come with them along with Shūsaku.
The Kōga ninja are led by Kōga Ryūshirō (Amatsu). This is also the name oif the chief villain in Koga Ninjas though that was a different character played by a different actor. Ryūshirō has a sister, Kasumi, played by a young Fuji Junko. It is Kasumi who pretends to be a damsel in distress (trying to reach her dying mother but having her pass through the Hakone Barrier stolen). This is so she can assassinate Shintarō but things don't work out that way and Shintarō ends up saving her from the flames after her clothing catches fire and leaves her by a boat. When next seen she comes to warn Shūsaku (and Tonbei) that the Kōga ninja are all on the other highway after Shintarō, explaining that she wanted to be the kind gentle girl Shūsaku thought she was even though she isn't. Fortunately Shūsaku believes her even if Tonbei didn't at first
So is this worth seeking out? Yes, I think so. It is fast paced with lots of fights. Ryūshirō's end was very similar to his Koga Ninjas namesake's with an attempt to lure Shintarō in so he can take him with him. On the other hand there are times when it seems more like a compilation of "best bits" from the two stories it is based on. Hearing Amatsu says some of Genkurō's lines is rather weird and doesn't work that well, as Genkurō was a very different sort of character to the sorts of ninja Amatsu usually played including this Ryūshirō. Katsuki played him a somewhat impudent, saucy, even sexy way.
The film is slightly more graphic with blood gushing out making a sound like a hose turned on (every blow must have struck a main artery) and the explosions were quite spectacular. In the court scenes there were more attendants and more attendants in the processions. Sadanobu really looked like an important man as did Shintarō at the end where he interviews the retired Lord of Owari. He sits on a dais in a vast room covered in mats, with the Tokugawa hollyhock trefoil on a scroll behind him, in formal robes and the former lord addresses him as "Lord Nobuchiyo". Here was The Samurai with the budget raised from that of Dark Shadows to that of 1960s (not 1980s) Doctor Who.
On the other hand, the soundtrack is very tinny. It sounds like the film was made in the 1930s. There is little background music and long stretches of silence rather reminiscent of early Universal horror films like Dracula. Oddly the main theme does not appear under the opening credits, just a rather short and nondescript (meaning I can't remember it) bit of music. However, it does occur twice much later on the film as Shintarō, Tonbei and Shūsaku walk along, sung by the Bonnie Jacks and with the words as subtitles for those who wondered what they meant (the first verse only). It also sounds as if they had to do a lot of ADR as in parts the actors sound like they are shouting into a rain barrel (or a recording booth). There is an odd flat echo. Against that is the fact we are spared the woeful dubbing. We can actually hear the actors' real voices which means we have a range of natural voices, not three or four people, the bulk of whom are not professional actors, putting on all kinds of silly voices or else all sounding the same.
Also the quality of the transfer is not brilliant. It does not appear to have been re-mastered and can look a bit fuzzy or grainy in places. The film was originally in Cinemascope so there is the usual black band around the image. It is best viewed on a modern aspect ratio screen rather than the square screen of a CRTV as you can lose people off the edges.
It's still entertaining though and I would like to see the second film brought to DVD.
GOLDEN NINJA (BŐKEN DAIKATSUGEKI ŐGON NO TŐZOKU)
This 1966 Tōei colour film co-stars Ōse Kōichi which is why I've included it here. Contrary to the title (and the blurb which calls it "one of the most exciting and bloody ninja films from the golden era of samurai films", it isn't about ninja though some do appear. Instead, it is a light-hearted almost parody of a certain type of samurai film, a real Saturday-arvo-at-the-flicks piece. Matsukata Hiroki and Ōse Kōichi play two thieves who are released from prison by a magistrate who wants them to find the war funds of the defeated Toyotomi amounting to 300 million ryō, lost after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). The reason they are chosen for this task (with the promise of half if they find it) is that as children they were the last to see what happened to it when the leader cut down everyone else to keep its location a secret. Only a badly wounded footman survived and his image has given them nightmares ever since.
They return to where this all happened 20 years ago and take a room at an inn, passing themselves off as government spies so they can have it rent-free, as the innkeeper suspects. They aren't the only ones looking for the gold as there is a group of yamabushi and a number of ninja also after it. Plus there are others such as the local priest who reckons he can do them a good deal for a funeral after they find a body in a boat; a blind girl who always seems to be around and whom one of them fancies; the scarred footman and a local magistrate. Nobody is what he or she seems including the innkeeper, his wife and a clerk.
There's plenty of action and quite a bit of comedy, even a rather surreal dream sequence. The two thieves are likeable rogues with plenty of cheek and are quite athletic which gets them out of scrapes. Whereas in, say, The Samurai, you'd get a handful of yamabushi and about a dozen ninja at a time, here you've got an army of each who attack en masse. Because no one is what s/he seems, a lot of clichés of chambara flicks get turned on their heads. It is quite fascinating to see Ōse in a very different role. There is nothing here of the noble and rather stately Shintarō. He is roguish, inclined to drunkenness, not always brave or honest, though looks out for his friend, hardly uses a sword though is capable of considerable athletic feats and leaping about. We do get so see him laugh and smile a lot, though. Somewhat disconcerting is that part way through, he wears a very similar ponytail hairstyle to that of Shintarō and it says a lot of his acting skills that he still comes across as a very different character.
Quite where the English title came from is anyone's guess. The Japanese translates as "Great action adventure film: Gold Thieves". It can be had from SamuraiDVD or similar online places. It is Region 1 and subtitled.
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