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Before he would go on to write chambara history with films such as Goyokin and Hitokiri, Hideo Gosha had to start small. One of his earlier films was a small b picture, Samurai Wolf (which also spawned a sequel) and it's not hard to understand why he rose to a prominent figure of the genre, earning a righful place next to such luminaries as Kurosawa, Kobayashi and Okamoto.
Samurai Wolf serves like a cornerstone between the old American westerns of the 50's and the spaghetti western revolution that was well underway by 1966. Yet it's a Japanese samurai movie. Taking its cue from Kurosawa's Yojimbo and by extension the works of John Ford, Gosha here instills to his samurai action a pulpy comic book sensibility and a sense of biting cynicism which bears a similarity to Sergio Leone. Kiba Okaminosuke is the typical alienated antihero that strides into town to save the day by helping a blind lady and her relay post with the mission of transporting 30000 ryo to the next post. Kiba is not as cynic and self-serving as Yojimbo's character but they do share many similar feats. Isao Natsuyagi who plays the titular hero looks and carries himself with something of the scruffy, animalistic energy of Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa's classic. A wild animal with a menacing exterior that hides a kind heart. And as a true heir to this longstanding tradition of lone antiheroes, Kiba cannot settle down. He's bound to be a drifter and an outcast. Once his work is down, he leaves town...
Nothing is what it seems here (a similar motif Gosha would explore in his later Sword of the Beast). Almost everyone in the movie is out to use everybody else for their own means. Revenge, greed, the abuse of trust and love are all themes that Samurai Wolf touches on, without dwelling too much on them. It's a short genre movie after all and the emphasis is on the action and style. Gosha excels in both. Lots of swordfighting, beautifully filmed and violent for its day, with dark blood gushing from wounds and slow motion effects put to great use. I'm not sure if Sam Peckinpah ever saw this little gem, but it sure as hell reminded me of his work in The Wild Bunch. The stylized b/w cinematography and unusual camera angles add to the comic book effect Samurai Wolf is carrying.
Dark, violent and full of plot twists, Samurai Wolf is a visceral slice of dark, cartoon-ish chambara that will appeal to (spaghetti) western fans just as well. Highly recommended.
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