Samurai Wolf (1966)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Samurai Wolf
Kiba okaminosuke
Starring Isao Natsuyagi (Kiba), Junko Miyazono (Ochise), Ryohei Uchida (Akizuki), Tatsuo Endo , Junkichi Orimoto, Yoshiro Aoki, Takashi Tabata, Koichi Sato, Misako Tominaga
Screenplay by Hiroshi Tasaka

Toei Company, 75 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: Samurai DVD

In some ways, Samurai Wolf is a sort of "back to basics" movie for Hideo Gosha. After making his first color film with The Secret of the Urn, he makes a welcome return to black and white – Gosha does black and white chambara so well that it's a shame he only made four of them. The two Samurai Wolf films are closer to the humor and light touch of Three Outlaw Samurai than any of his other works, which tended to grow more cynical. Indeed, here Gosha may have been reacting against the dark, bitter anti-heroes that had become commonplace in chambara films by 1966.

The hero of the Samurai Wolf movies is quite unlike the typical Gosha protagonist in that he is not defined by a cruel betrayal or fall from grace in his past. We don't learn how he came to be a penniless ronin and it doesn't matter. The movie opens with freeze frame shots of our fearsome lead character Kiba as he bellows a gutteral battle cry. We think we're in for yet another Yojimbo-inspired bad-ass. Then the scene shift to Kiba happily eating bowls of rice through the opening credits with white grains in his beard and a goofy grin on his face. When he tells the old lady serving him that he's got no money, he offers to do chores to pay for his meal, then cheerfully mends her roof and chops wood. So right away we know this is a good-hearted, honest guy with a carefree Zatoichi-style personality.

When Kiba witnesses innocent travelers being murdered by a gang of ronin, he gets swept up in a conflict surrounding a messenger service and a secret shipment of gold. The relay outpost is run by a blind woman named Ochise whose business is under attack by corrupt local boss named Nizaemon (a name Gosha was evidently fond of, as witness the titular yakuza lord of 1978's Kumokiri Nizaemon). When Ochise asks our hero his name, he hesitates and says that he's "Okaminosuke Kiba," which means "wolf's fang" – clearly a Sanjuro-style alias. While they chat, Kiba trims his beard with a pair of scissors while looking at his reflection in the blade of his sword. Gosha uses a prop sword with an impossibly mirrored surface to create some fantastic compositions, with Ochise's face shown in the sword while the camera is on Kiba, and vice versa. The reflections make an interesting counterpoint to Ochise's blindness and the secrets that she is concealing from Kiba.

Nizaemon comes to Ochise offering a consignment to transport a load of 30,000 ryo. Even though the job is extremely dangerous and smells of a plot to take over her business, Ochise has no choice but to accept. Kiba agrees to accompany the delivery and protect it from ambush. In fact, this all turns out to be a conspiracy filled with more twists and double-crosses than Kiba could ever have imagined. But sorting out the details of who's fooling who is really a secondary concern. Getting there is all the fun.

And Samurai Wolf is definitely fun, overflowing with nice little touches that set it apart from the average chambara adventure. One of the best things is the villains. Gosha comes up with loads of charismatic adversaries to throw at Kiba, starting with Nizaemon's big brute henchman who's a deaf-mute with a pet monkey. This guy looks interesting enough to be Kiba's arch-nemesis throughout the film, but Kiba ends up dispatching him early on. Then Nizaemon calls in the big guns, a murderous savage named Akizuki who is known as the "God of Evil"! There's also a great female villain, the madam of the local brother who plots with Nizaemon.

And as if that's not enough, in the third act of the movie Nizaemon shores up his bets by calling in three more crazed ronin assassins. Before negotiating their fee, they demonstrate their skills with the absurd act of throwing a bamboo pole in the ground and tossing a bucket on top of it, slashing their swords, then standing back as the bucket and the bamboo fall to pieces. Truly awesome. Of course, after that ostentatious build-up, Kiba easily kicks their butts like Indiana Jones vs. the Arabian swordsman.

In his final showdown against Akizuki, Kiba notes that Akizuki has wounded his left arm in the preceding melee. Rather than taking advantage of a weakened foe, as most swordfighters would gladly do, Kiba volunteers to tie his left wrist to his belt to force an evenly one-handed duel. That's the kind of guy he is.

The other wonderful thing about Samurai Wolf is the music. The opening titles establish Kiba's signature theme, a swaggering harmonica riff that sounds like it's right out of a spaghetti western soundtrack. Hideo Gosha could rightly be described as the Sergio Leone of jidai-geki, and if you're looking for evidence of their cinematic similarites, this would be the best, the baddest and the ugliest.

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