Samurai Wolf II: Hell Cut (Kiba Ôkaminosuke: jigoku giri)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Screenplay: Noribumi Suzuki, Kei Tasaka, Kiyoko Ôno (idea by Hideo Gosha)
Stars: Isao Natsuyagi (Kiba Ôkaminosuke), Ko Nishimura (Magobei), Ichirô Nakatani (Ikkaku), Bin Amatsu (Jinroku), Yûko Kusunoki (Oren), Chiyo Aoi (Otatsu), Rumiko Fuji (Oteru)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1967
Country: Japan
Samurai Wolf Blu-ray
Samurai Wolf

If Samurai Wolf (Kiba Ôkaminosuke) was a gruff B-movie spin on the traditional chambara (historical sword-fighting film), then its sequel, Samurai Wolf II: Hell Cut (Kiba Ôkaminosuke: jigoku giri), is an even gruffer and more cynical takedown of romanticized notions of chivalry and honor. Set in a desert wasteland that makes its depiction of feudal Japan feel all the more desolate and violent, Samurai Wolf II again find the titular ronin, Kiba Ôkaminosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), wandering alone before getting caught up in a complex feud of violence, greed, and corruption, this time involving a gold mine.

Like most good sequels, Samurai Wolf II deepens our understanding of the protagonist and builds on what was good in the first film. Here, we learn more about Kiba, who was a largely enigmatic character in the first film. In the second film, we learn about his childhood, namely that he was the son of a wandering sword-master who made money by challenging other swordsmen, a career that was bound to end in his death at some point. The flashbacks to Kiba’s tragic childhood are motivated by his happening across an escort that is transporting three prisoners in bamboo cages, one of whom is a samurai named Magobei (Ko Nishimura) who was tricked into committing murder and who also looks just like Kiba’s dead father.

The dynamic between Kiba and Magobei becomes the film’s central tension, as there is much to admire about the older samurai even though he is a deeply cynical and corruptible figure who represents precisely how Kiba could turn villainous (“Money buys everything, even a man’s heart,” Magobei says at one point. “One day, you will be like me.”). The hope, of course, is that Kiba will resist such temptation, since, despite his rough exterior and apparently amorality, he is a man of honor who always fights for the downtrodden and the victimized (in the film’s opening scene, he saves a distressed young woman from a group of men chasing, harassing, and likely planning to rape her).

Samurai Wolf II also feature a more conventional villain: Higasa, the leader of a group of bandits who tricked and betrayed Magobei and is hiding a secret gold mine that he plans to exploit for himself. Higasa offers clear-cut villainy with few redeeming qualities, although we do learn later that the young woman Kiba saved in the opening scene is his mentally ill daughter who he protects even at his own risk. For good measure, the film also involves a dojo master who is intent on defeating Kiba, whose unconventional sword-wielding skills rival (and therefore threaten) his own.

If the stakes feel higher in Samurai Wolf II, it is partly because the plot is more complicated and partly because the moral demarcations are murkier and harder to discern. Kiba is also at greater risk here. In the first film it often felt like nothing could touch him; he was the Japanese samurai equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, whose Sergio Leone-directed Dollars spaghetti western trilogy was clearly an influence on Gosha’s approach to the chambara genre. In Samurai Wolf II, Kiba spends a good portion of the film’s second half strung up and left to die by Higasa, which underscores his mortality and humanity (his escape is almost entirely by luck). The narrative momentum builds more intensely here, resulting in a climactic standoff in which multiple characters are in danger and there is no real clarity of approach. Like the dusty terrain within which the action unfolds, nothing is clear and there is no possibility of a complete and harmonious resolution.

Samurai Wolf 1 and 2 Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • Japanese Linear PCM 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by Chris Poggiali
  • “Outlaw Director: Hideo Gosha” featurette
  • Trailers
  • Essay by Robin Gatto
  • DistributorFilm Movement Classics
    Release DateMay 16, 2023

    Samurai Wolf and Samurai Wolf II: Hell Cut share a single Blu-ray in Film Movement’s new two-film set, which would seem to suggest a compromise in quality. However, the films are so short (together they run only 146 minutes) that splitting them up onto separate discs doesn’t make much sense. The insert booklet indicates that both films underwent “2K restorations from original film elements,” and both look very good. They are not perfect, as they are some small signs of age and wear that a more thorough digital restoration might have caught, but given how overall good the transfers are and the fact these films have been long unavailable in Region 1, it is hard to complain. The 2.39:1 widescreen, black-and-white images boast good detail and contrast while maintaining a nicely filmlike appearance. The images definitely lean toward the soft side, but that is very much in keeping with their mid-1960s, B-movie vibe. Both films feature Linear PCM 2.0 monaural soundtracks that also sound good, albeit within the obvious limitations of the films’ age and budgets. The sound effects don’t have a lot of depth and dialogue can sound a bit harsh, but I imagine it is all in line with what a theatrical experience in 1966 and 1967 would have sounded like. I very much appreciated the spaghetti western-influenced score by Toshiaki Tsushima, which has real kick and verve. Each film features an informative audio commentary by Chris Poggiali, co-author of These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World that sheds light on their production and reception, as well as the people involved in them, many of whom have been long forgotten. There is also a 20-minute interview with Tomoe Gosha, director Hideo Gosha’s daughter, and a 20-page insert booklet with a lengthy new essay on both films by filmmaker and historian Robin Gatto, who has also published a French monograph on Gosha.

    Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Film Movement Classics

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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