Samurai Wolf (Kiba Ôkaminosuke)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Screenplay: Kei Tasaka (idea by Hideo Gosha)
Stars: Isao Natsuyagi (Kiba Ôkaminosuke), Ryôhei Uchida (Akizuki Sanai), Junko Miyazono (Chise), Tatsuo Endô (Nizaemon), Kyôichi Satô (Sensei)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: Japan
Samurai Wolf Blu-ray
Samurai Wolf

Hideo Gosha’s Samurai Wolf (Kiba Ôkaminosuke) is a gritty, hard-edged, bloody recalibration of the traditional chambara film (action-oriented, historical sword-fighting film), which had been broadly popular in Japan throughout the 1950s, but was waning in popularity by the mid-1960s. Gosha had already directed a number of such films, including his feature debut, Three Outlaw Samurai (Sanbiki no samurai, 1964), which was a prequel to a popular television series, and Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken, 1965). Those films put him well on his way to becoming known as a renegade artist, one who wasn’t afraid to get messy and color outside the lines, which is exactly what Samurai Wolf does.

Set in the remote wilderness of feudal Japan, Samurai Wolf introduces us to the ronin Kiba Ôkaminosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), which means “Furious Wolf,” who is in just about every way the inverse of the chambara’s tradition of noble, morally upstanding samurai. A perennial outsider and wandering, penniless loner, Kiba is scruffy, unkempt, and badly lacking in manners (we first meet him in uncomfortable close-ups as he scarfs down bowls of rice, much of which gets stuck in his beard and none of which he has money to pay for). Yet, he is a master swordsman who, despite his outwardly untoward appearance, is nevertheless a man of honor who has a heart for the underdog and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way for the good of others (he never explicitly invokes a code of honor or chivalry, as many of his cinematic samurai forebears had done, but he clearly feels pulled in that direction). Isao Natsuyagi, who was a relative newcomer with a background in theater, plays Kiba with a brash mixture of gruff charisma, confidence bordering on cockiness, and sentimental charm. In many ways he is a man of deep contradictions; while at one point he happily notes that he hasn’t had a bath in more than a year, he also keeps with him a pair of shears that he regularly uses to trim his shaggy beard and, in one scene, uses to gently clip the toenails of a young prostitute.

In Samurai Wolf, which was the first of two films to feature the character, Kiba finds himself caught up in a feud between Nizaemon (Tatsuo Endo), a local gang leader, and Chise (Junko Miyazono), a blind widow who has inherited her town’s courier post. Nizaemon wants to control all the mail routes, and he has graduated from blackmail to open violence, which Kiba witnesses firsthand when several of Nizaemon’s gang members attack and kill two of Chise’s couriers on the open road. Kiba is immediately drawn to Chise’s plight and is convinced to help her protect a shipment of 30,000 gold coins from the shogun that Nizaemon is clearly planning to ambush (the whole thing may very well be a set-up). The plot thickens when Nizaemon hires his own expert swordsman, Akizuki Sanai (Ryohei Uchida), who was responsible for the massacre of the aforementioned prostitute’s former home and the death of her family, which adds an element of personal vengeance into the mix.

It is not hard to discern the influence of 1960s Westerns—especially the European spaghetti variety—on Samurai Wolf, which is ironic given that spaghetti westerns were heavily influenced by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, especially Yojimbo (1961), which provided the template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Kiba is very much a late-western kind of hero—he would be right at home in a Leone or Corbucci or Peckinpah film—and the perilous situation in which he finds himself, with its interplay of personal vengeance, political corruption, and general power mongering, is right out of the spaghetti western playbook, as is the ’Scope cinematography by Sadaji Yoshida and music by prolific genre composer Toshiaki Tsushima, one of whose earliest assignments was composing music for Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samura (he would go on to write music for more than 100 chambara, yakuza, and pinku-eigas). The result is a broadly entertaining film that draws from and undercuts the samurai tradition in equal measure, illustrating in broad strokes Gosha’s place in Japanese B-movie lore.

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)

    James Kendrick

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