Stop me if I’ve told you this one before (actually, don’t). I was the youngest of six children. I grew up with four brothers and a sister, all of whom loved nothing more than bedeviling their chunky (and much cooler) baby brother. If you recall from my story about Brigantine Castle, you’ll recall that my family used to vacation in Long Beach Island, New Jersey every summer. On the main strip was, conceivably, my favorite place in the whole, entire world: an arcade/snack shop which had the single greatest video game ever created: Xevious. Adjacent to this pleasure palace was my second favorite place in the whole, entire world: a trampoline park. For those who don’t know, these were places where you could rent time to risk life and limb and bounce on a giant trampoline. When your time was up, your name was announced over a loud speaker, and you were invited to leave. Like last call at a bar, just without the bouncers and alcohol and beer goggles. Places like these have vanished; I’m sure due more to an increasingly litigious society than to any actual physical danger to children.
At any rate, I used to love Trampoline World (this particular park’s moniker, if memory serves), but of course, I was too young to go there by myself. This task of handling me fell to my brothers. One fiendishly clever day, they took me over for my midday, spring-loaded constitutional, and I proceeded to go through my routine, lost in that magical act of leaping. As my time drew to a close, the loudspeaker crackled to life, “Pyew Stinky on Six, Pyew Stinky on Six. Your time is up.” Go ahead and guess what the number of my trampoline was. Suffice to say, I was miffed, nay, livid. But I got over it. Had I been more aware at that time of the usage of trampolines and the like in performing the acrobatics in films like Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy (aka Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke) and countless other Martial Arts and Science Fiction films, I probably would have pulled off some sweet midair maneuvers that would have firmly denounced the fetid nickname with which my trampolining prowess had been besmirched by my lowlife siblings.
Following the historic Battle of Sekigahara, Japan is still torn between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans, though the balance of power is inclining toward the latter. Naturally, there are other clans, and they have their own networks of spies. These clans generally align themselves with either the Tokugawas or Toyotomis, and their spies wander the country, collect information, and send it back to their superiors. The Sawada clan, however, is neutral but leans Toyotomi. Sasuke is one of their most renowned agents, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a search for a Yagyu agent turned traitor, as well as a mysterious young Christian man who is somehow tied up in all this.
The film has elements of the superheroic at various times. Men have the ability to leap great distances (but not necessarily tall buildings) in a single bound. Their skill with shuriken and wakizashi are accurate and deadly effective. These extraordinary skills are usually distinguished in the film by the use of slow motion. Not only is the action being slowed down for the benefit of the viewer to delineate what is happening, but this break from normal film speed signifies that what these people are doing is special. Normal people and warriors move in normal time. The elite of the superhuman spy set move differently, because they perceive action differently. The flick of a blade may appear as a flash of light to the normal human eye, but to these masters, they follow the gleaming edge from the start of the draw to the final, bloody end of its arc, and along the way, they will notice and hit exactly what they intend and nothing more. These types of scenes are important in the film, but they are not a focus. In other words, these people have incredible powers, but they are ancillary to the central conceit of the film.
Which brings us to the sense of mystery intrinsic to the film’s point, and it is basically conveyed using two visual motifs. The first is the image of fog or smoke. The first time we meet Sasuke, he is wandering around, lost in a literal fog and sensing like something is following him. In fact, the character is constantly wandering in and out of fog-shrouded climes. This symbolizes not only the murky plot Sasuke is trying to unravel but also the interior confusion he feels about what type of person he is and what he needs to do. Early on, he tells fellow spy Mitsuaki that he has stopped asking why he does what he does. His persona is subjugated by his job, and he does it very well. Nevertheless, he does know that there are questions he should be answering and isn’t (“No one seems to give any thought anymore to the meaning of death. Or the meaning of life, for that matter.”). When all has finally been made clear to Sasuke, the fog clears for a short time, but it well re-emerge shortly with a different function. Now it is a source of tension which will remain muddy until Sasuke’s fate has been lethally determined.
The second visual metaphor imparting this notion of mystery is compositional in nature. Shinoda employs high angle shots often in the film and especially during scenes involving action. By doing this, he makes it more difficult to distinguish one character from another (the major exception to this being the person of Sakon Takatani; a Yagyu agent who dresses completely in white, effectively making of him a ghost and agent of death). Thus, the masses of people move against each other, and the only true way to know what has happened is after it has occurred (slow-motion sequences notwithstanding). Still, action is not always the focus of these types of arrangements. Even quiet moments are mired in uncertainty, none more beautifully realized than the scene where Sasuke and his love interest Omiya are discussing their future. The two are centered in the frame, beset on all sides by flowers to the point that they become lost in this pattern of nature. Samurai Spy’s plot may be a bit much to take in, and it may sound like just another Jidaigeki, but it truly distinguishes itself as a perceptual journey, and it is as much influenced by the best Western Films Noir as it is by anything from its native East.
MVT: The cinematography and general aesthetic of this film is impressive and sumptuous. Masao Kosugi’s camerawork captures bottomless pools of black alongside searingly hot whites. That it is so striking is almost as praiseworthy as the fact that it is not ostentatious. To me, that makes it all the more remarkable.
Make Or Break: The introduction of the film’s contagonist, Sakon is the Make. After using his trademark grappling hook on a hapless victim, he emerges from one of the darkest shadows I have ever seen. He is a spectre, imposing and awesome, a presence to be feared and a force with which to be reckoned.