Oh my god. Okay.
Haunted Samurai (1970)
I'm going to do my best to be as spoiler-free as possible, but I'm also going to write as free-flowing as possible, because there's a lot to wrap my head around.
The back copy of this release - "the most gory ninja film of its era" - only makes sense if the other ninja films of its era aren't gory at all. The gore is pretty low key; in fact, apart from the requisite arterial spray from even the smallest nicks (feudal-era Japanese citizens could really have benefitted from some Losartan), the only other notable bit of gore was an arm getting lopped off during a sword battle. That only makes this film as gory as any random entry in the "Star Wars" franchise.
This is an absolutely beautifully shot film. I don't usually nerd out about cinematography and such things, but this film uses wide shots and the margins of frames to some pretty cool extents, even when the subjects are centrally focused. Emotional scenes are punctuated by slowly blowing blades of grass on the periphery. Violent battles set in the township that makes up the major locale of the story is dressed with onlookers ogling the fight or fleeing for safety.
I'm not good with keeping the character names straight, so I shortened them to keep my sanity. Please bear with me: Roku, a samurai spy, has abandoned his role in the Shogunate's army after a crisis of conscience and the suicide of his sister. This brings him to the attention of the Yagyu ninja clan, two ambassadors of which are dedicated to hinting him down. On Roku's journey, he happens upon a farmer and his children being victimized by robbers. He guards them in the journey back, and, once he gets to their township, he realizes that, hey, this farming life isn't really that shabby. He can do some good, and he can hide from assassins. But he can't hide from the shifty eyes of another samurai in hiding, a fellow townsman who has less than charitable notions for the locals. Add in scheming politicos, bandits, and a sudden sack of gold, and allegiances shift, blood is spilled, and human drama is played out in front of the watcher with no definitive outcome foreshadowed. Is Roku destined to die for the villagers? Will he retire from his bloody life at the side of the elderly farmer's daughter? What of the jealous farmhand, wanting the daughter's hand for himself? And, if the opening warning is true, that the Yagyu have their spies EVERYWHERE, who can Roku even turn to?
There's so much I *want* to tell you about this movie, but to do so would be a serious folly. The story interweaves in ways that, yeah, seasoned movie fans could pick up on and maybe see coming a good distance away, but the journey is something else. I will tell you this, though: The scene where a bevy of topless female ninjas set up on Roku to the point of driving him into the sea, where the camera work goes underwater for a good bit of action, was a head scratcher, because it comes and goes in a way that's kind of out of left field, and what it sets up could literally have been set up any number of other ways. But hey, topless female ninjas FTW yo.
An aside, but it'll make sense in a bit: Of the Leone Eastwood westerns, my favorite is "For a Few Dollars More." The camera work, the music, the intricate webbing of character dynamics were always head and shoulders above the other three entries. And there were many times watching this movie when I was reminded of that film, even though Roku's rival in the town called back more to Eli Wallace than Gian Maria Volonte.
One complaint though: The film is in the Japanese language with English subs. There's no changing this. And dammit, some of the subtitles are misspelled. Occasionally a sentence here or there makes no fucking sense, and it's definitely more the fault of the translation than this reader. But it only stands out glaringly when it pops up, and for me, it was forgotten just as quickly.
If the ad copy is to be believed, once "Haunted Samurai" is gone, it is gone. I don't think you will regret getting a copy. Easily a 4.5 or more of 5.