The only thing this one is missing is personal favorite Tatsuya Nakadai.
Skillfully paced, complex and blessed with a classic 60s splatter Chan-Bara* finale, Samurai Assassin is a great introduction to the bloody and mesmerizing style of swordplay pictures that popped up in Japan during the 60s. Less outrageous than classic examples like the Lone Wolf and Cub films, the uncomfortably violent Hanzo the Razor, or Director Okamoto’s later masterpiece, Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin still touches all of the elements that make the films of this style so much fun to watch.
Highlighted by Mifune’s driven performance and Hiroshi Murai’s stunning black and white photography, the film is loosely based on the "Sakurada Gate Incident", the assassination of a high ranking Shogunate official. The tale of the assassins, the story is multi-layered, touching intelligently on the historical importance of the event as well as the human forces that drive the men on this most dangerous path. Add a gut wrenching twist of fate, a cameo by Takeshi Shimamura and the brutally exciting finale to the previous and this one ends up fitting snugly in the "Rent Me" column.
As a bonus the version I saw, A widescreen Samurai Cinema release, was a classy production. Featuring new, well-researched yellow subtitles, supertitle notes on specific Japanese terms, some handy liner notes and a crystal clear print, this tape serves as a perfect example of how important foreign films should be presented. As a man beaten down by years of renting sub-par quality Hong Kong releases, seeing a presentation like this is quite a treat.
This review originally appeared in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in January 2000.