“We ronin must live without mercy” insists a fugitive on a quest for vengeance and riches only to meet his match in the justice-loving wanderer Kiba (Isao Natsuyagi) making his return for Samurai Wolf II: Hell Cut (牙狼之介 地獄斬り, Kiba Okaminosuke: Jigoku Giri). Like the second instalment in many series, Gosha’s avant-garde chambara largely follows the same formula picking up several familiar elements from the first film if giving them a new spin as Kiba once again finds himself caught up in intrigue provoked by the amoral venality of late Meiji society.
In this case, he makes a rod for his own back by humiliating some swordsmen after catching them harassing a young woman, mocking them when they try to claim that their treatment of her is part of their “training”. Kiba saves the girl, Oteru (Rumiko Fuji), who has some kind of etherial quality and doesn’t quite seem to know what’s going on immediately throwing herself at Kiba who turns her down in gentlemanly fashion. Sometime later, he runs into a convoy of officials transporting criminals to the nearest judicial centre and stops to give the prisoners some of his own water explaining that that from the stream is polluted thanks to leaks from a nearby goldmine. In any case, Kiba is struck by the appearance of one of the men, Magobei (Ko Nishimura), who reminds him of the father who was killed by swordsmen he’d humiliated with his skill.
Magobei is in chains for murdering the manager of the mine which previously belonged to the shogun but has now been shut down, its seam apparently exhausted. But like the toxins that poured into the river, the mine is a poison to society and in more ways than one. Magobei tells Kiba that he’s been set up. He was hired to kill the manager by a duplicitous gang leader named Jinroku (Bin Amatsu) who has found a new seam and has been operating the mine illegally taking all the gold for himself so obviously Magobei wants revenge. After seeing off an ambush, Kiba agrees to act as a bodyguard delivering both Magobei and the other prisoner, Kihachi (Out Yokoyama) who claims to be a big time bandit in trouble for robbing a samurai family, to the nearest city but secretly seems to sympathise with the injustice dealt to Magobei and the female prisoner who later joins them, Oren the Thistle (Yuko Kusunoki), who murdered a judge who killed her lover.
Yet Kiba’s memories of his father cloud his judgment about Magobei who is definitely not a man worthy of his faith in him. “What good would pity do?’ Magobei asks, certain that compassion is a weakness and that if he were to give in to human feeling he would immediately be betrayed. The men misunderstand each other, assuming they are alike when in reality they are opposites. Kiba bets on Magobei’s humanity and loses, while Magobei assumes that Kiba will easily be won over by the riches to be found in the goldmine and help to wipe out Jinroku’s gang which is also a family of which Oteru is a member. “Life’s tough that’s how it is” he justifies, but Kiba cannot forgive him not least for his callous murder of a man who was only a frightened braggart and could not have harmed him and a woman who was otherwise blameless. Just as Sanai had in the first film, Magobei tells him that “one day you will be like me” a future that Kiba once again violently rejects.
But then again he can never escape the world where goldmines pollute the rivers and money can buy anything, even the hearts of men. Just like his father, he’s pursued by the swordsmen he’s unwittingly insulted while discovering his desire to serve justice backfiring, eventually robbing him of the only thing he actually wanted just as it had at the end of the previous film. Even so, Kiba retains his sense of humanity and unlike so many jidaigeki (anti-)heroes refuses to give in to nihilism or despair. A little less avantgarde than the previous instalment, Gosha nevertheless conjures a world of dazzling violence in freeze-frame and silence while once again leaving Kiba the furious wolf to wander, a lonely figure in an unforgiving landscape.
Samurai Wolf 2: Hell Cut opens at New York’s Metrograph on Dec. 26 as part of Hideo Gosha x 3
Original trailer (English subtitles)