Nothing is certain these days, so say the protagonists at the centre of Masahiro Shinoda’s whirlwind of intrigue, Samurai Spy (異聞猿飛佐助, Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke). Set 14 years after the battle of Sekigahara which ushered in a long period of peace under the banner of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Samurai Spy effectively imports its contemporary cold war atmosphere to feudal Japan in which warring states continue to vie for power through the use of covert spy networks run from Edo and Osaka respectively. Sides are switched, friends are betrayed, innocents are murdered. The peace is fragile, but is it worth preserving even at such mounting cost?
Our “hero” Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) is a wandering spy for the Sanada clan, nominally part of the Tokugawa though with no strong allegiance to either side. Everywhere he goes he feels hunted, watched by shadowy forces and unseen motivators. After bumping into Mitsuaki (Mutsuhiro Toura), an old comrade who fought alongside him at the Battle of Sekigahara, Sasuke is pulled into the ongoing intrigue as his friend is murdered and he assumed to be the culprit. Things are further complicated when a mysterious woman to whom he had become attached, Okiwa (Misako Watanabe), is killed in a similar fashion. A political shift is taking place as a high ranking Tokugawa official, Tatewaki (Eiji Okada), is in the process of defecting to the Toyotomi with white cloaked ninja master Takatani (Tetsuro Tanba) (presumably) working against him. Sasuke is charged with trying to sort all of this out but constantly finds himself on shaky ground as everything around him is constantly changing and the air is filled with conspiracy.
Shinoda aims to disorientate. After beginning with a brief historical narration to set the scene including a bloody excerpt from the horrific Battle of Sekigahara (the historical context presumably much more apparent to a Japanese viewer than an overseas one), he jumps forward 14 years and proceeds to give a rundown of the current situation. Quick fire naming and a lack of external context intentionally make it difficult to pin down who is who and which side is which. The opening sequence takes place in darkness with only moonlight and lanterns to light the way, so our players are always cast in shadows, only half visible and unidentifiable. Nothing is as it seems, the world is murky and the people in shadier still.
Sasuke fought at Sekigahara when he was just 15. His true coming of age has been in an era of peace and he is committed to sustaining that peace at all costs rather than return to the bloody, internecine warfare of the past. This stands in contrast to his double dealing friend, Mitsuaki, whose own coming of age was forged by war and so now finds himself at a loose end as warriors are obsolete in an age without war. Nevertheless, Sasuke feels the peace is threatened – all conversations are eventually about conflict, no one thinks about the meaning of death or what it is to be alive. Men like Mitsuaki have decided to live purely for pleasure, wanting nothing more than women and sake, thinking of nothing beyond satisfying their needs, and rarely consider the moral or political dimension of their actions. Mitsuaki’s unexpected degree of self interest accidentally threatens to completely destabilise the status quo, setting off a series of betrayals and counter betrayals in its wake, but all Mitsuaki was thinking about was a how to get paid twice for doing one job.
Navigating this complex network of allegiances and betrayals, Sasuke comes to discover what it is he really wants out of life and what he needs to do to get it. No longer a neutral observer, he has to pick a side and the one he picks that of the wronged. Coming to the aid of the threatened and oppressed, Sasuke adds himself to the list of enemies of the state yet he sees it as his duty to fight against the forces of darkness for a better, fairer world. Of course, he has his personal reasons for revenge but even these are partly born out of a sense of outrage for the injustice done to people who mattered to him.
Yet for all of the real world intrigue and political allegory Samurai Spy is also imbued with an unsettling sense of the absurd. Sasuke is plagued, yet at times assisted, by the almost supernatural Takatani who, incongruously, dresses in a bright white outfit with the fabric of his hood tied up into horns on the front. Appearing as needed along with his more conventionally dressed ninja minions, Takatani seems to float through the air performing strange acts of ninjadom and acting with no firm course of action. Shinoda shoots the battle scenes from odd angles using slow motion to give them a strange kind of power, even in one instance allowing a severed limb to float to the ground. In a nod to the circularity of violence, he even allows the climactic fight to be interrupted and witnessed by a small boy, shocked by what he has seen. The fact that the situation is laid to rest by a forgotten deus ex machina is yet more evidence for the world’s essential leaning towards constructed narrative.
Filled with the fog of war (literally so in places), Samurai Spy dramatises the uncertainties of its environment through the extreme lack of visual clarity. The audience is as disorientated as Sasuke, continually wrong footed and left at a loss as to the true motivations of each of the major players. The atmosphere is palpably intense, as if sitting on a powder keg ready to explode at any spark of conflict. From this viewpoint, it’s impossible to see who is in the right and who the wrong or even if those two ideas are even appropriate ways of thinking about things. Peace stands on a knife edge and, ironically, only survives if robustly defended. Violence is shown up for all of its essential cruelty and senselessness yet it is the only thing which is certain. Sasuke, at least, seems to have made his own peace in one way or another but the world he leaves behind him is far from ready to do the same.