Ahh, the chanbara, the samurai film in all its diversity. Some seem like a western, some reflect on the histroy of Japan, others are just plain bloody and many of them are a combination of these elements. Like most film genres, they come in different gradations of seriousness. Japanese swordplay movies had their golden era in the sixties and most of the films from that decade are about corruption, loyalty and protecting the weak. Unlike a lot of their later counterparts they are not as violent as they are tragic though. Many of its characters are plagued by an internal conflict about good, evil and honour. But then came the seventies…
Exploitation reflects heavily through the swordplay genre in this decade. Blood became redder per movie, just like it sprayed further. This is the era that inspired Tarantino to make Kill Bill. It was the era were the story wasn’t about the story anymore, but about the blood that could derive from it (and with some luck a pair of breasts too). In the films about the incorruptible policeman Hanzo the Razor for instance, many a unwilling female suspect got the Hanzo treatment, meaning his irresistible penis which would make her sing like a bird. With the “victim’s” intelligence Hanzo would go out to cut open some freshly exposed foes that threatened society’s moralities. Then there is the Lone Wolf and Cub series about a ronin and his son travelling through Japan to defeat the clan that destroyed their life. The baby cart his son rides in is actually a death machine full of hidden weapons and traps, ready to kill at will.
In this era some of the cheesiest films were made and although they are not as good as the aforementioned Hanzo or Lone Wolf, they guarantee a lot of fun (and blood) for those who believe cheesiness is a style in itself. One of them is Shadow Hunters, or Kage Gari in Japan. It’s about three drifting samurai that protect a local clan against the corrupt government spies called Shadows. The ronin have to deliver a seal to Edo to get the government off the back of the clan, but surely they wont reach that city without a hack and a slash. On the contrary even, since the shogunate sends out a ton of spies and ninjas against them. You don’t need to understand a lot about chanbaras to predict that the enemies will end up leaking blood at best or miss some limbs if they are not that lucky. A special notion goes out to the make up effects, which are pretty decent for a film like this. Heads on bamboo sticks really look like heads on bamboo sticks, to give an example. It is also an example of the level of gore, which is pretty high even compared to other chanbaras from this time.
Kage Gari has a distinct seventies feel about it. That is not just because one of the main characters has a porno mustache. The sound effects are cheep and the music has a blaxploitation ring to it at all the wrong moments. That just doesn’t sound right when watching a Japanese period piece, but it does ad to the cheese flavour of this B-flick. That is meant as a compliment for those who didn’t catch the tone of this review yet. Another compliment goes out to the exploitational nudity of some girls that wilfully throw themselves at the feet of our heroes. Sure, I am all about equal rights and all, but not in films like this. Here women need to be submissive and that they are. The only girl that reveals herself as a spy gets cut in half. Topless. Blood fountain. Cool!
So here we have a fine but forgotten example of the sixties counterpart of the samurai film. It is not tragic by far, the samurai here hunt government spies to kill them dead and blood flows richly. This film is all about fun and although it never gets to be Hanzo the Razor of even Lady Snowblood, it does offer just that. Avid fans of B-movies, chanbaras or a combination of those two will most likely enjoy this one a lot.