Color, 1970, 82 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Keiichi Ozawa
Starring Hideki Takahashi, Masako Izumi, Isao Natsuyagi
Surviving Elements (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of Nikkatsu's relatively few contributions to the very stacked subgenre of Japanese swordplay films, Haunted Samurai (on-screen title: Kaze no Tengu, or Shinobi Demon: Duel in the Wind) is a sturdy example of where these films stood during the transition from black-and-white dramatic epics to the more flamboyant and violent stage they reached in the 1970s. Based on an early manga by Goseki Kojima (the same year he began Lone Wolf and Cub), the film by Keiichi Ozawa (director of the late '60s Outlaw crime series) dropped out of circulation for decades after its initial theatrical run, including a limited U.S. run via Toho with English subtitles and prompting a New York Times review cataloging its then-extreme levels of violence.
Now on Blu-ray in a single pressing run from Surviving Elements sold via Diabolik, the film is being touted as "the most gory ninja film of its era." If you're expecting something like Shogun Assassin or Revenge of the Ninja, this isn't anywhere near that level of carnage; however, what you do get is a beautifully shot and executed period action film with some nice dramatic weight, a bit of mysticism, and a few outrageous highlights guaranteed to bring down the house.
Working as a ruthless assassin for the Yagyu clan, Rokuheita (Takahashi) goes a step too far when he kills his brother-in-law and drives his sister to suicide. By abandoning his position, he knows that "ninja are scattered across the land" for any deserter. That even includes a whole gang of topless female assassin coral hunters in one of the film's early high points involving an underwater knife fight, after which Rokuheita eventually makes his way to a destitute village where he can be of service. Of course, he has some dogged pursuers on his trail who won't make his attempt at a new life very easy.
Making what appears to be its home video debut, Haunted Samurai looks very satisfying here with a nice presentation of its original scope framing and satisfying detail and color about on par with most early '70s Japanese film transfers. It isn't a super vibrant production by any means with an emphasis on muted golds and browns in all the exterior scenes, but the occasional red spurts of blood do jump out. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono Japanese track is also in good shape and features optional English subtitles (with more typos than usual). In addition to the Japanese trailer, the disc includes a great new audio commentary by Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali (co-author of These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World) and John Charles (The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997: A Reference Guide to 1100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios). They both bring a lot to the table here with plenty of info about real-life Japanese historical figures, the film's release history (including runs in San Francisco and Honolulu), the backgrounds of the actors, the social traditions at work here, the tragedy that befell the original intended star of the film, the ins and outs of Japanese studios at the time and Nikkatsu in particular, and lots more.
Reviewed on October 14, 2023