Japanese director Hideo Gosha might be a familiar name to all those interested in the ‘chanbara’ genre (meaning ‘sword fighting’ films) as well as those interested in the Yakuza genre, however, in all likelihood it is also true that a number of his films are little known in the Western hemisphere. Among them are SAMURAI WOLF and SAMURAI WOLF 2, two B-features he made for Toei Productions, Tokyo. Starring then newcomer Isao Natsuyagi as the titular character - a penniless Ronin called Kiba who finds trouble wherever he goes - this 2-disc Blu-ray release will no doubt serve as an eye opener to the unique style and craft of Gosha.

SAMURAI WOLF (1966) introduces young Ronin Kiba as he wanders aimlessly through the countryside, dressed in rags and looking dishevelled. During the course of the film, we learn that he also seems to have a bit of a hygiene problem. No one really knows who this stranger is, where he comes from or if he has any background history of note. He seems little more than a drifter and right from the outset, Toshiaki Tsushima’s score reminds us not of anything traditionally Japanese but instead of Spaghetti Western soundtracks in the vein of Ennio Morricone. In that sense, Kiba’s character can be compared with Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dollar trilogy – with the exception that our wandering Ronin actually has a name which he reveals: Kiba, or to be more precise, Kiba the Furious Wolf! Eventually arriving in a tiny community in the middle of nowhere in the hope of getting some food (well, he does get a bowl of rice), instead he unwittingly gets drawn into a bitter feud between the blind Lady Chise (Junko Miyazono), owner of a relay post, and the unscrupulous Nizaemon (Tatsua Endo), an out and out wrong’un protected by the local Shogun. Not only that, but Nizaemon controls a bunch of nasty bandits and together their aim is to gain control over the various mail routes, which so far is the domain of Lady Chise… and the opening scene depicts just how nasty Nizaemon and his scoundrels really are, namely during an attempted attack on Chise, though thankfully Kiba, ever the gentleman despite his rough and aggressive demeanor, puts a stop to it.

Knowing full well that Nizaemon will stop at nothing to gain the upper hand, she asks Kiba for help who, although initially hesitant, agrees to protect her. No wonder she develops a bit of a thing for him. Just how vital this help is going to be becomes apparent when the local Shogun gives Chise the order to protect a large delivery of gold coins and it goes without saying that the minute he gets wind of it, Nizaemon conjures up his own dastardly plan to ensure the delivery of said gold coins won’t go smoothly. Not only does Kiba have his hands full in protecting himself and Chise from the constant attacks by Nizaemon’s men but we also have a not to be messed with assassin in the shape of Akizuki Sanai (Ryohei Uchida), a skilled swordsman in league with the utterly corrupt Shogun who have hired him to get Kiba out of the way. At the same time, Kiba is approached by a desperate and embittered young woman who urges him to kill Akizuki because he is responsible for a massacre in her former home, which occurred years ago. When the gold coins are delivered along the usual mail route, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Nizaemon’s men try to rob the delivery and neither does it come as a surprise that Kiba attempts to save the day but… Yep, there are two massive and utterly unexpected twists coming up which we won’t reveal here – only that Kiba has been used as a pawn all along…
What is particularly outstanding is cinematographer Sadaji Yoshida’s unique camera work, throwing together various techniques such as slow motion and freeze frame to good effect, while editor Kozo Horiike’s decision to almost seamlessly jump from one scene to the next without seconds of blackout occasionally confuses.

In SAMURAI WOLF 2 (1967), Isao Natsuyagi reprises his role as Kiba in a tale which is decidedly more complex in its set up. By now, Kiba should be used to the fact that trouble either follows him or finds him wherever he goes. It’s no different in this new adventure, which once again begins with him saving a damsel in distress – in this case Oteru (Rumiko Fuji), a young and mentally challenged girl who is harassed by a group of sword-fighting scoundrels. However, instead of thanking Kiba for the rescue, she runs away fleeing into the mountains, leaving him confused and wondering whether she’s right in the head. With the young girl gone, Kiba continues his travels and some time later he joins an escort whose mission it is to deliver three prisoners to the next town and thus into the hands of justice. The prisoners, all held in bamboo cages, include a bragging bigmouth who fancies himself as a feared criminal but who is little more than a petty thief and liar, a manipulative and unhinged murderess named Oren (Yuko Kusunoki) and an arrogant dojo master called Magobe (Ko Nishimura) who reminds Kiba of his late father, himself a Ronin who was assassinated in a brutal manner, with little Kiba helplessly looking on. This is explained via flashback scenes.

Because Magobe reminds him of his father, Kiba follows the escort when they are forced to seek shelter due to torrential downpours. While waiting for the rain to ease, the little convoy is attacked by a group of men who are, in fact, only after Magobe… reason being that he was part of a group who discovered a hidden gold mine, with the other members framing him. Now they want to bump him off and to make matters even more more complex, the head of the men who are after Magobe happens to be Higasa, the father of Oteru… who falls for Kiba after a re-encounter, and he falls for her. But that’s just the beginning of his troubles because with the help of Kiba, Magobe manages to free himself during the ambush while Oren manages to free herself thanks to her cunning wit. The stage is now set for an almighty showdown in the race to get to the gold while at the same time, loyalties, greed and revenge play equal parts.

Faster-paced than the first film and with more action and surprises in store, the film also shows the more vulnerable and weaker side of Kiba who, despite his undisputed fighting skills, has to endure a fair bit of humiliation here thanks to Magobe, who turns out to be an oppo not be underestimated. Isao Natsuyagi, who was only in his mid-20s when both films were made and at the very beginning of his career, is perfect casting as the anti-hero who has a penchant for falling in love with troubled women and for ending up in the thick of it by always being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The English title Samurai Wolf is actually misleading, for Kiba is not a Samurai at all but a Ronin! Shame about the subtitles, which are presented in usual American-English slang style, cheapening the original Japanese dialogue which doubtlessly would have been more refined and elegant.

Just as in Samurai Wolf 1, both Sadaji Yoshida and Kozo Horiike were responsible for cinematography and editing, while director Hideo Gosha proved he is worth his salt.
Bonus Material includes various audio options, a featurette with writer and Asia cinema expert Tony Rayns, interview with Hideo Gosha’s daughter Tomoe and reversible sleeve. The first 2000 copies are presented in a limited edition O-card slipcase with Collector’s booklet.