Once a staple of Japanese cinema, the samurai film like the Western in this country has fallen out of style. The Age of the Bailout doesn't allow much room for an uncompromising hero, or an outnumbered warrior fighting valiantly to the death. A different strain of disillusionment in the 1960s, sparked first by the Cold War and then by the Vietnam War, led moviemakers to create solitary, ambivalent antiheroes. Masahiro Shinoda's Samurai Spy (Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke), one of two "Sixties Swordplay Classics" screening today in conjunction with the exhibit Lords of the Samurai, unfolds in an early-17th-century world of unseen yet powerful forces, shadowy alliances, and hidden agendas. The title character, an agent of an influential clan, embarks on a mission that is less strategic than existential. Made three years later in 1968, Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! (Kiru) centers on two downtrodden samurai who stumble into a town and join up with a confederation of rebels. Mixing, matching, and mocking every cliché and convention, Kill! is an irreverent study of loyalty and honor that dispatches once and for all the genre's remaining traces of glamour and romanticism. In their tacit awareness that morality is negotiable, both movies transcend their era, and speak to ours.
Sun., Aug. 2, 11 a.m., 2009