SAMURAI SPY – Use of Shadow (and Light) to Obscure Characters

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The 2nd of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Last time we established the agenda of director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi to mirror the confusion and conflict of Sasuke with an equal amount of visual disruption for the viewer. From the opening frames, characters are obscured from what in a more conventional film would be normal view. Shadows are nothing new in post Shinobi-no-mono films, but Samurai Spy uses sunlight and mist just as often.

The first scenes in which we see Sasuke, he's nervously wandering a misty cane field, knowing he's being followed, but also realizing he can't see ten feet in front of him either.
Later, an uneasy cease-fire with Sakon, where motivations and morals are obscured by the same reeds. It's a long scene, and the bright cane is constantly (and deliberately) interfering in the composition.
When we do pull out of the frustrating reeds, its to overly wide and distant shots like this. The very distance obscures...
But, this wouldn't be a ninja movie without shadows. They use contrast and chiaroscuro so effectively here, even the white-robed Sakon is thrown into menacing shadow.

Even the conventional use of shadow - during invasions, escapes, hiding, etc. is on a level above the rival films of the time. Just amazing.
But then you get shots like this, which in anyone else's movie is a huge mistake. It's a full-on fight scene, you know who's who, but they chose to hide Sasuke's face. Almost like engaging in the combat is obscuring his very identity from himself.
Overhead shots also obscure the faces - and thus the emotions - of characters. I really love how this shot in a courtyard has a similar texture to the shark skin of the title card.

There is so much mist in daylight at film's end, I can actually picture the climax without revealing any spoilers!

Poor Sasuke… who is friend, who is enemy? Is he doing right or wrong? Is there even a right or wrong to be found? There are no easy answers, regardless of the lighting conditions.

Tomorrow: – some of the weirdest theatrical combat posing and framing ever.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

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