I watched Samurai Spy twice, and not because I enjoyed it so much the first time that I couldn't wait to see it again. No, I watched Samurai Spy twice because I had no idea wtf was going on the first time I watched it. After watching it the second time, I'm still not totally clear on what was going on, who had betrayed whom, and why I should care.
A big part of the problem is the foreign origins of the plot. As a Kurosawa fan, I am especially conscious of the difficult relationship between the American viewer and Asian films. Kurosawa's work has been criticized by some viewers as too Western, stuck in a Hollywood mold that is not true to its Asian settings and origins. It's no surprise to these critics that Kurosawa's work has been appropriated quite easily by cinema's mainstream over the years. Watching a film like Samurai Spy reminds you that cultural knowledge - which is often gained through osmosis - can be essential to fully appreciating a film. Understanding the history of Japan in the rudimentary way that all Japanese people effortlessly would seems like it would make the film infinitely more accessible. Add on to that the enormous weight of following all of the foreign names in the film and a viewing become less an enjoyable experience and more a code to be cracked.
This makes the inclusion of the film in Criterion's Rebel Samurai boxset even more interesting. While there are certainly many of the same independent and anti-authoritarian motivations in Shinoda's protagonist here that there are in the protagonists of both Sword of the Beast and Samurai Rebellion, the film itself is much more traditionally insider and stubbornly intent on presenting Japan as its viewer sees it. True, there are some flourishes in the film that would have made Godard proud, and the film's technique surpasses those other films in the set in terms of divorcing itself from the conventional presentation of a samurai film. But the movie is too inside baseball for me to see through to its core. Certain moments make me think this is my fault - the single shot in which the protagonist is informed that the priest he had met was killed, where the camera pans over to see him running away as the woman who loves him calls after him, comes to mind immediately, as it is a subtly breathtaking sequence. But a plot that features too many names of people we haven't even met being tossed around makes me feel less like I could wrap my brain around the gravity of the moment and more like I am missing something in the translation.