Could have been a definitive samurai picture if it wasn’t too exposition heavy, but still quite a solid entry by Okamoto-Mifune.
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Keiju Kobayashi, Michiyo Aratama
Plot: On a spring day in 1860, throngs of men gather at the gates of Japan’s Edo Castle in hopes of assassinating Shogunate elder Ii. Upset with the way his life is going, ronin Niiro Tsuruchiyo becomes involved in the coup.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Betrayal and Loyalty
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: National Museum of Singapore – Kihaichi Okamoto Retrospective
First Published: 23 Jul 2015
Made before The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968), two of Kihachi Okamoto’s more widely-known films in the West, Samurai Assassin is a solid entry to the period swordfighting genre that its leading exponent and fellow filmmaker Akira Kurosawa brought to international reckoning in the 1950s and early 1960s with films like Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961).
Starring Toshiro Mifune as a masterless samurai, whose history is a mystery to us (and to himself), the film pits him against the recurring theme of betrayal and loyalty set during tumultuous times in Japan several hundred years ago.
His character, Niiro, is seeking redemption after being raised without a father – he desires to become a respectable samurai even as his bloodline remains questionable.
Because his lineage is uncertain, his life is thrown into disarray in countless ways as we would learn in the film. He joins a group of renegade samurais who are plotting an assassination attempt on Lord Ii of the reigning government of Japan.
Samurai Assassin starts out grandly, with wide shots of the cold winter as the samurais wait patiently to zoom in on the kill. Masaru Sato’s music, marked by the constant beat of the drum, builds the tension.
When the title of the film comes up after what seems like five minutes, the Japanese shakuhachi is blown intensely, accompanied by a close-up of Mifune.
“Should anybody dare to destroy me, the 300-year-old Tokugawa government would fall. And that would mean the age of the samurai would be over.”
What a marvellous opening sequence – but what transpires for the next hour and a half is a mix of intriguing drama borne out of cunning mind games, and meandering exposition through flashback.
It doesn’t always work – the lowest point of the film is a conversation between an old man and a young woman that stretches way too long to be of interest (the flashback comes too late to rescue the viewer).
Maybe this is where I would do a quick comparison to some of Kurosawa’s best works, which are marked by a narrative economy, and the telling of backstories through action, flashback or otherwise.
Okamoto’s films (at least for those I’ve seen so far) are often self-complicating from a storytelling point-of-view – perhaps that’s why they are less enjoyable?
Samurai Assassin, however, delivers in the area of spectacular action as we know it. The climactic battle is violent with a fearsome and furious Mifune in the thick of things. The consequences are shocking but also expected.
With more exposure to this film, I’m sure Okamoto’s work will be better appreciated for what it is, but it is not a definitive samurai picture, even if it may just be one of the definitive ones in his body of work.