1860 proved to be one of the bleakest times for the Tokugawa Shogunate. Triggered by a reversal of isolationist policies which allowed the U.S. battleships to port in Japan; the country became divided between factions of samurai clansmen that support isolationist policies and those who embrace the changes made by Naosuke Ii, nicknamed the "Red Devil" (played by Koshiro Matsumoto). Each faction has their own different ideas for the future of Japan, but they all have one thing in common; each faction is willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of their goals. What results is a time when assassinations and murder became really common in this very chaotic period.
SAMURAI ASSASSIN (1965) is a film based on real people and true events and is one of the most historically detailed chambara films ever made. It has also been hailed as one of the finest Japanese films of that era. The screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto is truly involving and thankfully he has a knack for working with great directors. In this film, the depth of detail is blended with violent swordplay that also made director Okamoto Kihachi (Sword of Doom) famous. The film is one of the first to embrace the blood splattering violence in samurai films.
Ii Naosuke is the power behind the Shogun in 1858. After the 14th Shogun died, a youth named Iemochi assumed the position. Ii saw to it that the younger of the two heirs would ascend the throne since he could easily manipulate him. Ii openly embraced Western culture and his decisions angered several factions that support the isolationist rule. The Tengu faction of the Mito clan have devised a plan to assassinate Lord Ii. Among their number is a Bishuu Ronin named Niiro Tsuruchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a skilled swordsman who supposedly has noble blood coursing through his veins, and only Kisoya and his deceased mother knows his father's identity. For valid reasons, his father's identity must remain unknown to him. Niiro seeks to claim a high rank in the samurai clan by assisting in the plot of Lord Ii and would do anything to succeed.
The film is screaming with characters so it would be to the viewer's advantage to pay careful attention. My review's introduction is a bit unorthodox but in order to appreciate this film, you will need a little background. The past is revealed through flashbacks and Niiro's character is fleshed out through the narrations of Sir Kisoya and Hoshino . The film is a collection of Toho superstars: aside from Toshiro Mifune, the familiar faces include Eijiro Tono (Yojimbo), Yoshio Inaba (Seven Samurai), Takashi Shimura (in almost any Kurosawa film), Michiyo Aratama (Kwaidan) and Koshiro Matsumoto (Chushingura) just to name a few. The movie is about conspiracies, machinations and the lust for political power that had been a driving force during this period.
The Mito "Tengu" faction may see themselves as patriots to their country as they are adamant that Ii Naosuke would eventually lead to Japan's ruin. Therefore, they are paranoid and attempt to dispose of any who may pose a threat to their machinations; as demonstrated by their attempts to find a traitor among their midst. One of the group's leaders narrates his investigation into Niiro Tsuruchiyo's background that results in his character becoming fully fleshed out. The film becomes his story; Niiro is a determined samurai. He is tough, skilled, very ambitious and is looking out for his own advancement. While Hoshino's tale delves into Niiro's current state of mind, old Kisoya (Eijiro Tono) narrates his real background to Okiku (Michiyo Aratama), a woman Niiro fancies because she's a dead-ringer for his lost love. The end result is an effective tale of Tsuruchiyo Niiro and director Okamoto made a very wise decision since the audience can truly become attached to the main character. A very wise move since that film is quite tragic and for a tragedy to become truly effective, the audience has to be invested in its main character.
I don't like being repetitive, but Toshiro Mifune can definitely immerse the audience with raw magnetism. The man bears his soul and becomes Niiro himself. Niiro looks out for number one and his past definitely explains why such a man can be this way. Mifune also displays his prowess in action sequences as he cuts down 9 would-be assailants in a matter of seconds. It is not the manner of which he performs the moves, but the manner that the actor does so very convincingly. If you've seen the quick draw scene is "Sanjuro", then you'll definitely know what I'm talking about. Mifune is an awesome actor and there are few who can match his screen presence; and this film is undoubtedly one of his greatest roles. Action fans will not be disappointed, since there are quite a number of swordfights and the climactic battle in the end adds a lot of violent emotion.
The film is quite pessimistic in its views as expressed by at least three different characters but none more so than Niiro when he says; " This world never works the way you wish it to" and by the film's climax, this statement plays out to its ultimate extreme irony. "SAMURAI ASSASSIN" may seem like an obscure gem compared to other masterpieces made by Kobayashi and Kurosawa, but the film does come with a highly recommended rating from me. I do say it is one of the best. The film does end with a large exclamation point and I didn't want the film to end. Overflowing with awesome talent, and it just demands to be seen.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!! [4 ½ + Stars]
Note: The dvd from AnimEigo is kept pretty simple and lacks necessary enhancements. The video isn't bad, but it would need a lot of enhancing. Criterion definitely needs to pick this up.
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