I would like to be able to take hold of the past and make it stand still so that I can examine it from different angles.”

– Masahiro Shinoda (1)

In the long history of Japan, few moments were as volatile and violent as the Meiji Restoration in 1868. 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) (2) had resulted in cultural and economic stagnation. After American Commodore Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his “four black ships”, a power struggle erupted between forces loyal to the Shogunate and those wanting to restore the Emperor as the head of state.

In the midst of this turmoil, powerful individuals emerged whose allegiances changed direction with the prevailing winds. One of them, Hachiro Kiyokawa (Tetsuro Tanba), rose from a lowly position as the son of farmers to become one of the most respected and feared samurai of his age. This figure is at the centre of Masahiro Shinoda’s extraordinary historical film Ansatsu (Assassination). Donald Richie, the doyen of Western critics of Japanese film, called it Shinoda’s best film, as did his fellow director Kon Ichikawa.

The historical context of the film is extremely complex, and Shinoda further complicates matters by recounting events in Kiyokawa’s life from the perspective of several different characters. The film’s plot also moves backwards and forwards in time. The end result is a little confusing but these complications make it that much harder to take one’s eyes off the screen.

After two minutes of expository history, the film shows a map of Edo (old Tokyo) with the Chrysanthemum seal, representing the Emperor, at its centre. We then see Kiyokawa crouched before a Shogunate official – the same seal on the wall behind him – who reads out his official pardon for the murder of a policeman. We next see two key figures of the Shogunate who figure prominently throughout the film, commenting on Kiyokawa’s exploits. One of them smokes a cigar, a sign of his corruption by Western customs and ideas.

Kiyokawa’s antagonist in the film is a samurai, Tadasaburo Sasaki (Isao Kimura). Early in the film we are shown the grounds for Sasaki’s enmity toward Kiyokawa. Priding himself on his own fencing prowess, he faces off against Kiyokawa in a kendo match and is soundly beaten.

Kiyokawa is presented as a powerful, larger-than-life character. Shinoda is so evidently enamoured of him that he is willing to forgive this character’s sometimes-unsettling brutality. One of the best scenes in the film shows Kiyokawa’s savage murder of a Shogunate policeman in broad daylight on a crowded street. After beheading the man in the blink of an eye (Shinoda freezes the shot of the man’s head rising into the air), Kiyokawa is chased by an angry mob of witnesses. As Kiyokawa flees from the stone-throwing mob, his sword still drawn, Shinoda eliminates all the sound other than Toru Takemitsu’s percussive score. This image of a lone samurai being chased down the road, as onlookers scurry out of his way, is unforgettable.

Of all the angles from which we are shown insights into the life of Kiyokawa, the most complex is from the perspective of his mistress, Oren (elegantly played by Shinoda’s wife Shima Iwashita). Oren recounts in her diary (which Sasaki grudgingly reads) her first night with him and their shared intimacy when she later becomes the mistress of his house. When a warrant for Kiyokawa’s arrest is issued after his murder of the policeman, Oren is tortured by Shogunate officials, but does not divulge his whereabouts. In tribute, Kiyokawa tells his parents to pray for her.

At the end of the film, Kiyokawa remains an enigma. Oren’s death and, perhaps, the death of his idealism, have driven him to a dissolute life of sake and prostitutes. The final sequence of the film is shown entirely from the perspective of Sasaki, who stalks Kiyokawa, even spying on his visit to a prostitute he calls “Oren”. Sasaki is waiting for his chance to attack, and he sees his opportunity in a chance meeting he witnesses from a safe distance. Shinoda freezes the frame as Kiyokawa, in greeting an acquaintance on the street, stops to remove his straw hat, his hands clear of his white-handled sword.

Our efforts to understand Kiyokawa are paralleled by Sasaki’s efforts to find a point of weakness in his character, a chink in his samurai armour. A problem arises when we realise that a lot of Kiyokawa’s behavior isn’t exactly explicable. For instance, he organises his own army to defend the Shogunate but interrupts its march on Kyoto with the sudden announcement that he is waiting on orders from the Emperor. And although he is obviously shaken by his impulsive beheading of the policeman he later unhesitatingly steps up to behead a group of captured “traitors”.

Tetsuro Tanba’s performance as Kiyokawa is riveting. He exudes an intelligence and strength that makes the other characters’ fascination with him understandable. There are two actors in the cast whose faces are probably familiar to non-Japanese filmgoers. Eiji Okada, who plays Lord Matsudaira, starred opposite Emmanuelle Riva in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and was also the captive in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1964). Isao Kimura plays Sasaki, Kiyokawa’s sworn enemy. Cinephiles might recognise him as the actor who played the novice samurai, Katsushiro, in Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954). In that film, he was a devoted admirer of a master swordsman. In Assassination, Katsushiro has come full circle, his character admiring Kiyokawa’s swordsmanship while hating the man and his reputation, determined to beat him when the chance arises.

The music of Toru Takemitsu is so closely integrated with the action that it becomes a key character in the film. A superb modernist composer, Takemitsu actually preferred to compose music for film, and he did so for such directors as Masaki Kobayashi (e.g. Kwaidan [1964], Seppuku [Harakiri, 1967]), Teshigahara (e.g. Woman in the Dunes, Rikyu [1989]), Kurosawa (Ran, 1985), and thirteen of Shinoda’s films. For Assassination, he composed a spare but powerful score, making liberal use of traditional Japanese instruments, particularly the biwa.

A companion piece of sorts to Shinoda’s film is Kazuo Kuroki’s Ryoma ansatsu (The Assassination of Ryoma, 1974), which follows the last days of Ryoma Sakamoto, a character who figures prominently in Kiyokawa’s story. Kuroki’s film is markedly different in style to Shinoda’s: much looser and avant-garde. (It was made for the independent Art Theater Guild.) Its anarchic imprecision helps reveal the extent to which Shinoda was still working within a specific filmmaking tradition in 1964. Assassination is a late but brilliant example of that tradition.

Endnotes

  1. As told to Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha, Tokyo and New York, 1978.

Ansatsu/Assassination/The Assassin (1964 Japan 104 mins)

Prod Co: Shochiku Dir: Masahiro Shinoda Scr: Nobuo Yamada, based on the novel by Ryotaro Shiba Phot: Masao Kosugi Mus: Toru Takemitsu

Cast: Tetsuro Tanba, Eiji Okada, Eitaro Ozawa, Isao Kimura, Muga Takewaki, Shima Iwashita