Monday, October 31, 2011


[An edited version of the following essay was published in Issue 59 of Senses of Cinema last summer. Adrian Danks, the editor of the pieces published for the Melbourne Cinémathèque Annotations on Film has always been a cooperative guy. But when I submitted the essay below he removed some things, a sentence here, a paragraph there, and rearranged other things, that lessened the essay's impact as a piece of writing. Danks even quibbled at my use of the Vernon Young quote which, coming from Young, was meant as high praise. Perhaps despair was too strong for a Japan still recovering from the earthquake and tsunami. Indulging my own vanity, here is the unedited version I submitted.]

“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 eras were as volatile and violent as the Meiji restoration in 1868. Two hundred and fifty years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) had resulted in cultural and economic stagnation. After the American Commodore Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his “four black ships”, a power struggle erupted between the 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, rose from a lowly position as the son of farmers to become one of the most respected and feared samurai of his age. He is at the center of Masahiro Shinoda’s extraordinary historical film
Assassination. Donald Richie, the doyen of critics of Japanese film, called it Shinoda’s best film, as did 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 and shuttles us backwards and forwards in time. The result is a little confusing but makes it that much harder to take one’s eyes off the screen.

After two minutes of expository history, the film opens on a map of Edo (old Tokyo) with the Chrysanthemum seal, representing the emperor, at its center. We first see Kiyokawa crouched before a Shogunate official, the same seal on the wall behind him, who reads out his official pardon of the murder of a policeman. Next we see two prominent Shogunate players 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 the samurai Tadasaburo Sasaki. 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 roundly beaten. Sasaki was also the name of Musashi Miyamoto’s nemesis, Kojiro Sasaki, dramatized in legend, literature, and film, the most popular being Hiroshi Inagaki’s trilogy of films starring Toshiro Mifune as Musashi.

Kiyokawa is presented by the film as a powerful, larger-than-life character. Shinoda is so evidently enamored of him that he is willing to forgive him his sometimes unsettling brutality. One of the best scenes in the film shows us 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 launching into the air), Kiyokawa is chased by the angry mob of witnesses. As Kiyokawa flees from the stone-throwing mob, his sword still drawn, Shinoda eliminates all sound except for Takemitsu’s percussive score. The 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. She recounts in her diary - which Sasaki grudgingly reads - her first night with Kiyokawa (he is her first customer) and their intimacy when she becomes the mistress of his house. When a warrant for his arrest is issued after his murder of the policeman, Oren is tortured by Shogunate officials, but does not divulge his whereabouts. In tribute to her, Kiyokawa tells his parents to pray for her.

By 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 intimacy with a prostitute whom 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 in the street, stops to remove his straw hat, his hands clear of his white-handled sword.

Our efforts to understand Kiyokawa are driven by Sasaki’s efforts to find a point of weakness in his character, a chink in his samurai armor. A problem arises when we realize that a lot of Kiyokawa’s behavior isn’t exactly explicable. For instance, he organizes 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. Or at one point he is obviously shaken by his impulsive beheading of a policeman but later unhesitatingly steps up to behead a group of captured “traitors”.

As Kiyokawa, Tetsuro Tanba 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 filmgoers. Eiji Okada, who plays Lord Matsudaira, played opposite Emmanuelle Riva in Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and was the captive of Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964). And Isao Kimura plays Sasaki, Kiyokawa’s sworn enemy. Japanese cinephiles might not recognize him as the actor who played the novice samurai, Katsushiro, in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). In that film, he was a devoted admirer of a master swordsman. In Assassination, Katsushiro has grown up, admiring Kiyokawa’s swordsmanship while hating the man and his reputation, determined to beat him when he finds the chance.

The music of Toru Takemitsu is so closely integrated with the action that it becomes a protagonist. A superb modernist composer, Takemitsu actually preferred to compose film music, and he did so for Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, Kwaidan), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes, Rikyu), Kurosawa (Ran) and particularly for 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 The Assassination of Ryoma (1974), which follows the last days of Ryoma Sakamoto, who figures prominently in Kiyokawa’s story. Kuroki’s film is markedly different in style from Shinoda’s, much looser and avant garde. (It was made for the independent Art Theater Guild.) Its anarchic imprecision reveals the extent to which Shinoda was still working within a filmmaking tradition in 1964. Assassination is a late but brilliant example of that tradition.

Assassination comes close to being a paradigm of Japanese esthetics, which Vernon Young described as "despair, reconciled by formal beauty - the Japanese answer to life resembles that of the ancient Greeks, or of Nietzsche." (2)

(1) Told to Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha, 1978.
(2) Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, 1972.

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