Friday, September 11, 2009

Review – Assassination

September 11, 2009

Assassination – Japan, 1964

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film, Assassination, is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that requires extensive knowledge of Japanese history to make heads or tails of. Therefore, it’s a good thing that I knew a little about the events of 1853, when Matthew Perry arrived in Japan and demanded it open up to international trade. The incident permanently ended Japan’s self-imposed isolation and apparently split the Japanese people into two groups, those who favored and would benefit from ties with the West and those who feared it was the end of Japanese society as they knew it. Adding to this anxiety, at least according to the film, was the fact that the decision to allow foreigners to enter Japan was made not by the Emperor but by the Shogun.

Entering into this fray is Kiyokawa Hachiro (Tetsuro Tanba), a masterless samurai frustrated by not only his own inability to rise in stature but also what he perceives as a loss of national honor. As the film opens, Kiyokawa is on the run after killing a police officer. Others are wanted as well, but they seem more concerned with protecting Kiyokawa. We see one of them tear down Kiyokawa’s wanted poster but leave his own in tact. Why does he do this? Just what is so special about Kiyokawa that inspires such devotion? It’s hard to say exactly. It’s clear that Kiyokawa is a skilled samurai; what’s less clear is the kind of samurai he is. One man claims he is ruthless and violent. Another tells a story of Kiyokawa coming to his aid and saving him from certain death at the hands of a group of samurai. In one scene we see Kiyokawa coolly and calmly fighting off a swarm of assassins; in another we see him burst into tears after killing the police officer, who may or may not have been the first person he ever killed. In addition, he seems just as apt to run towards a fight as he is to flee from one. In short, he’s hard to read, and perhaps that is what keeps him alive.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of the second half of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru. In that film, a group of government workers try to piece together the motives of a deceased colleague, as if they are looking to him for inspiration and purpose. In Assassination, those trying to understand Kiyokawa are doing so purely in their own interests, for Kiyokawa may or may not be plotting against them. I say “may or may not” because much like Toshiro Mifune’s character in Yojimbo, Kiyokawa has the unsettling habit of switching sides rather frequently, a habit that confuses and frustrates those who have sworn allegiance to him. Sometimes it even costs them their lives. Wary that he might share a similar fate if he’s not careful, a Shogun lord orders one of his samurais to be ready to kill Kiyokawa at a moment’s notice.

If Kiyokawa is hard for his own followers, as well as for the Shogun, to understand, he is even more so to the audience. We see him seemingly marching men into combat, only for him to be conveniently absent as the very men he was leading are killed in battle. Perhaps habits such as this one keep him alive, but it’s hard to justify the amount of death and carnage he causes in the name of some vague aspiration of fortifying Japan from imperialist invaders. Perhaps to make him more sympathetic, we’re introduced briefly to Oren (Shima Iwashita), a young woman Kiyokawa redeemed from a life of prostitution. From what we see of their relationship, their love seems genuine, even if he is nowhere to be found when she needs him the most. The film intends for her willingness to protect him to the death to be an indication of the kind of man he is. I found myself wanting more proof.

In the end, it appears that what Kiyokawa wants most is to turn back the hands of time, to undo the changes that started with the arrival of the foreigners. Like Mishima after him, Kiyokawa sees his country as having lost its honor and, in his eyes, only the Emperor can restore it. And so when the Emperor’s rather vague and ambivalent words do indeed reach him, they hold an enormous power over him, as if they have somehow vindicated all of his actions and enabled him to hold the position of power that has so long been denied him. In truth, they have merely sentenced him to die.

So did I watch the film with dread, the way I would a normal movie in which the protagonist is in imminent danger? No, I didn’t. Did I lament the legacy that this character could have had if only things had turned out differently? Again, no, I didn’t. The reason for this, I suppose, is that Kiyokawa, while having elements of the romantic hero fighting for his principles, is one of the least likeable lead characters you’ll see on film, for his cause is not just and his methods are not what we would normally consider honorable. He also lacks the bravado of the stereotypical Western hero, that element of his characters that makes him stay and fight even when the odds are against him. This may fascinate some viewers, but it will leave others feeling a bit empty, as it did me.

I like the first half of the film a bit more than the second half, strictly because I was interested in discovering the character of this strange ronin whom no one seems to have a complete understanding of. However, to me, this element of the film ran too long, and I found myself caring less as the film went along. That said, there is much to like about the film, from Shinoda’s skillful direction to the film’s interesting supporting characters, in particular Sasaki Tadasaburo (Isao Kimura), Kiyokawa’s possible assassin, and Lord Matsudairo (Eiji Okada), who remains suspicious of Kiyokawa’s intentions throughout the film. Moreover, the film is never dull, and it does contain some fascinating insights into what Japan was like after more than 200 years of relative peace and isolation. By the time the foreigners arrived, the old codes of honor, sacrifice, and respect had almost disappeared. Because of this, Kiyokawa’s perplexing actions could be seen as a noble effort to restore the old system, a last ditch effort to save the country that he loves from what he sees as its moral destruction. And perhaps, if we can see his actions in this light, it won’t matter so much that he was on the wrong side of history. (on DVD in Region 2 as part of Eureka's the Masters of Cinema series)

3 stars

*Assassination is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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