Director: Kihachi Okamoto
By Roderick Heath
On March 24, 1860, in what became known as the Sakuradamon Incident, Ii Naosuke, virtual dictator of Japan for the Tokugawa shogunate, was assassinated outside Edo Castle by a confederation of clans led by the Mito. Ii had generated hate because he negotiated with foreign envoys, had installed an easily manipulated boy, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, as heir to the shogunate, and eliminated disaffected clan chiefs and their samurai aides in the infamous Ansei Purge. However, far from restoring a sense of security, Ii’s death resulted in the collapse of the shogunate, leading to the civil wars of the 1860s that saw the destruction of the samurai class and set Japan on its wayward course into the modern world.
Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai Assassin, also simply called Samurai (and not to be confused with 1954’s Miyamoto Mushashi, also starring Toshirô Mifune, retitled Samurai for Western release and awarded an Oscar), about a time of upheaval, was made in a time of upheaval. 1960s Japanese cinema is a remarkably rich trove perhaps because of the pressures on it, when pop-art genre cinema overtook emperor director-artists like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kobayashi, and even Kurosawa, who had helped usher in the new phase with his Yojimbo (1961). Okamoto’s career was erratic (and perhaps typical of the era), seeming most at home in the anarchic spirit of the late ’60s, with a run of darkly comic, satiric films like Nikudan (1968), cynical takes on popular fare (Kill!, 1968), and intense studies of fraught moments in Japanese history (such as Samurai itself and The Longest Day of Japan, 1967). He also made of one the best entries in the long-running Zatoichi series, Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo (1970), putting Mifune and Shintaro Katsu in close proximity, for which cinema fans ought to be eternally grateful. Samurai is a film that, in a wonder of construction, displays Okamoto’s cinematic gifts perhaps at their most vivid.
Okamoto and screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, working from a story by Jiromasa Gunji, wove the story of Ii’s assassination around a dark and mordant parable involving an imaginary protagonist in that event, Sir Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a ronin reduced to strong-arming and extortion. The film begin with the Mito clan’s band of assembled ronin gathered at the Sakurada gate of Edo Castle waiting to kill Ii, but he fails to show, forcing the conspirators, led by the ruthless Hoshino Kenmotsu (Yûnosuke Itô), to consider whether they have an informant in their midst. The chief suspects are the two non-clansmen in their number, Niiro, and Niiro’s friend Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), an intellectual who claims to have joined their number because his studies of western philosophy assure him that Ii’s tyranny must end.
Niiro shares none of the elevated principles or sturdy loyalties of the other conspirators. His motivation is basic and willfully narrow: he intends to regain his honour, gain position as a samurai, and become famous for killing Ii (Koshiro Matsumoto). Having lived, as he describes it, like a dog for five years, he sees only two dimensions to life: the security of life as a samurai, and the degradation of survival in the everyday world. Niiro’s vague character and background become an enigma that the conspirators (and the audience) have to solve before moving on. They learn he is the son of a mysterious nobleman, was given the name of a doctor friend of his concubine mother, and raised with the aid of Seigoro Kisoya (Eijirô Tôno), a crusty but kindly merchant. Whilst awaiting the day of the assassination, Niiro encounters a comely waitress in a tavern, Okiku (Michiyo Aratama, the memorably suffering first wife of Kaidan’s “Black Hair”) whose troublingly familiar face and name unsettle and yet appeal to him.
Later, when he can’t pay the tavern bill, he goes to Kisoya to ask for money, but the old man, resentful of Niiro’s lack of contact and spurning of all he and his mother laboured for, sends him away. But Kisoya still pays Niiro’s debt to Okiku, and in meeting her is likewise stunned by her appearance. He explains to her that Niiro’s disgrace was owing to his falling in love with a princess, Kukuhime (Aratama again),the spitting image of Okiku. Niiro won Okiku’s affection by protecting her from some drunks, but because his lineage was in question, he could not marry her. His disappointment that turned him into a drunken, brawling wastrel. Okiku, touched by Niiro’s tortured soul, reaches out to him and offers him hope of peace without becoming a samurai, but Niiro fixates on his mission. The price for his coming glory mounts when he’s commanded by the Mito to kill Kurihara, whom they now believe is the traitor.
The narrative describes a near-perfect circle, beginning at and returning to the snowy compound outside the castle, and the flirtation of one of the young Mito men with a waitress, a motif that offsets Niiro’s desire to return to innocence with Okiku. The film digresses to explore the mysteries of both the situation and the characters, most vitally Niiro, whose fall from grace and relentless ambition to regain his standing is the linchpin. The very notion of telling a story, and the art of constructing history, are at stake here, as a dry, officious voiceover affecting to be an unexpurgated and precisely factual account of the assassination kept by the Mito clans, explicates the intricacies of the conspiracy and the efforts of the conspirators to locate the traitor and prepare for the great day. Except that figures and events keep getting edited out. After Niiro is compelled to kill his friend Kurihara, the Mito find that the spy was another man Hoshino, who is dispatched after a kangaroo court. He then orders both eliminated men similarly expunged from the official record expunged: “This must remain the conspiracy of honourable, serious men!” And Niiro stands watching as the appointed scribe burns the papers that included his dead friend and the traitor of this glorious enterprise.
Of course, it’s not a glorious enterprise, reeking as it does of reactionary politics and opportunism, hardly much better than Niito’s motives. The least trustworthy man seems to be Kurihara because he is actually motivated by high ideals, wanting as he does to usher in a new age for Japan and humanity in general. The innermost secret, which Kisoya desperately lets slip to Okiku when he realises the plot Niito is complicit in, is that he is in fact Ii’s natural son. This revelation is overheard by one of the Mito minions, and Kenmotsu sends nine assassins to take care of Niito on the morning of the assassination; Niito cuts them to shreds, and, still with no concept of the truth, accuses his boss of trying to get all the glory, and vowing to claim Ii’s head himself. Finally, the drama narrows the motivating idea of the assassination to a very direct metaphor—the outcast son, head twisted in knots by the confused realities of his creed, kills the corrupt father, and destroys the future both hoped for.
Not that it was necessary, but the film is further testimony to the awesomeness of coproducer Mifune, who, like many male movie stars of the period, loved playing seamy antiheroes, but with an edge few indulged. Who else, save perhaps Marlon Brando, would allow his first appearance in the film to be a shot of him picking his nose? Niiro, with his smouldering resentment, shabby style, and wayward passions, is a terrific addition to the Mifune resume, from startling displays of athleticism to dragging a platter of sake bottles by his toes to lying in a dissolute sprawl of self-loathing. Okamoto perpetually frames Niiro in doorways, poised between the domestic interior and the exteriors that are almost always buffeted by rain or snow. The whole film, too, plays like a scurrilous inversion of the normal generic assumptions, looking for the dishonourable and self-destructive tendencies in the samurai ideal—the exactness of the title confirms the desire to pinpoint the death of a creed rather than a celebration of it. And Itô is queasily effective as the deceptively limpid-eyed engine of the enterprise, particularly when he executes the real spy, swinging from plain shock as the man’s blood stains his clothes to laconically advising the distraught Niito to be “more cold-blooded,”and finally, bewilderedly and yet with utter efficiency, encouraging Niito to kill his father.
Okamoto’s direction, aided by Hiroshi Murai’s great cinematography and the editing of Yoshitami Kuroiwa, with a stunning array of lightning jump cuts, is as sharp as one of the flourished katana blades. Samurai maintains a relentless grip on its narrative even as it delves into flashbacks within flashbacks, sliced into crucially revelatory units, and quietening down for two portentous scenes. In one, Ii watches a Noh play that features a masked demon, and the other is Kurihara’s funeral, with his widowed wife and child mourning as the priest’s chant fills the soundtrack. Okamoto’s nihilistic streak strikes with force against the usual macho romanticism of the jidaigeki genre. Samurai tackles the complex narrative by exploiting the propelling tension between the measured, past-tense voiceover and the rapid on-screen drama, building its story in overlapping accounts that build an ironic tapestry. If the script perhaps makes the themes a touch too obvious, and the central conceit is distinctly melodramatic, the overall film still serves an acidic purpose.
The finale’s staging predicts the orgiastic, apocalyptic violence found within a couple of years in American films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Niiro and the Mito assassins assault Ii’s procession, the defenders and attackers butchering each other as the wind-driven snow buffets them in a giddy free-for-all, the warriors barely discernable in their frantic, desperate grappling. Blood and squirming bodies litter the snowy compound, the wounded flee along ditches and tumble into icy water, including the assiduous record-keeper, along with his papers. The final images are of Niiro bearing off his father head on the point of his sword, hysterically proclaiming that he’ll only part with it for a decent sum of money, while the mangled Kenmotsu beams in savage glee as he crawls after him, enfolded by the billowing snow. In a chilling coda to a superb piece of cinema, the voiceover dryly informs us that Niiro was to be cut out of the history, and that the cold weather was rather unseasonable.