Assassination opens with two minutes worth of pre-credits text and voice-over. Placing the film in its historical context it takes from 1853 through 1863, from the arrival of four American warships, thereby destroying 300 years of Japanese peace and seclusion, to the Shogunate order that all foreigners should be removed ten years later. During decade long précis we also learn of the execution of imperialist sympathisers and the assassination of the pro-American Premier, plus various other morsels of intrigue, the scene being set for a political thriller of sorts, albeit under a mid-nineteenth century guise.
The onscreen drama therefore, once we properly arrive at these events, is somewhat highly pitched. The early warning in the script that “acrobats use a net when they walk the tightrope” sets the mood perfectly, and Assassination has no qualms about making its plotting dense and complex. There’s plenty of backroom chat regarding allegiances and the like and as such it can all become a bit much to take in on an initial viewing. Rather it’s best simply to soak up the atmosphere; to revel in Toru Takemitsu’s alien score or cinematographer Masao Kosugi’s stylised ’scope compositions.
Yet as Assassination progresses its intent becomes clearer and the film as a whole becomes easier to pin down. To a degree it should be considered an action film, and in this respect it proves comparable to the Western. Our lead character, played by Tetsuro Tamba, is an outlaw-type and unrelenting in his position; much like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name he remains the same person at the start of the film as he does at the end, his ethos being summed up by “worship the emperor, expel the foreigners”. Moreover, the film as a whole begins to resemble a kind of a myth making machine for him – the complex web of different characters’ flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, which plot out the decade’s developments all conspire to demonstrate “his inestimable size as a man” – so that by the inevitable final showdown (another Western trademark) he’s become almost superhuman. The scene in which he beheads a villager in the blink of an eye only compounds his status, as with the ten-a-penny sharpshooters and quick-draws who occupy everything from My Name is Nobody to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Assassination’s various instances of stylisation similarly allow this aspect to flourish inasmuch as they prevent the film from becoming too real. Director Masahiro Shinoda employs overhead shots, freeze frames, even handheld point of view shots as a means of preventing our true involvement – the latter in particular being quite startling in a black and white widescreen period drama! Yet the stylisation doesn’t mean that the subject matter is in any way romanticised. There’s a stark brutalism to the fight sequences, perhaps even a sadistic glee; collectively the style allows us to remain grounded even as it reminds us we’re only watching a film.
Where Assassination proves most successful, however, is in its combination of these more generic elements with the political machinations. It would have been easy for Shinoda to have been cynical about this – to either commercially dumb down the political thriller with action scenes or, conversely, to make the action more “intelligent” by giving it a greater historic context – yet his efforts are far more complex. These two aspects feed off each other to such a degree that they become more muddied, more interesting as a result. The fight sequences in particular are enriched in a manner which prevents them from becoming mere spectacle. The final showdown especially is able to take on much more dramatic weight: it’s no longer a case of Tamba versus his opponent, but more wide-reaching than that. Indeed, it prevents Assassination from ending in the typical generic fashion, instead we’re finding something more nihilistic, yet also more affecting. Moreover, this blend also gives us two reasons to return. On the one hand to iron out and ascertain its narrative complexities, on the other to enjoy it as a fine, intelligent example of the samurai movie.
In all honesty, Masters of Cinema’s handling of Assassination doesn’t rank amongst their best. Yes, we get the film in its original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced of course, and taken from a virtually spotless print, but it doesn’t always look all that great. There’s a soft, blurred quality to the edges which, whilst barely perceptible in the close-ups, makes the longer shots difficult to ascertain. During these moments we have to take a step back as it were and find our bearings, something which proves too distracting for a film with this much dramatic weight. (The screen grab below is one of the worse examples, it taking a few seconds of squinting to ascertain exactly where the dialogue is coming from.) The soundtrack, on the other hand, fares much better. The early stages offer some prominent crackle, but this soon dissipates leaving a fine presentation of the original Japanese mono. Needless to say, the English subtitles are optional. (Note also, that Assassination follows the current Masters of Cinema trend and is being released in the NTSC format and not PAL despite being a Region 2 encoded disc.)
As for extras, here we find a nine-minute introduction from filmmaker Alex Cox, as well as a lengthy gallery of production stills. As you’d expect from Cox he once again provides a fascinating listen – much like his Moviedrome introductions, or those which have appeared on various discs over the last few years (including some Masters of Cinema titles) or even his recent Spaghetti Western pieces for digital channel ITV4, he’s able to effortlessly prompt enthusiasm and curiosity. Moreover, it’s another of his deeply personal takes on a film; we may not agree with every word but it’s infinitely superior to your standard puff piece. The disc also comes with a 20-page booklet including new liner notes by Joan Mellen, but unfortunately this was unavailable at time of review.
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:40:02