ASSASSINATION (Japan / 1964)
Alongside such figures as Oshima Nagisa, Imamura Shohei, Yoshida Yoshishige, Masumura Yasuzu and Teshigahara Hiroshi, Shinoda Masahiro was one of the key members of the so-called Japanese "New Wave," whose wide-ranging scope also encompassed the likes of Suzuki Seijun and Shind Kaneto. Even though hes primarily known in the West for his 1969 effort, Double Suicide -- a "theatrically cinematic" experiment which realized a bunraku puppet play -- Shinoda was a prolific filmmaker who made more than 30 films before retiring from the arena in 2003 with Spy Sorge. 1964 was an important year for this one-time Ozu assistant at Shochiku, as two of his finest and most acclaimed films saw the light of day: Pale Flower, a radical and broodingly terse -- not to mention visually and aurally stunning, something that could perhaps be said about much of Shinodas work -- yakuza tale which resolutely aligned itself, both formally and thematically, with Oshimas seminal Cruel Story of Youth (1960), in many ways as important a film to the Japanese "New Wave" as Breathless (1960) was to the French; and Assassination (Ansatsu), Shinodas first, and rather modernist, foray into period films.
Taking its cues from the oft-depicted turbulent sociopolitical period of Late Tokugawa Shogunate (1853-1867), which initiated with Colonel Perry commanded four American warships positioning themselves at a key Japanese port and thus terminating the countrys centuries-old trade impasse and more and edging it to the brink of civil war, Assassination begins in the 3rd year of Bunkyu, or 1863. In the opening moments, we witness a murderer being pardoned as per the Premiers orders. The man turns out to be Kiyokawa Hachiro (the ubiquitous Tamba Tetsuro), an exceptional ronin who was once known to be the Emperors supporter. (Shogunates most staunch opposition at the time was provided by the Imperial allies, demanding expulsion of foreign forces from their Divine Land, forces the Shogunate feared.) Nevertheless, hes granted the task of forming a "Free Samurai Army" against his former "Emperor Worshippers" ("poison kills poison," Shogunate Lord Matsudaira once extols). But also fully expecting Kiyokawas betrayal, which mutates into an intricate political machination, an assassin is unleashed on his trail, who, along with Kiyokawas devotees, becomes the catalyst for revealing our protagonists true character, an ambiguous task for sure.
Indeed, Kiyokawa isnt one of those run-of-the-mill "righteous heroes" who patrol the mean streets in so many jidai-geki yarns. The fact that hes also based on an actual person perhaps afforded famed author Shiba Ryotaro (Gohatto ) an opportunity to capture the morally indeterminate milieu and contextualize its effects as they pertained to Kiyokawas mental and psychological state. He constantly feels the need to prove himself as an equal to those who regulate him, as hes paid his dues at the best Samurai schools and is considered a highly respected opponent for anyone. In one important sequence which unfolds at a brothel, Kiyokawa, disgruntled by the lack of change even after the "Tempo Reformation" which was supposed to assist "ordinary" ronins like himself, forcibly takes the innocence of a recently sold young woman under the impression that she refused to serve him due to his class. But after recognizing her situation, he buys her out and makes her his honorable servant, an immense gesture repaid by the woman with her life. (Oren is played by the beautiful Iwashita Shima, Shinodas wife.)
Due to the fact that Shinoda readily employs elliptical flashbacks and voice-overs which constantly shift the point-of-view, Assassination admittedly is complex, but, unlike his subsequent effort Samurai Spy (1965), its not complicated. The latters highly stylized action choreography, which at times almost veered towards the comical, is mostly done away with, and is replaced by quick and bloody confrontations; no abstractions here. In both films, however, the protagonists are kept at a certain emotional distance, perhaps part of the reason why author Audie Bock used the term "icy aestheticism" in relation to the filmmakers approach. The hand-held camera work (which truly makes its mark in the films final moments), the freeze-frames, the existential themes, and other staples of the "New Wave" are applied with aplomb. Part of the credit certainly goes to Kosugi Masao, Shinodas favorite early cinematographer -- his expressionist use of light and shadow in the magnificent scope compositions is noteworthy. (And the appropriately austere music is courtesy of the great Takemitsu Tru, who provided scores for a number of key films of the time-period.) Shinoda once stated in an interview that "I would like to take hold of the past and make it stand still so I can examine it from different angles." With Assassination, hes certainly gone a long way towards actualizing his goal.