- Original title
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 104 minutes
- 28 May 2006
by Jasper Sharp
Over the past few years, Eureka has emerged as one of the world's most impressive DVD labels, and not only for Japanese films. Talking personally as a huge fan of silent cinema, their releases under the Masters of Cinema banner are unrivalled in terms of the wealth of information and contextualizing essays provided in their accompanying booklets, their on-disk commentaries and extras, and the flawless quality of their transfers. But perhaps what I love most about the series is how the company hasn't just plucked its titles from the established canon of what are already consensually seen as the milestones of cinematic history, but has taken pains not only to reintroduce into discussion the lesser-known works of the twentieth century's irrefutable giants for the first time, with F.W. Murnau's Tartuffe, John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island and Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents providing just three such recent examples. It has also brought into the open for the first time less-typical works from those directors highly acclaimed in their own lands but little known elsewhere.
The release of Assassination evidences both of these modus operandi. Masahiro Shinoda's name might be known to students of Japanese cinema, especially through his detailed coverage in David Desser's wonderful study of the Japanese filmmaking climate of the 60s, Eros Plus Massacre, but comparatively little from his oeuvre of some thirty or so films produced across the past four decades has reached foreign shores. His Brechtian restaging of Monzaemon Chikamatsu's bunraku doll drama Love Suicides at Amijima in the 1969 film Double Suicide (Shinju-ten Amijima) is probably his best known work, while Artsmagic put out his 1986 period drama Gonza the Spearman (Yari no Gonza) a few years back, and his earlier yakuza movie Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964) has been readily available on DVD thanks to its release by Home Vision in the States. Other titles that remain known by name from earlier festival screenings that have not been seen so much recently are his poetic ghost story Demon Pond (Yashagaike, 1979) and the post-war pessimism of MacArthur's Children (Setouchi Shonen Yakyudan, 1984). His more recent work, including Owl's Castle (Fukuro no Shiro, 1999) and the tale of wartime espionage Spy Sorge (2003) have not caused quite so many waves overseas. When you factor in that he has also adapted such classic novels as Yasunari Kawabata's With Sorrow and Sadness (Utsukushisa to Kanashimi to, 1965) and Shusaku Endo's tale of Portuguese missionaries Silence (Chinmoku, 1971) for the big screen, as well as tackling Japan's prehistoric mythology in Himiko (1974), it is clear to see that Shinoda is not a particularly easy director to pigeonhole.
Historically Shinoda is most firmly associated with the mould-breaking group of young directors who produced work outside of the studio system in the 60s and were known as the Japanese New Wave. The New Wave is said to have been initiated in the late 50s when Shochiku gave the green light for three of its younger directors to make their debuts while still under the age of 30. The films of the trio, Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige (a.k.a. Kiju) Yoshida and Shinoda himself, suggested a break from the traditional filmmaking practices of Japan's second golden age as represented by the internationally-feted works of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. In truth however, the New Wave was never a real movement as such, with the directors encompassed under this descriptive umbrella all coming from radically different politicial backgrounds and working under different production circumstances. While Oshima left Shochiku under a black cloud after the studio pulled his hectoring critique of the renewal of the joint US-Japan Security Pact (or Ampo treaty), Night and Fog in Japan in 1960 to produce his works independently and become the generation's most influential filmmaker, Shinoda continued to work there from his 1960 debut One-Way Ticket for Love (Koi no Katamichi Kippu) until his twelfth film in 1965, Samurai Spy (Iibun Sarutobi Sasuke), returning to their fold once again in 1979 after a significant body of independent works.
While Oshima adopted a radically anti-authoritarian stance, Shinoda came from a more politically-conservative background. Rather than confront traditional systems, he deconstructed them, probed them and laid them bare for analysis. Stylistically, his works owe much to the presentational styles of the traditional theatrical modes of Kabuki, bunraku and Noh. Certainly the stated premise for all his films quoted in Joan Mellen's exhaustive essay in the accompanying booklet, that "all Japanese culture flows from imperialism and the emperor system", puts him at odds with the worldview of another crucial figure from the time associated with the movement, Shohei Imamura.
The period drama, or jidai-geki genre to which Assassination belongs, is often compared to the America Western, and rightly so in as much as they both deal with periods in their respected nation's history that set them on their historical trajectories as modern nations. As such, their emphases on the different factors that led to the current state of the nation depend as much on the time in which the individual films are made as the historical events they purport to portray.
The turbulent and historically complex point in history in which Assassination's story unfolds, as the Tokugawa era of Shogunate rule made way for the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) establishing Japan as a modern nation state, has been adopted again and again within Japanese cinema, with differing focuses given to those parties involved in films as stylistically and thematically diverse as Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge, 1966), Kazuo Kuroki's The Assassination of Ryoma (Ryoma Ansatsu, 1974), Shohei Imamura's Eijanaika (1981) and Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto (1999). In fact, it is something of a jidai-geki staple, depicting a pivotal period in the nation's history that is well known to all Japanese.
Like Gohatto, Shinoda's film is based on a story by Japan's premier historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba. In the years following the arrival of Colonel Perry and his black ships in 1853, threatening military action if Japan refused to open up its ports to foreign vessels, the country is teetering on the brink of civil war. Its population finds itself divided into two factions: those who support the Shogunate bakufu government and those who desire the restoration of the Emperor's rule after several hundred years of feudal reign. The latter are united under the rallying cry of "Sonno joi" - "Revere the emperor and repel the barbarians!" - but in Shinoda's eyes, as Mellen states, "there was no intrinsic moral or ethical difference between the two contending parties, Emperor or Shogunate. Neither was in a position to control the Western incursion."
The film opens with the assassination of the country's Premier Naosuke Ii on 24th March 1860 by a disgruntled Mito samurai for humiliating the daimyo feudal lord Lord Noriaki, and follows the tale of the masterless samurai and accomplished swordsman and scholar Hachiro Kiyokawa (Tanba). Kiyokawa is a figure who vacillates within the changing political tides, through his relationships with his geisha lover O-Ren (Iwashita) and the familiar Restoration hero Ryoma (Sada). Like many a jidai-geki, the political machinations are endlessly complex, and comprehension of the story hinges upon one's familiarity with the historical players involved. As Alex Cox quotes Donald Richie in his video intro, this is a film where it helps to know the story before watching it.
The most interesting aspect of Shinoda's retelling is that it was made in the period following the signing of the Ampo treaty, when the political climate was decidedly unresolved with regards to the exact nature of the Japanese constitution and the direction in which the nation was heading. The situation of this power struggle between the established order, the insurrectionary forces, and the foreign powers during the 1960s was thus analogous to the events from 100 years before depicted in the film. What Assassin manifests is the distinct feeling of uncertainty felt by Shinoda's generation who grew up in the immediate post-war period. Rather than flawless archetypes of good guys and bad guys, its historical characters are portrayed in muddy shades of grey with all their human foibles, and the narrative is fragmented through the use of flashback and third-person accounts of the written incidents that lead to its denouement. The film is thus better interpreted as a character study than revisionist history.
Assassination was shot in Shochiku's studios in Kyoto, where their jidai-geki were made, as opposed to the modern-life gendai geki produced at Ofuna, and is bolstered by the stunning widescreen monochrome photography of Masao Kosuga and an effective musical accompaniment of chaotic thuds, crashes and fanfares from the renowned experimental composer Toru Takemitsu. Shinoda's style draws from an arsenal of rack focuses, beautifully orchestrated pans and dolly shots, intricately constructed widescreen compositions and freeze frames held at the dramatic apexes of the key scenes. One certainly can't fault its visuals. The film might, indeed, prove difficult to get into upon an initial viewing, but the thorough background information provided in the essays of Joan Mellen and historian Jonathan Lomax in the disk's accompanying booklet should help navigate the viewer through the labyrinthine plot. This is certainly a work that offers itself up to repeated visits, providing plenty of rich pickings and insights for those interested in both the period it was made and the period it portrays.