08 December 2010

Samurai Assassin

It's no secret that I love samurai flicks (or chanbara). In some ways, it's my go-to action genre. Don't get me wrong, there are some great standard action movies out there that can be really entertaining. However, I think samurai flicks often add a certain Shakespearean drama to the mix that makes me love it that much more. Samurai films tend to be tragedies. The mood tends to be darker, with endings that are often, at best, bittersweet. Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965) by Kihachi Okamoto is a perfect example of this.

Historical influences
Although Samurai Assassin certainly has it's share of action, much of the film revolves around secretive conversations. The film is inspired by an actual historical event known as the Sakuradamon incident in which the daimyo Ii Naosuke was assassinated by a group of ronin outside the Sakurada Gate on March 24, 1860. As such, most of the film focuses on the efforts to plan and organize the assassination, finally culminating with the incident itself for the grand, bloody, tragic climax.

However, the film deviates from history quite a bit, though in typical chanbara fashion, it makes excuses, namely the fact that files could have been easily altered or erased. History is written by the victors, they say, and this has become a favourite route for inserting dramatic narratives into historical contexts with regards to samurai films.

As such, the primary protagonist is Niiro Tsurichiyo, played by the beloved actor Toshiro Mifune. His mother, now dead, was a prostitute and his paternity remains unknown to all but one man, a friend of the family who has vowed to keep it a secret until the proper time. All that he will say is that his father was of a high rank, and as such, samurai blood flows in Niiro's veins.

Thus, Niiro's ultimate goal is to prove himself as a samurai and become famous. Thus, when the conspirators against the daimyo request his help after seeing his skill, he jumps on the opportunity. Here is a chance to do something that will change the course of history, winning himself fame and a place in the history books, and as an orphan and poor ronin, he has little to lose.

Narrative elements
Much of the story is told through conversation, with various characters relating events. The film will then cut away to the scene, with the character acting as the narrator. This breaks up the time line of the film, as we experience some of the events out of natural order and have to piece things together from there. This gives the film some added complexity and interest.

The film has numerous twists, though most of them were fairly easy to spot. However, this never becomes a bad thing, as the film is steeped in literary irony. We as the audience ultimately know more about the truth than every individual character, Niiro included. The final tragedy stems from this irony, as we understand all that the assassination will ultimately entail while the characters are only partially aware of the consequences of their actions. I don't want to give away too much, as guessing and learning for yourself is a large part of the fun. Still, this film is a classic example of literary irony done right, and it culminates in a fantastic finale.

The film is fairly well shot, and I love the scenes with the snow and umbrellas that provide a nice stylistic touch. The assassination is frantic but beautifully done.

However, the contrast seemed rather low, with the film never reaching the bright whites and deep blacks that really make black and white films shine. Maybe it was the DVD, which was a cheaper release than the Criterion Collection treatment so often applied to great chanbara. It could've also been the fact that I watched the DVD on Emily's computer, which I haven't calibrated the contrast on for watching black and white films. (And yes, I do calibrate my contrast. I am that big of a nerd.)

Still, the film was quite entertaining and beautifully tragic. Perhaps one of the darkest chanbara I've seen, in a very good way.

No comments:

Post a Comment