Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Starring: Tetsuro Tanba, Eiji Okada, Isao Kimura, Eitaro Ozawa, Shima Iwashita
In the years after the appearance of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships ending isolationist Japan, the struggle for the future of the country between Imperialists and those loyal to the Tokugawa shogunate is at its most volatile. A notorious imperialist, Hachiyo Kiyokawa (Tetsuro Tanba) is pardoned for imprisonment and seems to have been swayed to the shogunate side, but is kept under careful observation by a confident swordsman Sasaki (Isao Kimura). After a sparring match ends in Sasaki’s self defined humiliating defeat, he becomes obsessed with exactly who this Kiyokawa samurai really is and begins investigating his past and the accounts of those who have encountered him, hoping to discover a weakness he can use to defeat Kiyokawa should their swords cross again. At the same time, Kiyokawa’s former comrades recount their own experiences with the puzzling man, all the time questioning whether he could truly and so brazenly join the shogunate.
A deeply complex and convoluted period film, Assassin exists as part character study and part historical drama. With an immensely large cast and groups of characters, the majority of the film concerns multiple flashbacks and recollections of this extended cast and their at times conflicting opinions on the same man. Somewhat similar to the multiple perspective technique used in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon, its breadth of testimonials and anecdotes create a much more tortuous depiction than within the layered mystery of the aforementioned film.
Tetsuro Tanba handles the multifaceted Kiyokawa with amazing dexterity; he is at times a mysterious and heroic figure, a cold-blooded killer, a tender man who loves deeply and is deeply loved, a conniving opportunist, and even still a largely paranoid man whose self loathing and desire for acceptance may inform all his choices. Add in to the fact that each of these descriptions by the parties involved can be taken with a grain of salt considering their preconceived notions on the man, and you have a deeply complex character performance that requires an immense amount of sifting to get to the root of his personality and ultimately his motivations during the film.
Also peppered throughout the film are a number of great interludes including the radiant Iwashita Shima as Kiyokawa’s mistress, the idolizing acolyte Shingo Miyagawa played by Muga Tatewaki, and a deliciously damaged performance by Isao Kimura as the infamous Tadasaburo Sasaki, whose crazed obsession ends up controlling the final minutes of the film and our perspective as the audience. The addition of a handful of recognizable names will also add to those interested in Japanese history or the history of this era as popularized in the cinema.
Coupled with the excellent sets and dynamic camerawork, the aerial shots, particularly during action scenes, can be mesmerizing. For those looking for an action film may do well to look elsewhere for their kenjutsu kicks; while the action in the film is actually pretty solid, the plot-heavy screenplay and requirement of general Japanese history will turn off casual viewers. An early dojo sparring scene is very good, as well as an ambush, and an emotional fight in an inn are fully engaging when on screen, but tend to lack the exhilaration of later-era chanbara films.
Ultimately, Assassin, also know as Ansatsu, is richly told tale that features a powerhouse performance by the excellent Tetsuro Tanba. A criminally lesser-regarded actor than many of his contemporaries, Tanba is among one of the best actors of this period in Japanese cinema. If you are searching for a detailed and engaging historical drama, look no further than Assassin, so long as a slow burn and careful development is in your wheelhouse.