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Which side are you on, boy?
A region 2 DVD review of ASSASSINATION / ANSATSU by Slarek
 

Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 film Assassination [Ansatsu] kicks off with two minutes of voiced textual scene setting. I'd read it if I were you, and carefully. You might even want to make notes, as this not only sets up the historical context for the film, it outlines events that have bearing on and are intermittently referred to throughout the narrative.

It would probably be fair to say that Assassination was made primarily with a Japanese audience in mind, one with a sound knowledge of their own history and able to fill in the gaps that the film sometimes trots over. The plotting here is complex and the narrative non-linear, so dropping your concentration, even for a few seconds, could well leave you scratching your head and wondering just who this person is, why these events are taking place, and even when they are occurring. It took me two viewings to get things really clear, and assistance from a Japanese friend to appreciate the historical elements and help separate truth from creative storytelling.

The arrival of The Black Ships in July 1853 was a crucial moment in Japanese history. Commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, the five American warships arrived at Uraga Port in Edo (now Tokyo) bearing a letter for the Emperor from US President Fillmore requesting the opening of trade links with Japan, effectively ending 300 years of national seclusion. The issue divided the country – the Shogunate, who were fearful of the Americans' superior firepower, were in favour of a treaty, while the Emperor and his followers fiercely opposed what they saw as a threat to The Divine Land.

The film starts off ten years after this event, when the opposing factions are still in often violent opposition. A skilled ronin named Hachiro Kiyokawa, who has been convicted of killing a policeman, is offered amnesty if he will gather together unemployed samurai to protect the Shogun and defeat those still loyal to the Emperor, to whom he was once loyal. He nevertheless accepts the undertaking, a move that bemuses his previously loyal followers, some of whom start plotting against him as a result. Although his new employers do not trust him, they are aware that he is the perfect man to organise their Free Samurai Army – or Shinsengumi – but as a reserve plan they engage Tadasaburo Sasaki, a skilled instructor at the nearby samurai school, as a potential assassin should the need arise.

Given that the story revolves around Kiyokawa, on my first viewing of the film I was a little surprised that it took so long for us to connect with him as a character – in the early scenes he is frequently observed either in wide shot or with his face masked by a large straw hat, with full-face close-ups reserved largely for later. But on the second viewing it was clear that this is entirely the point. This is less a story of Kiyokawa the person than a gradual demystification of a man who has taken on almost mythical status. It also has a specific narrative purpose. Sasaki, charged the task of possibly having to kill a swordsman whose skill is superior to his own, determines to learn as much about Kiyokawa as he can, and our process of discovery runs alongside his. Mind you, Sasaki's investigations are driven only in part by his sense of duty – on their first meeting, Kiyokawa humiliates him in front of his own students by easily besting him in a fencing match, harming both his pride and his reputation, both of which he becomes increasingly desperate to restore. In addition, his understanding of the man is only partial, as key information is revealed not to him but to one of Kiyokawa's most loyal students, who is conducting his own enquiry in an attempt to understand the sudden side-switch of a man who once saved his life.

It is with the onset of Sasaki's investigations that the film begins time-flipping and sometimes unexpected details of Kiyokawa's past are revealed. Though we are led clearly into these sequences by a memory or a diary entry, the film can hop out of them almost invisibly and not always return to the pre-flashback location. It is in these scenes that the events outlined in the opening are most frequently referred to, including the story's first assassination, that of Premier Ii, which those loyal to the Emperor see as the first major step on their road to victory over the Shogonate supporters.

A lot of what takes place here is based on historical fact. The arrival of the Black Ships and the internal disputes that followed were events that changed Japan forever, and the assassination of Premier Ii was an actual occurrence that took place in March of 1860, something that shook the Shogunate and led to the politically motivated marriage between Shogun Iemochi and the Emperor's sister, Princess Kazu. Perhaps more surprising to those new to these events is that Hachiro Kiyokawa was also a genuine historical figure and the plan to recruit large numbers of ronin for a Free Samurai Army is credited to him, and he did indeed lead them to Kyoto as a bodyguard force for Shogun Iemochi.* Specific incidents are even linked historically significant events, such as the attack on the Satsuma clan members at the Teradaya Inn (an event my friend assures me took place but which I have been unable to independently verify as yet), a venue that the following morning is visited by Kiyokawa's friend Sakamoto, who observes the destruction left by the fight and then sits down to mournfully sing. This could almost be seen as a moment of premonition, as in 1866 rebel samurai Sakamoto Ryoma was ambushed at this very inn, which was his favourite such establishment and home to his girlfriend Oryo (he survived but was assassinated the following year). This reference would definitely not be lost on a domestic audience, for whom Ryoma remains a well known and respected figure – the Teradaya Inn still stands today and includes a memorial to him. There is also a Sakamoto Ryomo memorial museum in Urado Castle Park in Katurahama, and in 2003 the Kochi Airport was renamed the Kochi Ryoma Airport in his honour.

Whether the Kiyokawa of the film is ever really a likeable figure is of little real consequence. There are no clear-cut heroes and villains here and just about everybody appears capable of acting without honour or concern for the fate of feelings of others. Thus Kiyokawa's status as warrior of almost superhuman fighting skills is tainted when he unexpectedly beheads a policeman without provocation and is chased halfway across town by an angry mob. Then again, the officials searching for his whereabouts waste no time in beating and torturing his girlfriend Oren, the one genuinely innocent player in the piece and the only person Kiyokawa appears to connect with on a meaningful level.

If Assassination does not engage the emotions, it certainly rewards the intellect and on the way provides moments of genuine visual splendour, from Kiyokawa's night-time fight with a group of ex-followers who feel betrayed by his apparent switch of allegiance, to the eye-catching wide shots (the scope frame is very well used here) of the Free Samurai Army en route to Kyoto, and a gobsmaking high angle shot of the army sheltering under a sea of white umbrellas. The process of uncovering the truth (well, the film's version of it) about Kiyikawa is an engrossing and sometimes surprising one and provides for an intriguingly structured narrative and an involving finale. Just remember, this is not one to run when you're getting a bit tired or when you're dividing your time between the film and a noodle dinner – bring your whole concentration to Assassination and it will be rewarded.

sound and vision

Masters of Cinema appear to have had problems with all of their Shochiku sourced prints, and Assassination is no exception. Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the quality is somewhat variable – at best the contrast and sharpness are rather good, but elsewhere black levels have been strengthened at the expense of picture detail, resulting in sequences that look muddy and shots where shadow detail is non-existent. Brightness also varies, sometimes from shot to shot, greying out the contrast in places and darkening the picture noticeably in others. On the plus side the print is virtually spotless, but this is not one of Masters of Cinema's best transfers.

The Dolby 1.0 mono track has a very slight hiss, expected for a film of this period, plus the odd small pop, but is otherwise more than serviceable.

The subtitles are clear and a reasonable translation, but unusually I spotted three typos, making me wonder if the subtitling was done by Eureka or part of the package from Shochiku.

extra features

No commentary on this one, but there is an Introduction (9:36) by Alex Cox, whose enthusiasm for the film is certainly infectious, and if the first viewing leaves you a little baffled then this is as good a place to start for help with the second.

There is also a Gallery of 27 production stills that are in good shape and reproduced at a decent size.

The expected Booklet is also promised, but was not supplied with the review disk. Hopefully it will give some social and historical background to the film to help out the newcomers.

summary

A tricky one this. Assassination is an intricately structured film that rewards the attentive and the patient, but could prove hard to follow for those with their eyes not glued to the subtitles or familiar with the background to the story. The presentation is a bit below par, which doesn't help, and the disk is not exactly flush with features. But for its direction, the lead performances (including old hand Tetsuro Tamba and Isao Kimura, who played the young novice in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai), and the narrative structure, it is definitely one that fans of Japanese historical cinema should check out. But to paraphrase a well known office poster, you don't need to know your Japanese Samurai history to enjoy the film, but it certainly helps.



* Hachiro Kiyokawa even turns up as a character in the Japanese Playstation 2 game Kengo 3, in which he is required to form the Shinsengumi, the very event portrayed in this film.

Assassination
Ansatsu

Japan 1964
99 mins
director
Masahiro Shinoda
starring
Tetsuro Tamba
Eiji Okada
Eitarô Ozawa
Isao Kimura
Muga Takewaki

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 1.0
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Alex Cox introduction
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
23 January 2006
review posted
19 January 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews