“She’s a prize beyond my reach, but if I kill as many people as I can then when I’m a hero of the New World Order she may be a prize within my reach.”
Gosha’s excellent adaptation of the demise of the Tosa clan is a satirical masterpiece taking place during a violent time in Japan’s history when assassins were common and assassinations were many. The hitokiri were one of the most feared samurai forces at the time when the Tokugawa Shogunate was about to die. The film is essentially a retelling of The Four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu, detailing the exploits of the four warriors who strove to bring the emperor back to power.
The film primarily follows the infamous Okada Izo (Katsu), who is under the employ of Takechi Hanbei (Takadai), a Tosa Loyalist intent on overthrowing the Shogunate and restoring the Emperor to his former status. The film begins with Izo in dire need of money. Takechi realizes Izo’s lack of discipline but feral-like loyalty and continues to exploit it throughout the film. Izo hangs on every word spoken by Takechi and believes it all without question. It’s not until certain marks start to become friends that Izo begins to wonder if Takechi is acting purely out of self-interest. It is this disillusionment that is the focus of the film. Shintaro Katsu manages to mine an incredible range of emotion whilst playing Izo. From ferocious foaming to pathetic blubbering, never has the character of Izo been portrayed with such eclecticism. Izo soon attracts the attention of his superiors and Takechi is warned to quell Izo’s bloodlust, that he’s killing too many enemies too quickly. Izo’s arrogant behavior begins to wear thin on everyone around him and he is soon regarded as a man walking in Takechi’s shadow, a scoundrel who imagines himself to be a legend. Izo soon realizes that he is only a tool in the cause he is fighting for; a cause he doesn’t truly understand. For a time, he is perfectly content to live comfortably fighting for a vague cause, but after numerous betrayals, he becomes increasingly disenchanted about his friendship with Takechi and his dedication to the clan.
Another notable assassin during this period was Tanaka Shinbei (Yukio Mishima) and it is his relationship with Izo that the film begins to take a different turn. At one of Izo’s lowest moods, Tanaka offers him friendship when no one else would. Izo would later frame Tanaka and cause him to commit hara-kiri. Such is Izo’s unflinching devotion to Takechi that he will kill his friends and even the sympathizers of his cause to please Takechi. It is Gosha’s treatment of these characters (and Takechi in particular) which suggests that blind devotion to any person or belief is self-destruction.
Tenchu! is one of the great chanbara films of the late ‘60s, directed by one of the great Japanese filmmakers. The cinematography is purposeful and effective accented by jarring cuts and vicious performances by Nakadai, Katsu, and Yukio Mishima (whose real-life hara-kiri is eerily foretold in this film). It is a simple, rich chanbara film complete with Gosha’s renowned use of colour and atmosphere. Sometimes excessive, sometimes absurd, but always brilliantly executed.