“Indeed…strange things can happen in this world.”
In Okamoto’s 1965 “samurai intrigue” film, Toshiro Mifune stars as Niiro Tsurichiyo, an alcoholic ronin living in poverty and serving as a recent member of the Tengu faction, a group of unscrupulous individuals who have been infiltrating Edo set on assassinating Elder Li (the “Demon of Hikone”). His motivations are less politically-minded than opportunistic however, as he regards his involvement in the movement as merely a stepping stone towards becoming a noble samurai once the Shogunate is overthrown. The beginning of the film involves a short but important logistics lesson regarding Edo Castle; in particular, the thirty-six gates that lead into it and the clan leaders who frequently pass through them. Hoshino Kenmotsu, commander of the faction, is an aging, increasingly paranoid chieftain of the Mito clan who is perturbed that Elder Li, did not fall into his carefully planned trap. Hoshino is certain that an informant lurks amongst his men and, initially, the man most suspected by Hoshino is Niiro. What follows is a thorough investigation into Niiro’s movements and history. Hoshino has decided when the next attack upon the House of Li will be but refuses to reveal the date until the traitor is dealt with. The faction meets at the Sagamiya Teahouse, an establishment owned by Okiku, a woman who Niiro has a strange fascination for.
Also under suspicion is Niiro’s close friend, Kurihara Einosuke, who cheerfully pays Niiro’s debts and provides hospitality when needed. “The world is moving in a new direction,” Kurihara says, “And I want to help push it forward with all my might.” He is a scholar and lives a peaceful life, bonding himself with Niiro: “We are both at the center of a vortex of revolutionary change.” Niiro disagrees, saying his motives are much more selfishly inclined. When not drinking, Niiro acts as bodyguard for a merchant named, Kisoya, a man who has known and supported him since he was a child.
He tells her of Niiro’s birth to a poverty-stricken mother and Nozaka, “an important Shogunate official.” To publicise the truth of the situation would be damaging to Nozaka’s reputation, therefore the birth goes unclaimed. Being a friend of Nozaka, Kisoya takes pity on the mother and child, taking Niiro to live with a physician with samurai connections so that he’d live a more prosperous life. However, when the physician dies, Niiro and his mother return to live with the Kisoya. Niiro renounces the calling of his “father” and goes to study the Jigen-Ichi Style. “For the next seven years, Sir Niiro was a young man full of hope who immersed himself in the worlds of academics and swordsmanship,” but he soon falls in love with the daughter of Sir Ichijo Narihisa, Kiku-hime. She is to be wed to the eldest son of a distinguished Shinto priest but loves Niiro and meets him in secret. All attempts to appeal to her father are unsuccessful. “Lanterns and bells can never go together,” Ichijo says. Eventually, Ichijo reveals to Niiro that the physician was merely a father figure and that he is a bastard son of no considerable status. Kisoya and his mother refuse to disclose him the name of his true father and so he lives brazenly in drunken abandon and is soon expelled from the dojo, later to join Hoshino’s cause. And so, in the dead of night, Hoshino and his advisors, having ruled out Niiro as a suspect, proposition him to assassinate the traitor in their midst.
Okamoto’s direction is thoroughly crafted and infused with the authenticity and confidence of a true master of the art form. Like his many other samurai films, Samurai Assassin, is an adventure that takes its time in building a structural plot foundation but ends with one of the most visceral and visually stunning climaxes in cinematic history. Yet another astonishing work by Okamoto: vast and intriguing, beautifully shot and dexterous in its execution.