We're back with Samurai! The Criterion collection has a LOT of Japanese movies and quite a few samurai movies. Assassin (Ansatsu) is really good one. I'm very glad to have discovered this movie.
This movie is based on actual history. In the turbulent 19th Century a swordsman named Hachiro Kiyokawa leaves the ranks of the Imperialist faction and agrees to form a ronin army for the Shogunate. But Kiyokawa is crazier than a sack of crazy. He veers from one side to other and leaves both sides wondering what he's really up to. That leads various people to investigate Kiyokawa's past to try and get a handle on him. I loved this part. The characters make several contradictory statements about Kiyokawa. Some say he's a master swordsman. Others say he's never killed a man. He's the kind of character that the more you hear about him, the less you know. In a way it's like Citizen Kane, but Citizen Kane with some great sword fights. Again this isn't Lightning Swords of Death so it isn't wall to wall action. But what there is is very well done and striking.
There is one sequence that's a little uncomfortable. Kiyokawa buys the freedom the prostitute and she becomes a loyal companion. Later she is tortured and eventually dies rather than reveal his whereabouts. The whole sequence with her is a little borderline. But considering how bad Japanese pop culture can get it isn't that bad.
The directing by Masahiro Shinoda is outstanding. This film actually looks ahead of its time. It was made in 1964 but several scenes and shots felt more 1970-ish. The film makes frequent use of freeze frames. And the black and white photography has a gritty realistic feel. There are some great samurai sequences. The scene where Kiyokawa has to fight his former compatriots is stunning. It opens with the death of the one samurai who steadfastly believed in Kiyokawa. The ending is also a stunner. There is a long POV sequence that again feels years ahead of its time.
My favorite thing about this movie is its main character. Kiyokawa has plans within plans. The audience is never sure whether he's really one step ahead of everyone or just making this up as he goes along. I love the tension characters like that can create just by entering a room.
If you're a samurai fan you need to see this film. If you want to be a director there are some scenes you have to check out. If you're a screenwriter you need to study this character. If you like movies go see this one.