Sakamoto Ryoma is a legendary revolutionary of Japan’s Bakumatsu period which encompasses the chaos that ensued after Japan was forced open after centuries of self imposed isolation. Ryoma was a low level samurai from a small town who resented the unjust treated of the arrogant true samurai above him and skipped out on his clan without the proper permission to go study sword fighting in the city. After the arrival of the Americans and witnessing their far superior technologies, Ryoma was one of several men who became convinced that Japan needed to modernise quickly or become a slave to more advanced cultures. However, this was a turbulent era and there was general infighting among all factions and all sides and Ryoma was mysteriously assassinated in 1867 along with his friend and ally Nakaoka Shintaro.
In thinking about the legacy of Sakamoto Ryoma, it’s important to try and separate the man from the legend. His legacy has become somewhat romanticised as his visionary ideas of a modernised Japan free of outside influence but also of outdated, feudalistic ideals have developed into an easily cop-opted set of talismans. Kuroki Kazuo’s 1974 film The Assassination of Ryoma (竜馬暗殺, Ryoma Ansatsu) attempts to place Ryoma firmly back within the mortal realm as it explores the events of his last days in late 1867 when he was brokering the new world from the shadows.
Played by Japan’s original ‘70s wild beast Harada Yoshio, this Ryoma is a slightly bumbling though thoughtful young man who likes to have a good time when he isn’t busy trying to overthrow the shogunate. An early scene sees him fiddling with a revolver which he claims is a better weapon to be in hiding with because it’s a little more portable and discreet than a traditional sword. However, he doesn’t quite know how to use it and can’t figure out how to make it fire in order to give his friend a demonstration. Later, having moved on slightly from his ideas of a peaceful revolution, his plan to buy a number of rifles backfires when he is sent a camera instead.
Ryoma is joined by two “allies” who both originally came in order to kill him but have apparently switched sides. The first is one of his oldest friends, Shintaro, who remained a member of a hard right revolutionary group in Ryoma’s home town which ran under the slogan “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners”. Understandably they haven’t taken too well to Ryoma’s change of heart regarding the modernisation of Japan and are committed to taking him out – hence dispatching Shintaro, though he proves reluctant to assassinate his friend. The other is a mysterious and largely silent assassin, Uta (played by Matsuda Yusaku), who also ends up forming an unlikely friendship with Ryoma which prevents him from carrying out his mission.
Kuroki shoots in black and white within a 4:3 frame and in gritty 16mm but also goes in handheld almost like newsreel footage shot by a frontline war correspondent. As well as using some silent cinema inspired compositional techniques, Kuroki also adds in a few intertitles either with historical information or to provide some additional commentary on the action such as when he tells us that violence from left wing samurai is a daily occurrence. Drawing a neat parallel between he chaos of the Bakumatsu era and its tussling between new and old, Kuroki leaves us with a sense of historical continuity by equating the left wing samurai rebellion of the 1860s with the left wing student moment of a whole century later.
However, Ryoma is just one man. In an enlightening metaphor about a cat who got stuck up a tree, Ryoma calls to it and tried to climb up to get the cat down but it just kept climbing higher and wouldn’t even take the mochi he tried to offer it on a stick. Eventually Ryoma wanted to cut the whole tree down in order to save the cat but everyone laughed at him – cut down a 10ft wide tree to save one skinny cat? At that time Ryoma laughed too but later it made him angry. He thought the idea of cutting down the tree should be allowed to be considered, that every option ought to be explored. The important thing is to see things from all angles and allow yourself the freedom to change your mind, reject all previous knowledge in the light of a new way of thinking. This kind of freedom is necessarily frightening and may lead others onto a path which you yourself do not wish to follow but all the same it is the very idea which gives birth to Ryoma’s entire philosophy.
Kuroki’s vision of this visionary hero is an unconventional one and one which was not universally accepted by the audience of the time. Just as radical as the man himself, Kuroki’s film portrays Ryoma as a modern revolutionary who lived a hundred years ago, yet wanted many of the same things that the youth of the day were still fighting for – personal freedom, equality for all, and a modern society which allowed his nation to stand independent, on an equal footing with its European counterparts. The assassination itself is brutal, bloody and efficient. It’s an uncinematic ending for a cinematic hero in which he’s violently cut down in a frenetic yet naturalistic fashion leaving a trail of polluting black blood spreading across the high contrast bright white background. His ideas were too radical for his era, and his tragic end a sadly predictable one but what does this say about the world of today and the would be revolutionaries whose voices appear to have been silenced?
(I’ve gone for surname first order here because that’s the most usual way of referring to historical figures – I accept that it’s confusing but it is at least consistant).
The life story of Sakamoto Ryoma has been dramatised many times, most recently as a Taiga drama, Ryomaden, directed by Rurouni Kenshin’s Ohtomo Keishi and starring Fukuyama Masaharu, which has apparently boosted Ryoma’s profile even more and created a raft of new tourist spots in various areas of Japan. (It’s obviously very long as it’s Taiga drama but is well worth the investment in time and effort.)