The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kill! (斬る, Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

“Samurai aren’t as great as you might think” according to a jaded retainer in Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! (斬る, Kiru) but it’s a message that the ambitious farmer at the film’s centre struggles to take in. Having been a victim of samurai violence he resolves to become a samurai while a former samurai turned yakuza drifter attempts to show him the hypocritical realities of the samurai life as they find themselves swept into local intrigue when a band of young revolutionaries arrive to cut down a corrupt and oppressive lord. 

Corrupt and oppressive is perhaps the defining image of the samurai in post-war cinema, but like the film’s title that cuts both ways. Farmer Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) sold his lands to buy a sword after witnessing peasants cut down during an uprising but he’s decided the best way out of oppression is to become an oppressor and is dead set on achieving samurai glory through the time-honoured method of distinguishing himself in battle. That may prove a little difficult given that his new boss, Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama), immediately mocks him for swinging his sword as if it were a scythe. Then again as former samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) explains to him, if you don’t know what you’re doing you can always just stab people which at the end of the day does rather undermine the idea of samurai elegance in the art of killing. 

Genta keeps trying to tell Tabata that “samurai are no good” but Tabata still wants to be one anyway even after learning that Ayuzawa means to double cross them, hiring ronin to take out the young samurai whose sense of honour he manipulated to eliminate the admittedly corrupt (but aren’t they all?) lord for his own political gain while planning to send in his retainers to finish off the job to ensure there are no witnesses. Genta gave up his samurai status because he was “disgusted” by just this sort of duplicity along with the meaningless codes of loyalty that govern samurai society and caused him to betray a friend who was acting only in the interests of justice. Leader of the ronin Jurota (Shin Kishida) did something similar though in his case for love when his fiancée’s father was condemned on false charges and she and her mother exiled. He wants not land or status but only money in order to redeem the woman he loves from a geisha house and like Genta is under no illusions about the nature of samurai life having figured out most of what’s going on but hoping to emerge with the means to liberate both himself and his wife from samurai oppression. 

Even the elderly chamberlain later rescued by Genta tries to warn Tabata that the samurai life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, hinting at the ways they are also oppressed by their own code while clearly gleeful to have had the opportunity of stepping into a teahouse for the first time responding to Genta’s request to stay put that if he could he’d like to stay put for the rest of his days. Both former samurai, neither Genta nor Jurota are minded to draw their swords knowing that whatever the outcome it would be unhappy while the young who thought it was their duty to change the world by removing one who brought shame on their names are faced with the realisation that they have been used and their resistance will count for nothing. Even their bond as brothers banding together to achieve a common goal is eventually disrupted by alcohol and petty jealousy.

Genta acts as a kind of chorus, touched by the naivety of the seven samurai holed up in a mountain lodge because they believed in justice, while knowing that the society itself is innately unjust and already beyond redemption. Tabata eventually comes to a similar conclusion having gained samurai status but found it quite literally uncomfortable deciding to shake off his newfound nobility and rejoin Genta as a cynical yet pure hearted wanderer because the only way to escape samurai oppression is to actively live outside it. The final irony is that it’s the elderly chamberlain who eventually sets him, and all they women trapped in indentured servitude at the geisha house, free using samurai gold to enable them to escape a system he himself cannot escape but does not exactly support while Genta enlists the help of local peasants to hold a festival of rebellion to cover the final assault. Marked by Okamoto’s characteristically absurd humour and cartoonish composition along with the eerily gothic emptiness of the deserted ghost town where not even yakuza can survive the film takes on a quasi-spiritual dimension in which Genta and the gang eventually walk out of hell if only into a purgatorial freedom. 


Kill! screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 2 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Yuji Shimomura, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Action star Tak Sakaguchi rose to fame in Ryuhei Kitamura’s low budget zombie movie Versus, thereafter starring in a series of similarly pitched splatter and exploitation films as well as appearing in long running tokusatsu series Kamen Rider and making his own directorial debut with manga adaptation Be a Man! Samurai School in 2008. Much to fans’ disappointment, Sakaguchi announced his retirement as a performer in 2013, but has since made several high profile returns to the big screen including Yuji Shimomura’s Re:Born in which he played a former JSDF elite soldier living quietly in the countryside until an old enemy tracked him down. 

Again emerging from semi-retirement, Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Kurui Musashi) sees Sakaguchi reunite with Shimomura to play the most famous of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi in an all out action fest including a 77-minute one cut assault during which he singlehandedly kills 588 men. Unsurprisingly light on dialogue, the film credits Sion Sono with original concept and Atsuki Tomori with screenplay who do at least add a little context which frames this, to an extent, as a tale of merciless samurai hypocrisy and the fallacy of “honour” as a code for living. 

As the film opens, a small boy stares in wonder at a white butterfly before being reminded that he has, as the head of this clan, apparently challenged the great Miyamoto Musashi to a duel in revenge for his murder of two of their previous leaders. Affable retainer Chusuke (Kenta Yamazaki) tells the boy not to worry, he’s not going to let anything happen to him, but stops short of explaining that he’s really just a kind of bait. Nevertheless, Chusuke has his reservations about their plan. After all, it’s not very befitting of a samurai’s honour to challenge someone to a private duel but invite 400 retainers to the surprise party. 400 against one seems faintly ridiculous. It might even be embarrassing if anyone else finds out, but then as the priest (Yosuke Saito) says you can just kill them too. In any case, while Chusuke is talking to the priest and the mercenaries are busy arguing with the retainers, Miyamoto Musashi sneaks through the perimeter and fells the small boy who is technically the “leader” of the clan with one flying sword blow, kickstarting a scene of utter carnage as he attempts to fight his way out of the compound.   

“How many more?” Musashi asks in exasperation during a momentary pause, later doing a few calculations. He thought there’d be about 70, but it feels like he’s killed a few more than that. True to form, the samurai warriors largely follow the protocols of honour. They fight one-on-on, and only at the end does anyone attempt to attack Musashi from behind. He makes swift work of them, taking each man out with maximum economy, occasionally challenged by complete randomers who apparently aren’t even part of the clan, they just really don’t like him. Though necessarily repetitive, Shimomura’s innovative, non-stop fight choreography follows a realtime, broadly naturalistic logic in which duels are generally brutish and short. Musashi begins to tire as he continues to fight for his life, taking brief breaks for water, food, and existential questioning, before heading back into the fray. 

“Duty? Honour? Who gives a crap? I just wanna win” he later says in what is simultaneously a rejection and an embodiment of the samurai code. “I’ll die one day anyway” Musashi chuckles to himself before rejoining the fight, wilfully embracing the nihilism of the samurai existence that allowed him to kill a child without thinking twice. Chusuke failed to protect his honour, or save his clan, his earnestness perhaps betrayed by his mentor’s underhandedness in unwisely hiring vast numbers of mercenaries and sending his own unprepared students, many of whom simply flee (a wise decision), to face off against an unstoppable killing machine. Paradoxically, Miyamoto Musashi will survive because he doesn’t care about playing fair, he may not even care about surviving, all he wants is to win. “A kid who knows nothing of war”, Chusuke’s stubborn insistence on illusionary samurai honour will lead only to more suffering and violence while all Musashi can do is sigh in resignation and ready his sword. 


Crazy Samurai Musashi streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Akio Jissoji, 1974)

It was a faint dream posterFollowing his ultramodern Buddhist Trilogy, Akio Jissoji casts himself back to the Kamakura era for a tale of desire and misuse in It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Asaki Yumemishi, AKA Life of a Court Lady). Taking its name from a Heian era Buddist ode to transience, Faint Dream follows its melancholy heroine on a fleeting path of love, loss, romantic disappointment, and finally spiritual rebirth while the nation faces the external threat of putative invasion by warlike imperialists hellbent on domination and conquest.

Shijo (Janet Hatta), an orphaned young woman taken as a concubine by the lord Tameie (Kotobuki Hananomoto), has returned home to await the birth of her child. The baby she is carrying, however, is not Tameie’s but that of another young noblemen, Saionji (Minori Terada), with whom Shijo had fallen in love before being taken by the lord. Hoping to pass the baby off as merely premature, Shijo has been deceiving Tameie and remains fearful she will be found out. Meanwhile, Saionji’s wife is also pregnant. When Saionji’s legitimate child is stillborn, an obvious solution presents itself and Shijo loses the first of her children.

A young woman without means or protectors, Shijo finds herself forced to indulge the whims of men in order to survive. Yet Tameie, falling ill, apparently thinks only of her when he pushes Shijo towards sleeping with other men in order to keep the peace, so that their resentment doesn’t become an all consuming evil. Thus it is that Tameie’s own brother, the high priest Ajari (Shin Kishida), falls for Shijo with a burning passion which Tameie fears could drag her down to hell with its implacable intensity. Reluctant and half disgusted, Shijo follows her lord’s advice, falling for the priest as she goes, and becoming pregnant with another child she must also lose.

Ajari’s radical Buddhist philosophy insists that chanting sutras is enough for salvation. It doesn’t matter if you’re high born or low or whether you believe or not, simply saying the words gets you into paradise. It’s a philosophy that appeals to Shijo for obvious reasons, but still she finds it near impossible to reconcile herself to her position of powerlessness within the court. A figure of desire, she is “courted” by just about every man she meets but has little right to refuse their attentions, especially as they often hold financial as well as social power over her. Tameie’s warning, ironic as it is in insisting that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, has its merit in bearing out the intensely destabilising properties of romantic love in a highly regimented society.

For all of that, however, Tameie is a romantic man, himself embittered by the disappointments of his life. Born to be a king, he prefers music and poetry to the sword but still laments his “betrayal” at the hands of the older generation who crowned him at three only to depose him at 16 and hand power to his 10-year-old brother with only a promise, apparently now broken, that his son would inherit the throne. Abandoned as a child, he has little sympathy for Shijo’s maternal pain on repeatedly having her children taken from her because of social propriety, merely reminding her that children and parents walk different paths and hers is evidently here, with him, at court.

Even so, men are content to have it both ways. Romance is a transient thing, Shijo is told, a flower which blooms in an instant of truth but then scatters. Attachment is the enemy of love, the wise man admires the flower as its falls but does not mourn its loss forever. Shijo finds this hard to understand, but continues to live her life as an object of desire rather than an active participant until she finally stops and makes a firm decision of her own in choosing to reject it. She becomes a nun and wanders the land looking for serenity despite being told that no woman can become a Buddha because of the five obstacles in her way no matter how nobly she might seek it.

Ironically enough, Shijo’s life is in itself a “faint dream”. She chooses to reject her desires, but admires other women for embracing theirs, and remains seemingly ageless while the fleeting loves of her youth grow old and fade. The lords sit around perfecting their poetry while boys are pulled off their farms to combat a Mongol invasion, and a deadly disease ravages the country. Shijo turns to ask her former lover about the child they conceived together, but it’s as if she were asking about someone else in another time. Having received her answer, she walks off into the distance, a nameless nun, free of the cares of the world and no longer burdened by desire.


It Was a Faint Dream is the fourth of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Shohei Imamura, 1983)

ballad of narayama imamura 1983 posterWhen Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.

Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.

Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.

She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.

Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage. 

Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.

Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen (龍三と七人の子分たち, Takeshi Kitano, 2015)

142984037484393493178_ryuzo-7nin-kobuntachi-g4First published on UK Anime Network – review of Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and the Seven Henchman (龍三と七人の子分たち Ryuzo to Shichinin no Kobuntachi) from LFF 2015.


Most people probably know Takeshi Kitano best for his series of ultra violent ’90s gangster movies, his role as the sadistic teacher in the controversial Battle Royale or as the host of bizarre Japanese endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle. However, in Japan he’s probably best known as a comedian though few of his comedy films have ever made it overseas. This may change with his latest effort, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, which both takes him back to his yakuza roots and celebrates his comedic talents.

Ryuzo “the demon” was once a yakuza more feared the than respected whose very name alone made women swoon and struck fear into the hearts of men. Now though, he’s a grumpy grandpa living with his ultra conservative son who’d rather the neighbours didn’t know he had a gangster living in his house. After some punks make the mistake of trying an “ore ore” scam on him, Ryuzo gets back into the spirit of his gangster days and takes the guy down in a classic intimidation play. However, some of his other yakuza buddies also seem to be getting into trouble with upstart youngsters and once again it’s up to Ryuzo and his seven old timer yakuza buddies to set the town to rights.

The world has changed since Ryuzo and his guys were ruling the streets. In the old days the yakuza were a family, they had rules and ethics and they stuck to them. They saw themselves both as heroic outlaws and as defenders of the rights of ordinary people (even if they made their money through extorting those very people they claimed to protect). This new brand of crooks doesn’t care about honour, or morality or human kindness – they aren’t above conning the vulnerable into falling for obvious telephone scams or loaning large amounts of money to desperate people at ridiculously high interest just to make a buck. These guys are “business men” running a “legitimate enterprise” where the only rules are that you get rich and stay rich.

Ryuzo and co may be old, but they still have their honour and their pride. Watching the old guys trying to relive their former glory days is often funny, if a little sad as their grand schemes take on the absurd quality of little boys playing cops and robbers. It goes without saying that the film is hilarious though perhaps takes certain instances of low humour a too little far. Each of the main eight old timer yakuza has his own particular strength which endures despite their advanced ages though perhaps in slightly different forms and even if they’re coasting on former glory none of them has forgotten their former status.

Though not quite a return to the artistic highs of Sonatine or Hana-bi, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is nevertheless an entertaining mix of Kitano’s tough guy yakuza and absurd comedian personas. Unlikely to walk away with any awards or lasting praise, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen is sure to be remembered fondly for its expertly timed and often gleefully absurd humour.


Reviewed at LFF 2015.