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)

On the Road Forever (無宿者, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

“I take to the road whether or not I am alive” confesses the spiritually defeated hero of Kenji Misumi’s filiality drama, On the Road Forever (無宿者, Mushukumono). Two sons each seeking vengeance for a wronged father become first accidental friends, then almost enemies, and finally something more like brothers bound and ruined by the failures of the samurai code. The villain may not unfairly claim that the system of the world is one “dirty great monster”, but the implications of his revelations lead directly back into the infinite corruptions of the samurai order as mediated through the failures of fatherhood. 

“Drifting crow” Ipponmatsu (Raizo Ichikawa) temporarily teams up with fallen samurai Kuroki Yaichiro (Jun Fujimaki) who has become desperate enough to unwisely attempt robbing a gambling den. Nevertheless, we are clued in to the idea that these are the good guys when they’re helped by a young village woman, Haru (Mikiko Tsubouchi), who lends them her father’s horse instructing them to return it to him at a nearby village which the guys later do even attempting to hand the old man some of their ill-gotten gains as a thank you though he refuses and warns them not to hang around too long because “it’s a rough neighbourhood”. All too soon we discover what he means. A big wig former yakuza who suspiciously came into massive amounts of money two years previously has pressed the villagers into debt and is currently inducting them into indentured servitude on Sado island in order to recoup costs. Perhaps Ipponmatsu doesn’t approve, but he’s on a journey for a reason and would have carried on by had he not heard word that that shady yakuza Shima-ya Jubei (Toru Abe) may be connected to the death of his father during a high stakes robbery on a mountain pass. 

Ipponmatsu, whose name literally means “a single pine”, is the archetypal wandering son who ran away from his clan without permission in rebellion against his authoritarian father who raised him alone after his mother’s death and tried to instil in him the values typical of his class through the medium of violence. Having come across a decomposed body with his father’s distinctive sword at the scene of the robbery, Ipponmatsu has had a change of heart and dedicated his wandering to avenging his memory. Sticking around in the town, he comes to suspect that Yaichiro’s father Hanbei may have been behind the theft of the missing imperial gold only later realising that he too is on a quest to learn the truth in the hope of clearing his father’s name. The two men end up raising swords against each other but discovering they are indeed different, Yaichiro a gentle soul who apparently excelled in the dojo but has no “courage” in the field and Ipponmatsu a fiery hothead who thinks killing is less a matter of skill than “courage and explosiveness”. 

There is, it has to be said, a fairly obvious twist that neither man perhaps too bound up in their own sense of responsibility fully considers. Nevertheless, they are both faced with the decision of what to do should they discover the truth considering that raising a sword against one’s father is an unforgivable sin while knowing that such a heinous betrayal of their code cannot go unpunished. The villains boast of their well connected networks and supposed untouchability laying bare the essential corruption of the samurai order as they wilfully manipulate and exploit impoverished peasantry for their own ends while cruelly joking that all classes are alike in their greed when tempted with riches, entirely unrepentant even as they lament the hypocrisy of the samurai who have no money yet continue in their arrogance. 

Despite having been raised in a homosocial environment told that falling in love with women is a pointless waste of time, Ipponmatsu picks up the affections of two firstly earnest farm girl Haru and secondly misused mistress and sister of Shima-ya, Osei (Eiko Taki). This is however a manly drama concerned with the ways in which men interact with other men, firstly in the awkward fraternity of Ipponmatsu and Yaichiro and then in their mutual and continually changing relationships with their absent fathers living in the shadow of patricide and justice. Elegantly composed as always, Misumi frequently shoots through obstacles imprisoning the men within the broken beams of ruined buildings or spying in a POV shot from an upstairs balcony while making full use of his trademark love for the natural world in closing with a painful confrontation in which the nature of filiality is turned inside out as a corrupt father falls on his sword for his noble son amid the rocks surrounded by rolling waves. As the title suggests, the melancholy ending severs the hero from his ancestral “home” leaving him forever a wanderer untethered yet in a sense never free of his paternal legacy. 


Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kihachi Okamoto, 1961)

“Assassins make the world an unfit place to live in” according to a random gas station attendant clueing our errant hero in to the fact his small-town home is now a “den of yakuza” and unlikely tourist hotspot. An early, delightfully absurdist yakuza romp from Kichachi Okamoto, Big Shots Die at Dawn (顔役暁に死す, Kaoyaku Akatsukini Shisu) is part Nikkatsu parody, part ironic western, and all cartoonish fun as a prodigal son returns to find his father murdered and his uncle on the throne. Sound familiar? 

Jiro (Yuzo Kayama) has been working for the forestry commission in Alaska and has not returned to his small-town home of Kuraoka in some time which is why he didn’t even know his father, the mayor, was dead let alone that he was apparently assassinated in a manner which strongly anticipates the Kennedy assassination though the film was released in 1961. He also had no idea his father, a widower, had remarried and his family home is now occupied by his stepmother Hisako (Yukiko Shimazaki), a former secretary who scandalously lounges around in her underwear all day. His uncle Imamura (Eijiro Yanagi) is now the mayor, and as he explains to him, the town is a hotbed of gangster activity apparently a consequence of his attempt to turn it into a tourist hotspot. In trying to find out who killed his father, Jiro finds himself quite literally in the middle of a petty yakuza gang war aided and abetted by corrupt police. 

Quite clearly influenced by American cinema, Big Shots Die at Dawn situates itself in the new frontier of small-town Japan in which a war is being fought over the spoils of the post-war era. Uncle Imamura’s legacy is apparently a children’s theme park with the distinctly pregnant name Dreamland. Apparently a man who just loves the children but was unable to have any of his own, he’s also opened a pre-school for the local kids. Meanwhile, in the yakuza-backed casino, obsessive gamblers brush their teeth at the tables while local kingpin Goto (Akihiko Hirata) attempts to fend off the incursion of the rival Handa gang. Jiro’s return puts the cat among the pigeons as both sides attempt to use him as a way to take out the other.

The dark heart of small-town Japan is however present in the greed and double dealing which extends even to the police, a corrupt officer offering to sell Jiro a key piece of evidence he had concealed in the hope of profit. Just about everyone tries to sell the evidence to someone else at one time or another, leveraging an idea of justice alongside greed and self-interest. Meanwhile, Yoshiko (Kumi Mizuno), a quasi-love interest and former girlfriend of a fallen foot soldier, reports that she gave the police valuable evidence that her fiancé’s death wasn’t a suicide but they ignored her.

Jiro’s come to clean up the town, but the showdown takes place incongruously in the children’s theme park complete with its cutesy mascot characters and adverts for chocolate in the background making plain that these venal gangsters are really just boys playing war, taking pot shots at each other from tiny trains. What could be a dark comment on a loss of innocence is more cartoonish irony from Okamoto who shoots in extreme closeup with intentionally humorous composition and slapstick choreography. Nevertheless the message is unmistakable as we piece together the connections between small-town government and organised crime underpinned with a rather creepy all for the kids justification. 

Then again, the world has its share of misogyny, everything coming down to the incursion of transgressive femininity as one duplicitous woman manipulating her feminine wiles becomes the common link between each of the warring factions, as if this is all her fault and Jiro’s return is a way of clearing up the pollution her arrival provoked. Nevertheless as even he says, his father, and implicitly his father’s generation, must share some of the blame. Filled with stylish action sequences, car chases, self-consciously cool dialogue, and scored with a mix of moody jazz and dreamy childlike melodies, Okamoto’s cartoonish takedown of the zeitgeisty youth movie is very much in keeping with Toho’s spoofier side but chock full of charm even if its hero’s particular brand of smugness occasionally borders on the insufferable.