I had a strong feeling I’d be in good hands with “Samurai Assassin” just from the title and Toshirô Mifune’s top billing. Then that feeling intensified after I learned that its director is none other than Kihachi Okamoto, who delivered such other swordplay classics as “The Sword of Doom,” “Kill!” and “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.” And sure enough, this film did not disappoint in the slightest bit – in fact, it may very well be the most impressive jidai-geki piece I’ve seen in some time.
The film opens on February 17th, 1860 at the snow-covered Sakurada Gates, where a band of assassins wait in vain to kill the House of Ii’s ruling lord. The would-be killers, who belong to the opposing House of Mito, afterwards conclude that a traitor is among them and investigate two possible suspects: Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a ronin whose greatest ambition is to reach the official rank of samurai, and Einosuke Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), a scholar of Western philosophy who is all too aware of the wave of change overcoming Japan at that moment.
At first, Mifune’s Niiro seems like just another rehash of the beloved Sanjuro character he first portrayed in Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”: he is roguish, unapologetically self-serving, sly and a ruffian, not to mention gruff and more than capable with a katana. He even works as a bodyguard (“yojimbo” in Japanese) at an inn as one way of earning a living for himself. Yet as the film goes on, Niiro is interestingly depicted as something of a loser. This is most apparent when he drunkenly stumbles from one inn to another in the pouring rain, slipping in the mud, a broken sandal in his hand. It is revealed that Niiro was raised by his mother and Kisoya (Eijirô Tôno), an elderly father figure, with the hope that he would become a fully-fledged samurai. Yet the true identity of his father is withheld from him, thus keeping him outside of the realm of official nobility and preventing him from marrying an upper-class princess (whom he is later reminded of by an inn proprietress who becomes the object of his lust). Consequently, he is made all too aware of his shortcomings in life and, frustrated, becomes increasingly obsessed with proving his worth as a potential samurai.
Apart from offering a fascinating new approach to Mifune’s usual ronin type, Niiro and his ambition serve as a jumping point for a rather brilliant exploration of the collapse of the samurai class. In what could only be described as a case of cosmic irony, the very Lord Ii whose death Niiro believes will finally elevate him to samurai status is in fact one of the last substantial remnants of the old order of Japan. He says many times throughout the film that his death will surely mean an end to the Tokugawa government, the Shogunate system and the samurai. Kurihara, who mentions the famous black ships’ presence at Shimoda, is all too aware of this and wishes to kill Ii for the sake of Japan ’s future while Niiro is foolishly blind to the true repercussions of his selfish quest. His gradual loss of perspective and morality is a masterstroke of tragedy, culminating back at the Sakurada gates amid heavy snowfall in an amazing, bloody final sequence.
Like Hideo Gosha’s “Sword of the Beast,” “Samurai Assassin” offers an intriguing study of the samurai just as they were about to enter their twilight. At the same time, it unravels a suspenseful tale of plots, suspicions and betrayals while also containing what I’d confidently call one of Toshirô Mifune’s greatest characters in his long and legendary career.