Friday, September 3, 2010

Ryan Watches A Motion Picture #54: Samurai Assassin (1965)

Samurai Assassin is a samurai period piece, a jidaigeki, loosely based on the historic assassination of Ii Naosuke at the Sakurada Gate, an assassination that started the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the famous military dynasty that ruled Japan for 300 years. This one stars Toshiro Mifune, which had me excited.

As other staff members have undoubtedly written, Toshiro Mifune is awesome. His performances have a force to them that's hard to deny, and he's typically a treat to watch. In Samurai Assassin I felt like the Mifune factor wasn't at full capacity, and probably not through any fault of his own. In Assassin he plays Niiro, a disgraced ronin (a masterless samurai) down on his luck and full of bile, which is typically great Mifune fodder. But its only in the last half of the film that he starts to show some real character force.

During the first half to two thirds of the flick, there isn't too much to praise. The camerawork is stylish here and there, and the film would have benefited with a bit more of what it was serving on that front, but the film is frustratingly dialogue heavy, and most of it exposition about things that have happened off screen. Or lengthy speeches about a character's history. Since you actually don't see much of what's being talked about it's hard to stay on track with the plot, and as a result you can't quite invest yourself in any worthwhile way. The same thought will get reiterated over and over, and characters are perpetually trying to convince each other of things the audience knows as fact. It's meant to be dramatic tension, but it's too much and it gets boring. There's also a really strange romance between Niiro and the owner of an inn. It doesn't make much sense and progresses only so an idyllic and lamenting conversation can happen before the film's climax.

The last third of the film picks up really well, but by then, it's probably too late for most viewers given the two hour runtime. At this point the information slows down and some pathos slaps our collective audience face when we get to see some hard to watch betrayal go down. Things get worse and worse for Niiro, and the ending is a tooth and nail fight in the snow. The last shot is haunting.

So: Would be worth the watch with just a pinch more reward. Great ending, but comes too late.

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