Samurai Assassin (1965)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Samurai Assassin
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Niiro), Keiju Kobayashi (Kurihara), Yunosuke Ito (Hoshino), Michiyo Aratama (Okiku/Kiku), Eijiro Tono (Kisoya), Kaoru Yachigusa (Mitsu), Yoshio Inaba, Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 123 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo (Out of print)

Samurai Assassin is a pitch-black cruel jidai-geki with the tone of a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. It's based on true historical events surrounding the Sakurada Gate Incident in 1860, in which the assassination of a prominent official heralded the end of the Tokugawa era. The movie opens with the Mito faction conspirators being forced to abort their planned ambush on "Red Devil" Naosuke Ii, apparently because a traitor among them has tipped off their target.

Mito ringleader Kenmotsu Hoshino and his cronies decide on two prime suspects: Tsuruchiyo Niiro, a wild and uncouth ronin (Toshiro Mifune, naturally) who has just recently joined the Mito loyalists as hired muscle, and Niiro's close friend within the group, a scholarly samurai named Einosuke Kurihara. Reasoning that it could be too disruptive to kill or expel the two men based on loose suspicion, Hoshino sends his men to investigate the pasts of the two suspects and uncover any evidence of their betrayal.

Through the ensuing interviews and fact-finding, we get a series of non-linear flashbacks that gradually flesh out the backgrounds of Niiro and Kurihara. Niiro is the illegitimate son of a concubine and a man of high-ranking nobility whose identity is a mystery – all Niiro knows is that samurai blood runs in his veins, even though society does not recognize his rank. Some years ago he fell in love with a princess named Kiku, but after their marriage was forbidden, Niiro set out to make himself a true samurai, by whatever means possible. He joined the Mito group not because he sides with their political aims, but because he sees assisting them as a potential route to earning a retainer position. Niiro also forms an unlikely friendship with the wise Kurihara.

When Hoshino's men find compelling evidence that Kurihara is the traitor, Hoshino puts Niiro's loyalty to the ultimate test by ordering him to execute his friend. Though the cruel assignment tears him up inside, Niiro feels he has no choice but to comply. His ambitions for greatness outweigh his personal affections, so he kills Kurihara. Shortly after the dark deed is done, the horrible discovery comes out that another member of the Mito group has confessed to being the actual traitor, and Kurihara was innocent. In some other chambara drama, this would have been the crowing irony that leads the hero to lose his sanity or rebel against the clan that has so viciously betrayed him. And yet Samurai Assassin has still darker twists in store for Niiro's final destiny.

Along this arduous path, Niiro discovers some semblance of joy in the evil world around him when he meets a woman named Okiku who is the spitting image of his lost love Kiku (she's shown in flashbacks played by the same actress, the striking Michiyo Aratama). Okiku is initially repelled by the monstrous Niiro, but as she comes to learn more about his true nature and tragic past, they begin to fall in love. Niiro promises her that he will soon become a samurai and make her his wife. Following his wrongful killing of Kurihara, Okiku offers Niiro a way out of the spiraling darkness. Rather than requiring him to become a prestigious samurai before he can marry her, she offers to leave her life so they can be married and live together as commoners. Niiro rejects this idea, insistent on fulfilling his ambitious goals. This sets the stage for his final downfall.

It's impossible to say much more about the movie without spoiling the big revelation about Niiro's true lineage, which really isn't such a total surprise after all the major hints. Ironically, Niiro is the last person to know the truth, by which time it's too late and he has ruined his own life. The movie opens and closes with scenes of dark conspiracies being dealt at castle courtyards in the snow, and the gentle beauty of drifting snowflakes against all the brutality forms the signature image that lingers in your memory.

The Jidai-Geki Knights