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Shogun Assassin: Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto.


Shogun Assassin: Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto.


Dir: Buntaro Futagawa

Japan, 74m


Lately I have been trying to pluck the roots of cinema, looking for images from the first hours. Especially intriguing images that have shaped entire cinematic worlds by now. For my next entry from Japan I finally get to see the grandfather of chambara, as a big fan of the genre a film I have been looking forward to for a long time.

Storywise, it was meant to caution audiences on the deception of appearances; that the most noble authority may be masking evil, and a crook may be a victim of unjust prejudice and at heart a hero. It is all structured around a young, honorable samurai’s descent into anomie and lawless violence, the reason offered for this is not just the unreliable human eye prone to make judgments from ignorance but the very nature of a world floating with fleeting images.

But of course we have been watching all along and know who is pure at heart. It works perfectly as a tragedy about organized injustice, an indictment of a Tokugawa society of absolute power and reckless vice, but double-times better as a metaphysical treatise on the sankaras of the clouded mind, to borrow from Buddhist terminology, that power the cycle of human suffering.

It is superb stuff and not just for the time. There was a long precedent of these types of film on the kabuki stage; with the intense artifice of that stage and its striking poses. But the film is serpentine with vitality, the eye prodding.

It ends with a protracted fight scene redolent with agonies of the soul, as would grow to be the chambara tradition in everything from Killing in Yoshiwara and Sword of Doom to the Lone Wolf films. The karmic sword slashing inwards in a dissolution of the self. The camera steals a sweeping panorama of this as it unfurls across the screen.

The actor playing the lead was one of the first jidaigeki stars. Everyone who yielded a sword afterwards, Tatsuya Nakadai, Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama, they owe no small debt to what he accomplished here. For the finale, to accompany the wonderfully unceremonial aragoto (‘rough style’) of his performance his face is subtly made-up in devilish hues from kabuki, to connect the audience with where these stories were first conceived.

He is not finally allowed to perform seppuku or die in battle, that would have been more heroic than the censors of the time could tolerate. But the finale affects with just the turn of life in this fleeting suffering world.