Well, I have to say, it’s amazing what a man will do to carry out an assassination. And I really don’t think the synopsis does it justice, and I’m not sure I can either.
For one thing, Tomisaburo (Ogami) is not an actor who over-emotes. I can’t imagine him at acting classes pretending to be an ice-cream. I swear the only difference in his expression throughout the film is whether his eyes were downcast or staring at someone. And I can’t say he’s just a pretty face, either: he’s like Anthony Wong with an extra helping of jowls. I venture to suggest that this is a man who has never been asked to star in a musical.
But then again, would you trust an executioner who laughed all the time? The guy fits the role superbly: a taciturn, almost wordless, assassin, sustained by honour and a rigid code that he won’t abandon even in death. Various characters throughout the film try to engage him in conversation, which is about as useful as talking to a stone. And waiting for him to explode in a flurry of flashing swordplay accompanied by a terrific yodelling is no good either: sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he does completely unexpected, and there is not a hint of a yodel in the whole film. The action scenes are fine examples of the samurai art: not interminable hack-fests, with numerous protagonists slashing at each other and shouting. No, this classic film shows why the character is considered so lethal: he kills fast, with a single slash, in the finest traditions of the genre.
While the action scenes look remarkably contemporary, however, another aspect is amusingly dated. “Let’s make sure that the audience knows that blokes are being dispatched”, someone must have said. “Let them be certain that no-one gets up and walks away from this fight”. And indeed, I was reassured on that score: the exuberance with which they splash around the red paint leaves no doubt whatsoever. In a similar fashion, I was spared the trouble of having to work out where the bad guys were wounded: the special effects crew had thought of this, and had kindly left clues. Legs, for example, left behind when a character topples to the ground. Heads flying in stately fashion. The occasional arm, still clutching the sword that was not as much use is its ex-owner had hoped.
There’s more to this film than enormously entertaining action scenes, however. There’s some lovely cinematography, including some breathtaking footage of Japanese countryside (temporarily unsullied by bits of dead people). The camerawork in general doesn’t feel at all like the contrived or contained style I normally associate with the seventies (mind you, it’s not a decade with much going for it at the best of times). And the costumes are generally lush and faithful, although I do admit to a moment’s doubt when were are first introduced to Ogami. The baggy-bottomed look, presumably associated with those lovely Japanese trousies tucked into his undergarment, was not a look I could have endured for a whole film, at least not without some radical reworking of my understanding of combat fashion.
Then, of course, there’s the glimpse of feudal Japanese life and traditions, and that’s also interesting. The behaviour of the different classes, and their interactions and assumptions, form part of the rich texture of this film (aren’t you worried that I’m going to break out into a refrain of “life’s rich tapestry of…” cliches any minute now?). This factor also leads to some of the most surprising, and yet most satisfying, moments of the film. I must admit that I, for one, was not expecting the bonking scene, although I heartily appreciated it. And not, I hasten to add, for the reasons you may be supposing, you degenerates. No, it was entirely appropriate in the circumstances yet entirely unexpected, and had all the social connotations that are revealed later. Although perhaps the revelation of the aforementioned undergarment could have been avoided: let me just say that sexy lingerie it was not.
Overall, I’d say that this film is a whole bunch of fun for a number of reasons: it’s got fine samurai action, it’s got a cute kid (who thankfully does nothing), it’s got frocks and swords and hot spas and more blood than you saw in any ten other films. In short, it’s pretty funky, and I’m looking forward to checking out the rest of the series.