“The samurai’s way no longer exists,” a character mourns in 1964’s Assassination. He’s premature—the samurai’s way will actually take a long, painful road towards death over the course of this film. A head flies off in slow motion, mouth frozen in a smile; a woman about to be raped freezes, first her shrieks and then her assailant’s chuckles filling the soundtrack. The joyful moments are more ephemeral. A group of rogue samurai celebrates an opponent’s murder, and then, both literally and figuratively, the film wipes their party away.
You might wonder, reading this, why you should sit through Assassination. It’s because the film is simply one of the most exhilarating that you will ever see.
Director Masahiro Shinoda shoots with a perfect sense of geometry, arranging human slugs in lines as they bow down to their leaders, then watching them turn sharply-smartly later as they come into their own. Shinoda fills the entire CinemaScope frame with constant, dynamic action, slowing the bodies slightly, or cutting so cleanly as to bind them into space. The tale’s a convoluted mess about a ronin’s murderous mission for the sake of stopping civil war, but the light on faces is so breathtaking as to make you want to ditch the plot.
This was par for the sword with Shinoda, a purveyor of beauteous brutality and up to now an underappreciated member of the kick-ass Japanese New Wave. He was 14 when Japan surrendered to the Allies, coming of age in a climate of national shame, and his film career start to finish sang a song for anyone abused. 1960’s Dry Lake, the series’s earliest film, supported stomped-on student radicals; 1984’s MacArthur’s Children, the series’s latest, sides with kids growing up post-WWII who aren’t the emperor’s any more. The films between focused on sexual, political, religious, and social oppression; in 1969’s dazzling metatext Double Suicide Shinoda suggested all of these, plus the oppression that comes from being a fictional character trapped within a frame.
Don’t you dare think, though, that Shinoda’s work is dour. Mix Mizoguchi’s compassion with Kobayashi’s anger and Oshima’s precision, and you’ll just begin to get a sense of these amazingly energetic films. His period pieces extended from the 1600s to the 1960s and suggested that war and the fight against it were locked in a constant struggle. An incidental-seeming Assassination moment stabs at the heart of Shinoda’s work: A man stops fighting for a moment, sits down, picks up a guitar equivalent, and starts playing. He sings, softly, gently, about autumn leaves falling. Meanwhile, sounds of swordplay keep clashing offscreen.