Samurai Assassin is in many ways a brother film to Sword of Doom — it was directed by the same man (Kihachi Okamoto), shares one of the same stars (Toshiro Mifune), and even the same screenwriter (Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto). It doesn’t exist on the same level as Doom — few movies do — but Assassin is good enough in its own right that comparing the two directly is probably unfair. Also, like Doom, it’s not as widely recognized as many of the “staple” samurai movies (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, etc.), but don’t let that stop you if you’re curious.
Assassin (or simply Samurai, as it was named in Japan) was based on a fictionalization of an event that did in fact take place in Japanese history. It opens in 1860, barely a decade before the collapse of the Shogunate and the opening of Japan to the West. A group of assassins from the House of Mito lie in wait just outside the capitol to murder the head of the House of Ii, the current Shogun of Japan. But the assassination plan is aborted when the killers suspect one among them may be a traitor, preparing to leak word of the plot to the Shogun himself.
Their prime suspect is Tsuruchiyo Niiro (Mifune), a scruffy Mito ronin who seems to perfectly fit the bill for being a potential traitor. He lives in a shack by the waterfront, does odd muscle jobs for what little money he has, and gets drunk with what’s left of his earnings. Okamoto finds the perfect way to introduce him to us: the first time we see him, he scowls sideways at the camera, picks his nose, and wipes it on his none-too-clean pants leg. The only reason Niiro is in with any kind of reputable clan at all, even if only in name, is because they were so desperate for muscle that they hired in anyone they could get their hands on. With Niiro, they fear, they got more than they could handle. (At one point Niiro rescues three of his fellow Mito assassins from the authorities — not because he cares about them, but because he was hoping one of them would belong to a rich family and be worth ransoming.)
The more they find out about Niiro, the more confusing the picture becomes. The only other person he’s close to in the clan is Kurihara (Keiju Kobayashi), a gentlemanly and aristocratic fellow who could not be more of Niiro’s opposite. But they do have things in common, many of them far from obvious. Through most of the first half of the movie Okamoto reveals their stories in parallel; he makes excellent use of flashbacks, cross-cutting and striking editing techniques to reveal to us not only what they learn about Niiro and Kurihara, but how they learn about it — how one fact colors another in successive revelation. We also see that both sides, the Ii and the Mito, profess exactly the same motives. Both factions believe only they can protect Japan from outside influences, and the movie gets a good deal of ironic mileage out of having each side explain themselves.
The movie depends strongly on the surprise of revelation to make some of its points. We see how Niiro lost his parents, how he originally aspired to be a man of station and purpose, but became frustrated by what to him seemed whole arbitrary limitations on his progress. He was not permitted to learn who his real father was, and the conspiracy of silence engineered by others around the subject becomes more than just a plot device — it burns a hole in his heart, and it allows us to understand how he decided to let himself sink to whatever level he could instead of aspiring for more. When he’s included in the assassination plot — under circumstances that I cannot reveal here — he sees it as the one big shot he has at redemption, even when the movie shows us that it will become anything but.
Assassin actually has a fairly complicated plot — Niiro’s story is only one of several interlocking gears in it — but Okamoto’s direction keeps everything straight, and allows things to develop in ways that seem organic instead of rigidly manufactured. There is a revelation late in the film about the traitor, but it’s not played out as a plot twist per se — instead, the way the clan deals with the issue is used to underscore points the movie has been making all along about how these people operate. They are more than willing to get their hands very dirty to ensure that things play out as they must. What they do not bank on, however, is for Niiro’s idealism (or what’s left of it) to get in the way.
It wouldn't be a samurai movie without a swordfight, but Assassin has more to offer than just artful bloodshed.
Mifune never turned in a performance that wasn’t worth watching. In Assassin he does something downright uncanny: he plays Niiro at different phases of his life (the idealist, then the disillusioned drunk), and keeps them so far apart from each other that at first I was not even sure I was seeing the same actor. Kobayashi, who plays the gentle Kurihara, was a veteran of almost two hundred films including Mifune’s own Sanjuro, the 1962 version of Chushingura, and even Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart. Okamoto himself went on after this to direct Mifune in the underrated (and quite funny) Red Lion — as well as Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo, wherein Mifune reprised his bodyguard character as a counterpart to the equally-perennial blind masseur.
No samurai movie would be worth its salt without at least one good swordfight, and Assassin has a number of such set-pieces. At one point Niiro is bracketed on all sides by men, but manages to kill them all at once in the space of a few seconds — and it would seem absurd if it weren’t for the fact that in those days a man who could draw and kill in the same movement usually won the battle. The climax is of course the assassination itself, which plays out as a horrifying, prolonged massacre against an eerie blanket of all-enveloping snow (and is cut short by, in a most innovative bit of editing, the splurting blood of one of the victims washing across the camera lens). By the time we get there, however, the motives and personalities of the people involved, especially Niiro, have been so solidly established that to see them involved in this becomes horrifying and heartbreaking, not exhilarating. That is probably as it should be.