Samurai Assassin (1965, Kihachi Okamoto). The last shot is worth all the suffering that the first, incoherent ninety minutes caused. Toshiro Mifune is limping off into the snowy fields, the only survivor after a bloody battle, carrying the Shogun's head on his sword. Unbeknownst to him, it is his father’s head, a father who had abandoned him at birth. The irony is Shakespearean: it is a tragedy, but also a comedy. As Mifune staggers, the narrator, speaking his last words before he, too, dies on the battlefield, announces that there were orders to burn all the records of Mifune fighting in that battle; the leaders had already planned the way it would be remembered in the future. The narrator, who was keeping records of the assassination of the Shogun, dies, and all his documents fall into a nearby stream. Even in changing history themselves, they have no control over how they will be remembered. Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963, Tokuzo Tanaka) tells a story too complicated for its own good. What is important, however, is that the film’s imagery is very modest and tasteful. The tendencies are toward intimidation-focused encounters, silent and slow, rather than for self-depreciatingly unrealistic massacres as would be expected. The battles are there and, yes, they are riotous in their choreography as well as in humor, but more often than not, they are curtailed and given an unexpectedly early ending. These ends, however premature, are witty and provide the proper closure for such a character-based series. Here is one such set-up. There is an ambush, and Zatoichi must clash swords with a samurai. On the first encounter, Zatoichi retreats in anguish – his arm is cut. The samurai steps back, saying that they are even (getting Zatoichi back for one-upping him in public with a sword trick). Just then, the samurai puts his sword back and notices his arm, too, is cut. Zatoichi, once more, is one up.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.