Kinnosuke Yorozuya plays Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu in The Shogun Assassins aka Renegade Ninjas aka Death of the Shogun, a somewhat camp adventure more reminiscent of the best Hong Kong sword epics than chambara.
Realistic sword battles are interspersed with supernatural or improbable feats. History commingles with outright fantasy. Ieyasu's claim that an insulting inscription has been molded into a memorial bell is historical; the use of drugs to induce cinematically captivating hallucinations among Ieyasu's armies is, of course, pure fiction. This sort of mixture works surprisingly well.
Hiroki Matsukata plays Yukimura Sanada, a fanatic out to destroy the Shogun by any means. (Although there is no evidence Sanada actually existed, he is such a well known heroic figure that most Japanese know of him & assume he existed.) The theme to some degree parallels that of the Mist Saizo, Last of the Ninja (Shinobi no Mono: Zoku Kirigakure Saizo, Daiei, 1964) the fifth of a noirish black & white series starring Raizo Ichikawa, but the ultimate conclusion for Sanda's story in The Shogun Assassins disagrees with the earlier film.
Sanada's most important ally is the super-ninja Monkey. Monkey's introductory scene depicts a Songoku-like anthropomorphic monkey leaping through the carnage breaking swords with his bare hands. (Songoku was the wise monkey who accompanied Priest Sanzo from China to India collecting Buddhist relics. They are the subject of many Chinese dramas & were the subject of a Japanese television series in which Priest Sanzo is played by an actress rather than actor).
This introduction of the ninja Monkey is so cleverly filmed & edited that many a viewer is left uncertain as to whether they really saw a monkey fighting. The illusion is never repeated; but the ape-like appearance of Monkey is subtly maintained throughout his portrayal in The Shogun Assassins.
Sanada & the ninja group make half a dozen graphically filmed attempts on the aging Shogun's life, some of them straightforward swordplay with excellent staging, some of them spectacular special effects sequences. In one special effects oriented sequence, a hurricane lifts the combatants into the air, resulting in a sky-battle.
The final encounter, with Sanada's assassins all dressed in brilliant red armor & attacking Ieyasu's guards one by one (each introducing himself as Sanada), is gorgeous melodrama & good chambara-style martial arts. The ending, with the Shogun groveling for survival in the wild, eating grass to stay alive, & pursued by the real Sanada to a surprising conclusion, is very unsettling but perfectly satisfying.
The viewer is left with the feeling that this has been a superb, if often unrealistic, adventure. An epilogue shows us the only survivor among the assassins, Monkey, performing ninjutsu finger exercises on a mountaintop against a changing cosmos. There is a strong suggestion in this that he was the Buddhist monkey-deity Songoku the whole time!
Many a viewer may value the intense realism of directors such as Hideo Gosha or Akira Kurosawa more highly. But Sadao Nakajima is, in his own way, as grand an artist. He is the George Lucas of Japanese adventure fantasy.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl