Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Japan, 1969)
This is an odd beast in Sonny Chiba’s filmography, a powerful political thriller that chronicles real life assassinations from Japan’s recent history. The film opens with a seemingly endless cavalcade of violent assassinations, with superstars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara popping up just for a few minutes in their own segments to cut off someone’s head, stab someone to death, or blow someone into pieces.
About 20 minutes into the film the storyline has finally reached the early 1930s, with Sonny Chiba standing in front of the court, accused of terrorism. This is when the bloodshed finally comes to an end. For the next 100 minutes there would not be a single killing as the film takes its time to show how an ordinary young man (Chiba) grew into a political assassin.
Chiba’s character, Sho Onuma, is an ill but loyal employee at a factory whose honest owner is driven to a bankruptcy by corrupt officials. Chiba is left without a job, and soon later his love interest dies from an illness. Following a failed suicide attempt, Chiba films a new home with a charismatic priest (Chiezo Kataoka). The man is Nissho Inoue, whom the world would later come to know as the leader of the ultra nationalist League of Blood organization.
At 142 minutes, Memoir of Japanese Assassins packs quite a bit of interesting philosophical discussions on terrorism and offers a provocative, non-judgemental view on its extremist characters. It would be easy to see it as an ultra-rightist political statement, but that wasn’t director Sadao Nakajima’s intention according to his own words. In facts, he has expressed his disappointment over such interpretations. I tend to believe him as the film comes out much less a rightist statement than general antipathy for corruption and exploitation of the weak. It also helps that more than 40 years have passed since the film was made.
That being said, it should be noted that nearly all historical figures killed in the film – that is daimyo Naosuke Ii, statesman Toshimichi Okubo, politician Shigenobu Okuma, communications minister Toru Hoshi, prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, and businessmen Zenjiro Yasuda, Junnosuke Inoue, and Dan Takuma – had something to do with the Japanese government’s attempts to modernize Japan and open the country to foreign influences. The February 26 Incident, which is also covered in the film, also aimed at bringing down a Western-minded government. Those such political connections are never explicitly stated in the film, most audiences at the time would surely have been aware of them.
What added to the films volatility was that its protagonist, Sho Onuma, was still alive as consulted the filmmakers (he had been sentenced for life, but pardoned in 1940). The Japanese Liberal Democrat Party tried to halt the film production and managed to censor parts of the final act, which contains passages from February 26 Incident leader Asaichi Isobe’s diary. Toei took advantage of the controversy, releasing a teaser trailer that showed Onuma on the set advising Chiba.
For Chiba Memoir of Japanese Assassins was no doubt what he had been looking for: a powerful crime drama with a very strong scrip and good characters. He had been in several mediocre crime dramas (North Sea Chivalry, 1967; The Tale of Kawachi Chivalry, 1967) where he tended to be best thing about an otherwise lazy production. In Memoir of Japanese Assassins Chiba gives one of his best performances, for which he won an acting award at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was awarded the same year.
Director Nakajima was a highly uneven filmmaker who worked in almost any popular genre from pink films to samurai movies. Many of his movies are routine efforts, but some are genuinely inspired and well directed. Memoir of Japanese Assassins remains one of his best and most thoughtful films. Adding to the film’s strength is composer Isao Tomita’s epic score, which plays on repeat. The mix of politics, character drama and almost splatterific violence may be too much for some viewers, but for others this is an unpolished gem.
* Original title: Nihon ansatsu hiroku (日本暗殺秘録)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)