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February 16, 2012

Age of Assassins

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Satsujin kyo jidai
Kihachi Okamoto - 1967

The film opens with shots of inmates behind bars in a highly styled insane asylum. The biggest lunatic is the doctor who runs the joint, Mizorogi. As part of a group with Nazi ties, his plan is to transform his patients into professional killers, all in the name of population control. What gets in the way is that one of his intended victims, a grubby professor of criminal psychology, Shinji, confounds everyone when his would-be killers unintentionally cause their own deaths.

The opening credits are made of cartoons setting up the cheerful black humor to come for the next hour and a half. The visual style is influenced by pop art. There is a lot of emphasis on forced perspective, differences in size, or simply framing people so that it looks like part of a comic book panel. Some of the signs are oversized. Age of Assassins is hardly subtle, even when the characters spout philosophy. The film is so at ease in its own goofiness as to have one characters, an inept car thief, named Otomo Bill (some may have to hear it aloud a couple times to get the joke).

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At the heart of it all is Tatsuya Nakadai. In this case, an unrecognizable Tatsuya Nakadai. For those less familiar with the long time star of Japanese cinema, Nakadai can't be missed because he's taller than everyone else, just a shade under six feet. Often a brooding samurai, Nakadai can also show his sensitive side in the Human Condition trilogy. But I couldn't recognize that guy for the bumbling academic, unshaven and generally unkempt, with glasses with the thick black frame, stooped over, with the chronic athlete's foot, always thinking of his dead mother. Of course all goes well when the dapper, well groomed Tatsuya Nakadai shows up on the screen.

In a movie like this, you need the villain to be equally powerful. Hideyo Amamoto's name may not be recognizable, but some might remember him best when Woody Allen dubbed him with the imitation voice of Peter Lorre for What's Up, Tiger Lily. With the wild hair and the too wise mouth, it's as if Amamoto was the living personification of every mad scientist who appeared in every anime and manga. Reiko Dan usually is known for supporting roles in the more stately film by Ozu, Kurosawa and Naruse, among others. As the writer for a mystery magazine, Dan joins forces with Nakadai in pursuit of an exiting story, and provides some eye candy with a nude scene, where props are arranged to hide all but enough to give the audience a good idea of what's going on.

What I love about Age of Assassins is that it fits in with other films of the 1960s, most notably those by Seijun Suzuki, where filmmakers were hired to do genre films, but seemed to have a free hand in creating highly stylized works. Tom Mes might be generalizing a bit on Okamoto and filmmakers of his generation. While films of a somewhat younger generation by Nagisa Oshima and Susumu Hani may have been more deliberately created as art cinema, there is the shared sense of busting taboos and creating dynamic visuals. The best thing about Age of Assassins is that it's fearless in its embrace of the ridiculous.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 16, 2012 07:33 AM