12th June - Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor
I have never watched a Samurai film and although I’ve read a few volumes of Peacemaker Kurogane I wouldn’t consider myself really interested at all with Japans iconic Shinsengumi. So, without knowing anything about the Bakumatsu (so much so that I had to search wikipedia to find the correct term) or even the Edo period in general I expected Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor to be difficult to watch. I was not entirely wrong. At times I had to press pause and ask questions like, “What’s a shogunate?” and “Why don’t they like foreigners?” but that does not mean that Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor was not an absolute thrill to watch.
It is very rare these days that I see something I have never seen before. But here is an entire genre I have somehow missed out on! But even to an untrained eye such as mine, it is obvious that Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor is a supreme example of samurai films.
The cinematography is outstanding, it is difficult to narrow down why exactly that is but it definitely shared similarities with beautifully shot classic Ford Westerns. In that both seem to capture and recreate the past from breathtaking landscapes to immaculately designed sets. But Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor manages to do so without that nostalgic zeal that Westerns tend to. Shinsengumi feels real and somehow satisfying just to watch.
The writing is superb, despite an intimidating number of main characters Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor manages to make you sympathize or maybe just empathize with most. I am not saying you will remember their names first time around, but you’ll definitely feel a little (very) winded when tragic events begin to unfold even when they befall arguably villainous characters!
Maybe I have not watched enough samurai films to start seeing stereotypes but every one of the main characters felt incredibly three-dimensional. Some feat for a cast of over a dozen! The characters felt very relate-able even though they are so removed from our time. I consider that a triumph in itself. Especially when Westerns (again, its all I’ve got to compare it to) tend to have heroes or rather anti-heroes who I struggle to relate to. Whereas I can relate to wanting to make something out of your life, to have integrity and respect.
The story is heart-wrenching and completely enthralling from start to finish.
The acting is unparalleled for its time, (once again…Westerns) it feels as if each actor takes portraying an iconic historical figure as a great honor and as such it seems as though a lot of thought went into their performances.
There is obviously a great deal of love and respect here for the Shinsengumi from the costume design to the editing. It’s simply wonderful to see.
It’s hard to comprehend just why I love Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor so much, I feel as if a treasured piece of art has been thrown into my lap and after only a few short hours with it I have to explain why it’s so beautiful. But just because I can’t explain totally why it is, does not mean it is not.
I am very, very excited about watching more samurai films and learning more about the Shinsengumi! Onto the next one!
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67. Mishima Yukio - The Decay of the Angel
The concluding novel in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy sees the voyeuristic Honda coming to terms with his aging and a life lived in desperate hope of recapturing youth, and the feelings that he held in check for childhood friend Kiyoaki. Where before he displaced his regrets and frustrations on others, claiming Kiyoaki’s reincarnation, his desperation this time leads to a hasty adoption of a vulgar young man who he attempts to mould, Toru. Where once Honda’s intentions were pure, age has dimmed his recollections and hardened his heart; a life of denial has made him an impotent and cruel voyeur, and there is little left of the selfless young man who risks his own career and wealth on romantic gestures in the first novel of the tetralogy, Spring Snow. Juxtaposed against the regretful, repressed bisexuality and traditionalism of Honda, though, is perhaps the most enjoyable character in the novel, the lesbian Keiko who claims little inheritance of Japanese culture, affects Western styles and comes to Japanese culture as if a foreigner herself. Where Honda has denied himself, living vicariously or voyeuristically through Kiyoaki and Kiyoaki/Isao/Ying Chan/Toru, Keiko indulges herself, and so lives. Toru and Honda see her as decadent, or foolish, but contrasted with the loneliness and snobbery they affect, she is the only character who truly lives. The men, in fact, have more in common with the poor, mentally ill girl who Toru spends much of the novel stringing along.
As always with Mishima’s novels, it’s not hard to read a lot of the author in the prose, and indeed the Decay of the Angel rather transparently prefigures his suicide as a declaration of existence. If Honda and Toru show a writer consummed with regret and fear of being out of his time, however, the closing passages of the novel also hint at doubts - never a part of Mishima’s public rhetoric - that his assertions were ever correct. An interesting and unexpected end to Mishima’s greatest work, the Decay of the Angel is also a surprisingly accessible read despite its depth of allusion and roots in Buddhist scripture.
Too much cute in this week’s Adventure Time