Toshiro Mifune Centennial, Part 2: SHINSENGUMI – ASSASSINS OF HONOR

26 Mar

As part of my ongoing celebration of Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, leading up to his centennial on April 1, 2020, I decided to re-watch one of his most important films, SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR (1970), arguably his best film that wasn’t directed by Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki or Kihachi Okamoto. Mifune produced the film himself for Toho Pictures and had Tadashi Sawashima direct him for the first time. (It was also Sawashima’s very last feature and the only one of his films I’ve seen.) In the film, Mifune plays Isami Kondo, leader of the Shinsengumi, a sort-of paramilitary group formed in 1863 by sword-wielding farmers and ronin (masterless samurai) eager to defend the Shogun, Iemochi Tokugawa, and his entourage during meetings with the Emperor in Kyoto at a crucial time in Japan’s history. In the course of their self-imposed mission, they get into pitched battles with pro-Imperialist factions and kill dozens of their political opponents, often as a result of murderous raids on Imperialist meeting places. With the exception of small details here and there, the events depicted in the film are generally historically accurate, as far as I can determine.

This is despite the fact that both sides shared similar revulsion at the new influx of foreigners into the country following treaties and trade agreements engineered by the Shogun, much to the Emperor’s dismay. It’s just that one faction favored the Emperor and another the Shogun. One can argue that the pro-Imperialists were the real patriots since they supported the more traditional ruler, if only a figurehead, and wanted to preserve the “purity” of their country. (“Protect the Emperor, expel the barbarians” was a popular slogan of this group.) Yet at the time, the Shogun ruled the country and the pro-Imperialists were labeled “rebels.” Eventually, the tide would turn and the pro-Shogun forces, including the Shinsengumi, would be deemed traitors and rebels.

Someone like Kondo would have been most controversial in American history–and I will cite some American counterparts below—but in Japan, he’s been largely treated as heroic and the Shinsengumi have frequently been romanticized for their diehard devotion to the Shogun, an enduring symbol of Japan’s storied past during the 250 years the country had virtually shut itself off from the rest of the world. Mifune’s portrayal does not stint on the man’s ruthlessness and the wanton slaughter of random Imperialists in Kyoto by his men. Yet he has a strict code of conduct for his men and is not unwilling to expel or execute those who violate it. And the killing takes a toll on him as he sees the damage he’s doing, witnesses the grief of victims’ loved ones, and loses people close to him who protest his strict rules or are unfair casualties of them.

Through it all, he pines for his wife and baby daughter, left behind in Tama, near Edo.

In one raid, he kills a man, Miura, in the kitchen of an inn where Imperialists have been meeting. The man’s wife, Oko (Yuriko Hoshi), throws herself with grief upon her husband and Kondo stands and stares, clearly grasping the gravity of what he’s done, before finally storming out as the woman stares at him in shock and anger. She asks one of the survivors who that was and she later turns up in Kondo’s life seeking revenge.

In another sequence, Kondo orders the group’s accountant, Kisaburo Kawai (Katsu Nakamura) to commit seppuku to atone for the loss of 50 ryo. When told that Kawai has sent a request to his merchant father to send him the money to replace it, Kondo gives him a grace period of ten days. On the eleventh day, with no word from the merchant and Kondo away on business, Kondo’s right hand, Hijikata (Keiju Kobayashi), orders Kawai to commit seppuku. Kawai, who is not a samurai, is unable to do it and tries to flee before his friend, the grief-stricken Yamanami, cuts him down to spare Kawai further humiliation. It’s a heart-breaking moment made even worse by the arrival of a courier with the 50 ryo seconds later.

To be fair, some of the actions by the Shinsengumi prevent greater harm. At one point, Kondo and a handful of men raid a merchant establishment to stop a plot by pro-Imperialists to burn down Kyoto and sow chaos. Despite some tricks and delays, Kondo and a handful of men arrive at the place and, despite being outnumbered, manage to vanquish the plotters and become heroes for saving Kyoto.

Romulus Hillsborough offers this sum-up of Kondo in his book, Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps (Tuttle Publishing, 2005), and it’s almost a template for Mifune’s portrayal of him:

Kondo Isami had attained historical immortality in Kyoto. During his five years in the Imperial capital, he had become a ruthless killer and a tyrant whose will to power knew no bounds. His mind, however, was not completely preoccupied with war. At around this time, he sent a sash of purple satin to his daughter in Edo, celebrating the seventh anniversary of her birth. Indeed, the Shinsengumi commander was endowed with a much revered quality in samurai society. That quality was humanity, pure and simple. When in the following January the Shinsengumi would finally return to the east after the Tokugawa’s defeat in the west, Kondo could not but feel happy at the prospect of a reunion with his wife and daughter. He told a high-ranking Tokugawa official with whom he was traveling, “I did not expect to ever see them again.” But his happiness was overshadowed by a tinge of shame because, as he admitted to the official, happiness was “unbecoming of a warrior in such difficult times as these.” The official replied that it was only natural for a man to want to see his family. “That’s humanity,” the official said. “No matter how strong the warrior, unless he is endowed with humanity, he is no more than a beast.”

A more blunt quote about Kondo, minus the softening, comes earlier in the book:

Killing had become a daily occupation for the corpsmen, whose very livelihood now depended on terror and bloodshed. Perhaps the most brutal killer in the corps was the commander. “He was fearsome even when drinking,” Kondo Isami’s former mistress, who had been employed as a courtesan in Kyoto, reminisced nearly half a century later. “People would talk about whom they had killed today, and whom they were going to kill tomorrow. It was all so frightful. According to what I had heard, by that time Kondo had killed fifty or sixty men.

One can argue, as I would, about the level of humanity lurking inside such a brutal killer, devoted so fanatically to a lost cause, yet Mifune makes the character believable and even, to some degree, understandable. I don’t have to like Kondo, but I can try to understand what motivates him in the context of those times and his belief in ideals that had become such an integral part of swordsmanship and the samurai culture after nearly 300 years that he saw no choice but to defend them to the death, even if it meant such wholesale slaughter. Even so, he bears a huge burden of responsibility and we see it in close-ups of Mifune’s face after each encounter.

Kondo also seems to be something of a hypocrite. Early on, he personally kills his superior, Commander Serizawa (Rentaro Mikuni), and his mistress in their home at night after Serizawa’s irresponsible drunken behavior and blatant affair with a merchant’s wife have scandalized the corps in the eyes of the Kyoto public.

Yet we later learn that Kondo has a mistress of his own in Oyuki (Junko Ikeuchi), a geisha we’d first seen at a banquet disrupted by Serizawa’s drunken behavior. The aforementioned 50 ryo missing from the group’s fund and blamed on Kawai was, in fact, taken by Hijikata to buy the freedom of Oyuki so she could be with Kondo. Kondo was unaware of this misappropriation, but Yamanami reveals this to him after Kawai’s death. Hijikata full well knew Kawai wasn’t guilty yet persisted in ordering his death. After having attempted desertion, Yamanami denounces both Kondo and Hijikata and commits seppuku in front of them.

As it turns out, Oyuki happens to be the sister of Oko, the woman whose husband was cut down in front of her by Kondo years earlier. When Oko recognizes Kondo, she pulls out a knife and tries to kill him while yelling epithets at her sister. Oko is listed in the IMDB cast list as Otaka and in the Hillsborough book, Otaka is identified as the Kyoto mistress of Kondo and bore him a child. She’s the one quoted above. If she had any relationship to Miura, who was actually a Tokugawa official and escaped assassination by Imperialists, it’s not indicated. This is one instance I’ve found of the film’s script adding melodramatic embellishments.

Kondo bears resemblance to other historical figures portrayed by Mifune, but the one I’m most reminded of is a World War II general in Kihachi Okamoto’s JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967), about an attempted coup designed to prevent the Emperor from announcing Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, a film I wrote about here. General Korechika Anami, the Minister of War at the time, was adamantly opposed to the surrender and insisted that the Japanese people could successfully defend their home islands in a land war with American forces since they’d have enough space to deploy the full array of the population and hold off the enemy. When it is pointed out that they had similar space in Okinawa, where resistance to Allied invasion had left most of the Japanese soldiers there dead along with close to a third of the Okinawan population, Anami insists they died happily to serve Japan. This was all after Japan’s navy had been demolished; most of Japan’s industrial capacity had been destroyed; and numerous Japanese cities were in ruins from American bombing. Fortunately for all of us, Anami’s views did not prevail and he commits seppuku before the surrender is announced.

Kondo is not quite as far gone as Anami. When pressed by farmboys from his hometown eager to join the Shinsengumi late in the film, Kondo insists that they stay and work because Japan will need them in the future. Anami, on the other hand, would have been perfectly willing to sacrifice them all in a “glorious defeat.”

The Shinsengumi represent the kind of lost cause that the Japanese seem to glorify so often in their folklore, literature and popular culture. (British scholar Ivan Morris even wrote a book about this called The Nobility of Failure.) It has long baffled me that they kept on fighting even after the last Shogun had abdicated and Imperial rule was restored under the new Emperor, to be henceforth known as Meiji. But then the intransigence of the Japanese military government during WWII and their insistence on fighting to the last man strikes me as even more fanatical and cost millions of lives—in Japan, China and throughout the Pacific. There’s even a war museum in Tokyo with galleries memorializing Japan’s defeat in the war. Also in Tokyo, in a prominent place in Ueno Park, is a statue of Saigo Takamori, who led a failed rebellion in 1877, another lost cause. Here are pictures I took of both:

In SHINSENGUMI, Kondo at least tries to explain his position late in the film during an audience with one of his sponsors, Lord Awa. Here is his speech:

The Shogun has courageously relinquished power after 300 years in authority. But Choshu and Satsuma have cast him in the role of traitor, and have dragged him into this war. To hell with the Imperialists! The only reason they support the Emperor is because they want power. I cannot forgive them for that. Never have I despised the Imperial court! But if we retreat now, the proud history of the Tokugawa clan will be besmirched! This is why I fight. Some say I’m living in the past, but this is what I call ‘makoto!’ [truth].

To the samurai who had seen the flourishing of Japanese culture under the unification of the Tokugawa Shogunate and had experienced over 200 years of peace, the sudden changes in Japan must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Ultimately, Kondo surrenders himself alone to Staff Officer Arima Tota (Kinnosuke Nakamura) of the Imperial Army who is seen later arguing with a room full of other officers that Kondo deserves leniency, that a man of his caliber might even be useful to the new government. Another officer, Tani (Ichiro Nakatani), points out that Kondo killed many good men who would have been just as important to the new government and, hence, Kondo must die by beheading and not seppuku.

Arima: “Tani, if the fortunes of war had been reversed, it would be we who would be called traitors, instead of Kondo. His was a life of unwavering ‘makoto.’ He is an extraordinary man. Let the past be the past. If possible I want Kondo to be spared, so that he can serve the new Meiji government….Granted, Kondo led a group that killed many of our finest comrades. I realize that his actions are punishable by death. And yet Japan, in order to compete with foreign nations, must undergo a national rebuilding! We need all the exceptional men that we can get.”

Tani: “Kondo is nothing but a murderer! He delayed the flowering of the new Meiji era. And what of the men he killed, who could have contributed to the new Meiji government?! He should be torn apart! I’ll kill him myself!….This meeting is over. Kondo will lose his head!”

Kondo goes to his death calmly, exchanging thoughts with the admiring and respectful Arima and wishing for a more peaceful, uneventful world for his daughter, something more easily achieved with the elimination of Kondo and all of his followers, an irony not noted by Kondo.

According to Hillsborough, an actual eyewitness account of Kondo’s execution reported that his last words were, “I’ve been a great trouble.”  In the film, Oko, Miura’s vengeful widow, peering into the army grounds through a bamboo fence, watches Kondo die, as does Kondo’s wife, Otsune (Yoko Tsukasa).

In real life, Kondo’s nephew watched his execution and reported back to Kondo’s wife and the family used their pull with local officials to retrieve Kondo’s headless corpse, while the head was displayed and then shipped to Kyoto to be displayed there. Here’s an undated photograph of the real Kondo:

I’m not so sure that Kondo’s actions bore any significant fruit for Japan, although I might suggest that by killing off the most ardent foes of contact with foreigners among the Emperor’s loyalists, the Shinsengumi might have inadvertently paved the way for westernization in Japan. Certainly, by the time full-fledged war between the factions broke out in the late 1860s, the Imperialist army had hired European military advisers and acquired western-style uniforms as well as modern cannons and firearms, while the Shinsengumi still fought with swords and were easily cut down.

If I had to determine an American equivalent of Kondo, it would be someone like William Quantrill, often given the rank of Colonel when portrayed in popular culture, who was allied with the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but carried out guerrilla-style ambushes on Union troops and operated under his own command. He’s most notorious for a raid in 1863 on Lawrence, Kansas, stronghold of the state’s anti-slavery faction, where his band targeted men and boys for slaughter, killing about 150, and burned down the town. Quantrill has been depicted in numerous westerns, usually as a murderous villain, but there have been several portrayals where he was portrayed as a southern gentleman and man of learning who had become a fanatic for the cause of the South. Offhand, I’m thinking of DARK COMMAND (1940), with Walter Pidgeon as Quantrill, KANSAS RAIDERS (1950), with Brian Donlevy (pictured below), and RED MOUNTAIN (1951), with John Ireland in the role. Quantrill was active from 1861 until his death from war wounds in 1865, while Kondo was active in the Shinsengumi from 1863 until his death in 1868, so the periods of their exploits overlapped a bit.

The one other American I can think of with similarity to Kondo is abolitionist John Brown, who was as committed to freeing the slaves as Quantrill was to keeping them enslaved. Brown was hanged for treason in 1859 after trying to instigate a slave revolt in Virginia that year. I know of two films about John Brown, one of which, THE SANTA FE TRAIL (1940), pictured below, portrayed him as a dangerous religious zealot, while the other, SEVEN ANGRY MEN (1955), portrayed him more sympathetically. Raymond Massey played the part in both films.

The more Japanese history I’ve read and the more historical films about Japan I’ve seen, the more I see the Shinsengumi and the conflicts they were embroiled in as the key to understanding Japan’s behavior from 1853, after Commodore Perry’s historic landing in Tokyo Bay, to 1868 when the Meiji Restoration began and the country committed itself to modernization. In earlier viewings of this film and other films and TV shows on the subject, I didn’t have a clear sense of who was fighting whom or why. I have recently begun re-watching the 95-episode animated series, “Rurouni Kenshin” (1996-98), and the background details are making more sense now. The title swordsman is a young man in Meiji-era Tokyo who had fought on the side of the Imperialists during the revolution and is stalked by former enemies, including survivors of the Shinsengumi. (Nobuhiro Watsuki, the author of the “Rurouni Kenshin” manga series, admits on the first page of the first volume that he’s a big fan of the Shinsengumi.)

The series even echoes a sentiment voiced by Officer Arima in the film.

When I first saw SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR, it was titled BAND OF ASSASSINS and played as part of a Japanese film festival at the Cinema Studio in Manhattan in 1974. I saw it with classmates from film school and the response was so enthusiastic that one of my friends labeled it “a monster,” his term for the very best samurai films. (SWORD OF DOOM was one of his favorites.) Here’s what the schedule looked like. (See June 12-13)

Here is my IMDB review of this film, published in 2005, when I was a little more confused about the nature of the underlying conflict:

I watched the film on a DVD released in 2007 by AnimEigo.

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