At Filmmaker, we like and frequently post critical video essays, and today we are happy to post the first in a series from writer, editor and director Joe Peeler. Watch his explicated take on Shogun Assassin 2 and read his critical essay below. — Editor
Life is like film. The moments tick away, insistent upon their accumulation until the movie ends or you die. The thesis of comedy is: life is ahead of you. The thesis of tragedy is: life is behind you. The thesis of Misumi Kenji’s Shogun Assassin 2 is: joke’s on you, nothing fucking matters.
Every joke has a set up and Shogun’s comes early: three samurai walk into a bar. (It’s more of a roadside inn, but stick with me). The three samurai are very clear about their desires: they want women. Sure, they’d like to be full-time samurai, but no lord can afford to hire them on a regular basis, so they settle for being for-hire mercenaries, or watari-kashi. And the only reason to be a watari-kashi is – duh – the women: “You can do anything to them. As long as you’re in the area of the lord that is hiring you, you’re safe.”
They sit by Kanbei, another samurai who is honorable and sober. They spot two women walking down the road escorted by a servant. They knock the servant unconscious and gang rape his mistress and her young daughter. Kanbei arrives to save the day, but here’s the punch line: he murders the servant. Then he murders the two women. Then he has the three water-kashi draw straws. He kills the guy who draws the short straw. The dead guy will take the blame for the rapes and murders and everyone else will escape punishment.
Kanbei was supposed to be the righteous one. Joke’s on you. But if the watari-kashi can do whatever they want, why not just let them be? And if what they are doing is wrong, why not stop them before the attack? Why kill the victims along with the short-straw guy? Who is Kanbei trying to protect? What code of honor could he possibly be adhering to? There is a certain logic to his actions, but neither the source of that logic nor its ultimate goal is ever made apparent to the viewer. The result is a terrifying mix of a power structure that has no regard for the individual, but that is populated entirely by individuals whose sole moral compass is their own hidden agenda. No two compasses align and The System stands by insisting itself to be True North while everyone else nods politely and goes about raping and killing one another.
On the other hand, there is an odd moral loophole here that none of the characters directly address, but which dictates much of the film’s action. Yes, the watari-kashi are, at their core, lustful and potentially murderous, but the subtext of that first conversation with Kanbei is that, given the right circumstances, they would adhere to a higher moral code and would take on a more honorable role as “full-time” samurai, if only the economy was strong enough to keep them employed. Instead, free of obligation, they rot morally. The implication is that man is fallen – at his core immoral – and without systematic limitations in place he will rape and kill and be consumed by his desires. What Shogun posits, though, is that a flawed system is even worse than no system at all. A flawed system allows the fallen man to hide unchecked behind his occupation. Hence you have a film full of people and objects that on their surface are one thing but in actuality are something completely different. This theme is most entertainingly expressed by the fact that Ogami Itto’s baby cart is actually a miniature tank equipped with enough hidden ballistics to defeat a small army at the film’s climax.
Shogun’s story unfolds in what is essentially a series moral paradoxes in which each main character’s personal code clashes with that of The System’s. And Kenji’s style is a lot like the world he’s created: to a tourist it might seem like it has a coherent set of rules, but when you really look it at it, the world is merely a combination of various points of view with no objective center (not even Itto, the protagonist himself). While Itto does have his share of Point-of-View shots, his POV only spans from his own past (in flashback) to the present moment. Itto only sees what is being hidden from him, which is usually a clandestine enemy about to attack.
The much more disturbing POV’s are given to Torizo, the Yakuza leader. She claims to control not only the town but “the entire area” – a bad translation from the DVD’s dubbed dialogue yet a perfect metaphor for The System. She seems to be able to literally look into the future. Torizo’s eyeline is used multiple times as the transition out of one scene into a new scene that jumps forward in time. As she sits across from and speaks with Itto, she breaks eye contact with him and looks up just before editor Toshio Taniguchi cuts to a shot of Itto hung upside down from a rope awaiting buri-buri torture. The effect is that Torizo seems to be able to envision the future and then manifest it, skipping everything in between her present state and her desired outcome.
This transition is foreshadowed while Itto is eating rice with his son, Cub. Toshio cuts overhead as if the camera is going to look down at Itto, but instead it looks down at the prostitute in an adjacent room. She will be the cause of Itto’s – and the film’s – entire conflict, yet Itto does not know of her existence yet. Fate hangs above Itto’s head just like the camera and Torizo’s gaze. Kenji thus feminizes the camera’s normally male gaze – or at least tries to statistically nullify it. Whether speaking of Fate or Torizo, Itto cannot escape her: she knows your future and can see it happening before her very eyes.
It gets worse: when Kanbei shows up at the end of the film to fight Itto, it’s not because Kanbei is the ultimate villain. Rather, he’s the only other true samurai with a code of honor worthy of facing Itto’s. Itto immediately impales him – so much for that. As he lies dying, Kanbei asks Itto what the true way of the Samurai is. How can one live in this chaos? Itto’s answer: one cannot simply live or die, one must live through death. Joke’s on you, Kanbei: you’re dead.
The only time in the entire film that the viewer is given a POV shot is when Itto kills Kanbei. Out of his chest cavity, open and circular like the projector lens, a fountain of blood shoots out and douses the screen. The viewer then becomes death, transported into Kanbei’s decapitated head for two final POV shots: 1. Kanbei’s head rolling off his body and 2. Itto standing above Kanbei’s body. It is only in the third shot in this sequence that we see Kanbei’s head looking at his own body, and understand that the second shot was, in fact, still Kanbei’s POV and the last thing he will ever see. Misumi has allowed the viewer to live through death; the true way of the samurai.