Sunday, July 17, 2011

Age of Assassins (aka Epoch of Murder Madness)

                                               Director: Kihachi Okamoto
                                 Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Eisei Amamoto
Every once in a while, I'll come across a movie so great, so exhilarating, so note perfect in every aspect of it's being that it will actually anger me that I hadn't heard about it sooner. This is the case with director Kihachi Okamoto's black comedy/action/satire masterpiece, Age of Assassins.

Okamoto's reputation here in the U.S. consists entirely of his samurai work (Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, Kill, Red Lion, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo...). Sword of Doom in particular is a beloved title having been a big hit in New York's art houses throughout the late 60s and 70s. However, what many do not know about the eclectic filmmaker is that he is at least as well known in his home country for several masterful modern day black comedies. This one, Age of Assassins is considered by some to be his greatest work. After seeing it with my own disbelieving eyes, I'm inclined to agree.

It begins in a mental institution. It is being run by an evil mastermind (played by character actor supreme, Eisei Amamoto). He intends to use the crazies as assassins in order to spark fear and paranoia amongst Japan (and perhaps ultimately, the world). His prospective "client" is a Nazi spy/war mongerer (much of the dialogue between the two of them is spoken in German). To demonstrate his ability, three random victims are picked out of a phone book with the promise that they will be killed in less than 48 hours. The first two assignments go off without a hitch. The third one... not so much. The target is a schleppy, near sighted teacher with athlete's foot (played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai) who through his own clumsiness manages to kill his attacker. Finding himself further targeted by all manner of crazed assassins, our "hero" goes on the run while trying to figure out who is trying to kill him and why.  Along the way, he gets help from a mixed up cab driver (his smog belching jalopy that they ride in is one step away from the junk heap) as well as a spunky female reporter who may not be what she appears to be.

To reveal much more of the plot would be doing a disservice to this wonderful film. It winds up taking more twists and turns than almost any other movie that comes to mind. It is a dizzying wonder to behold, right up to it's final shot.

Tatsuya Nakadi gives a wonderful performance here, managing to be both hilariously quirky and subtly clever, sometimes within the same shot. Watching his character go from awkward geek to suave agent is nothing short of astonishing. It is significant that his character's physical transformation occurs much sooner than his behavioral one. Originally meant to be nothing more than a disguise, his psyche changes with such subtlety that you scarcely notice the transformation until it is nearly complete. Truly a tour de force performance from one of Japan's greatest actors.

Filled with wild camera work, crazed closeups, dizzying edits, amazing for their time action sequences and a terrific sense of pacing courtesy of director Okamoto, Age of Assassins is simply one of the best films I have ever seen and the fact that it's not a huge cult item is a crime. If ever a film deserved to be rediscovered and given the royal dvd treatment, it is this one.

                                                          **** / ****

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