Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Asia Society: Age of Assassins

In the 1960s, Japan was quite embarrassed by its World War II affiliations. One mad scientist was the exception. He is only too happy to lend a few of the specially conditioned killer-inmates from his mental asylum to a Neo-Nazi with grand plans in Kihachi Okamoto’s Age of Assassins, which screens this coming Sunday in New York at the Asia Society as part of their ongoing Japanese Cinema 1960s free film series.

Get ready to be played. It is the swinging sixties, but Shinji Kikyo does not swing. A vision-impaired criminal psychology professor with an unpleasant case of athlete’s foot, he hardly seems the type to get mixed up in international intrigue. Unfortunately, his name is one of three randomly picked out of the phone book by Herr Bruckmayer to test the mad Mizorogi’s loony-bin assassins. The first two die easy as pie, but somehow Kikyo overpowers his would be assailant through sheer dumb bumbling. Of course, nobody believes Kikyo’s story, not even Keiko Tsurumaki, a correspondent for a true crime magazine, but she smells a good story.

Needless to say, subsequent attempts on Kikyo’s life convince her there might be something going on here after all. To better play his role, Tsurumaki gives him a James Bond makeover. The game is on now, as it becomes increasingly clear Kikyo’s involvement is not so random after all.

Perhaps the definitive Japanese leading man for western audiences, it is frankly bizarre to see Tatsuya Nakadai geeked-up and slapsticky as Kikyo. Still, he handles the nutty humor like a good sport. As Tsurumaki, Reiko Dan definitely has a saucy Bond Girl appeal that never goes out of style. Most of the rest of the cast realize they are playing caricatures, so they just go with it, without any sense of restraint.

With its groovy soundtrack and whimsical animated titles, Assassins has a similar spirit to contemporaneous American spy spoofs. Perhaps the WWII twist gives it a bit of historical-sociological significance, but everything is plainly played for laughs, which is fine. Naturally, the story makes no sense at all. In fact, whenever the film backtracks to explain itself, it digs itself a deeper hole. Yet, that is part of the charm of the genre.

Who knew Nakadai could play a Clouseau role? To be fair, he and Toshiro Mifune developed a nice comedic rhythm in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, but nothing like the broad high-jinks seen in Assassins. An energetic cinematic exercise in cross and double-cross, it is goofy departure from the high tragedy that is often programmed for Japanese film retrospectives. It screens this Sunday (12/5) at the Asia Society and again, admission is free.