The Age of Assassins (1967)

Viewed March 10

When a maniacal doctor tries to capture a nerdy guy who may have a Nazi secret sewed in his body, the nerd turns into a suave assassin.

This film directed by Kihachi Okamoto (Samurai Assassin, The Sword of Doom) is a product of its times, on both a historical and cinematic level. It presents an absurdist view of swingin', modernizing, westernizing Japan unable to shake off the psychological power of its past, be it its feudal past or the legacy of World War II. In-between broad comedy about birth control pills and newfound sexual liberation, Okamoto sprinkles dark reflections on the Japanese relationship to Nazi Germany in order to create an overall sense of anarchic confusion ultimately leading to a  form of nihilism.

As a film, it situates itself in dialogue with cinema-literate slapstick comedy of the time like Jerry Lewis or Jacques Tati, along with James Bond or (more accurately) Matt Helm spy entertainment. There's also a sort of nouvelle vague self-awareness to its genre references, and, for good measure, the gritty provocations of something like Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor, as well. But perhaps its closest reference point would be the artsy psychedelic spy action made by his countryman Seijun Suzuki in films like Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. However, it's, on the one hand, not as good as all those references make it sound (it's not as brilliantly inventive and visually groundbreaking as Suzuki, nor is it as funny or entertaining as Jerry Lewis or Goldfinger). But, on the other hand, it's also able to marry its anarchic style with its content in a way that these other touchstones don't achieve. The transition of East to West occurring in Japan at that moment is played for laughs, but also as a nightmare. When logic breaks down in the film, it's not because the film is failing or being wild in a purely trendy way, but because the national psyche of Japan was, as the film explores, breaking down, unable to cope with the contradictions of its modernization.