Shinsengumi (Assassins of Honor) (1969)

 

 

 

Director:     Tadashi Sawashima.

Starring:     ToshirŰ Mifune (Isami Kondo),  Keiju Kobayashi (Toshizo Hijikata),  Kinya Kitaoji (Soji Okita),  RentarŰ Mikuni (Kamo Serizawa),  YŰko Tsukasa (Tsune),  Yuriko Hoshi (Otaka),  Kanemon Nakamura (Yasubo Katsu),  Junko Ikeuchi (Oyuki),  Kinnosuke Nakamura (Fujita Arima),  Umenosuke Nakamura (Keisuke Yamana),  Yumiko Nogawa (Oume),  Takahiro Tamura (Koshitaro Ito),  Katsuo Nakamura (Kisaburo Kawai),  Mita Kitagawa (Kaori),  Shinsuke Okimoto (Hachiro Shoga). 

band of ronin devoted to the Tokugawa shogun fights to protect the Shogun when he confers with the Emperor on expulsion of foreigners; 1863-1864

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

The order of the day in Japan is to attack the foreigners and expel them from the country. The Shogunate had to sign a treaty opening its ports to the foreigners under pressure from the Black Ship of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his 1853 and 1854 expeditions to Japan. This whole affair angered the Emperor. Anti-Shogunate factions exploited the division. Radical ronin (that is, a samurai with no lord or master) from the fiefs of Tosa and Choshu started assassinating public officials and prominent members of the Shogunate.

An anti-Shogunate group gathers at the capital of Kyoto, home of the Emperor, located in the central part of the main island of Honshu.. The Shogunate rules from Edo (future Tokyo) found on the eastern side of Honshu. Kyoto is separated from Edo by 471 km.  The last time a Shogun visited the Emperor was 250 years ago. But now the Shogun has come to Kyoto to talk about the expulsion of the foreigners.

A group of ronin ask Yamanami to come with them. Isami is with the group.  He was the master of the Ten-ne Rishin dojo. (A dojo is a sword training facility, usually led by one or more sensei.) Then there is Okita of the Shieikan dojo. This group of men is dedicated to the way of the sword.

Isami and Toshi Hijikata are walking. They say they want to protect their Shogun of the Tokugawa clan. They agree that the farmers of Tama have done well under his divine guidance. They want to make sure that the talks between the Emperor and the Shogun are able to take place. The two also want to show others the value of Shieikanís Ten-nen Rishin-style swordsmanship.

Isami plays with his baby girl while his wife Tsune watches. Dad is soon going with the ronin to Kyoto.

In the city of Edo Commander Serizawa Kamo, upset that there is no room at the inn, is on another of his drunken rampages, feeding a big bonfire in the middle of the street. He is a leader of a troop of ronin of the Tengu Group. Some of the ronin want to bully the man who has to find lodging for the Commander. Kondo Isami, Mr. Ikedaís assistant, stops them. The ronin turn on Isami. On his knees Isami blames himself and asks for their forgiveness. The other side gives up on pursuing the matter. It turns out that Isami had been talking to Serizawa Kamo himself.

Spring, 1863. Third year of the Bunkyu period (1861-1864). The ronin arrive in Kyoto. The ronin are just kept waiting and they donít like it. A Dewa ronin named Kiyokawa Hachiro, who organized the ronin troops, has been spouting off for over an hour. Hachiro says that they support the Shogun, but if the Shogun wonít help expel the foreigners, then the ronin must punish the Shogun. He also tells the men that he will be their leader. This is news to the men and they donít seem to like it. Furthermore, they are to go back to Edo and start the job of expelling the foreigners.

Serizawa says what a load of crap this is! Isami stands up and asks what about the need to guard the Shogun right here in Kyoto? He says they have come to protect the Shogun and they cannot just leave without a direct order from the Shogunate. He says he and his seven men will withdraw from the group. Serizawa says he and his four men will also withdraw.

Everyone is going back, except the thirteen men. There is a lot of resentment on the part of these ronin against the Shogunate retainers. They leave the protection of the Shogun to the poor ronin. Isami, however, says they will still protect the Shogun. They will appeal to General Matsudaira, the military commissioner of Kyoto. A man from Serizawaís group says that the General is a Daimyo (feudal lord) who is extremely wealthy.

The group goes to the General but the General's attitude is that these ronin are just riffraff that nobodyís ever heard of. These ronin could shame their Aizu fief. The General, however, is in desperate need of men. The Imperialists of the Choshu fief are using an excessive amount of violence. He tells his assistant to treat the ronin as pet dogs and get them what they need.

The ronin are delighted at the news. They say they are now the Shinsengumi (meaning "newly chosen group"). The men go to the Shinsengumi Quarters. When settled in they start recruiting and training men to help them.

Kawai Kisaburo, the son of a sake merchant, begs to be let into the ronin group. He says he will suffer any hardship to learn to be a swordsman. They let him join. They adopt a red and white banner with the single word "verity" written on it. The commanders are Serizawa, Isami and Niimi Nishiki. Executives officers are Yamanami Keisuke and Hijikata Toshizo. Staff officers are Okita Soshi, Nagakura Shinpachi, Harada Sanosuke, Todo Heisuke, Hirayama Goro, Inoue Genzaburo, Hirama Yusuke and Noguchi Kenji.

Soon the force is busy dispatching criminals with their swords. They even wipe out whole organized gangs of criminals. A widow of one of the criminals, known as Oko, demands to know who killed her husband and finds out that it was Isami.

Some of the Mibu ronin start going to excesses. Serizawa holds a pretty woman against her will. She was just trying to collect a bill for summer robes owed to her husband. Serizawa has sex with her even though she says if she is found out ,she will not be able to return to her shop.

Isami learns that his ronin are mugging merchants and murdering innocent people whenever it takes their fancy. He promises to have a serious talk with Serizawa.  Isami asks Serizawa to stop drinking so much. Serizawa basically says that he is an alcoholic and canít stop. Isami says he must stop because some people are trying to have their group disbanded due to the excesses.

News arrives from Yama-no-o in Gion that Commander Niimi admitted committing several wrongs and has committed seppuku. More urgent news arrives. The group has been ordered to guard the Shogun immediately.

1863, summer. The Incident at the Royal Gate. Government troops confront the Shinsengumi and call them Mibu riffraff. Serizawa calls the troops a bunch of do-nothing idiots who allowed the Choshu to mislead the Emperor into supporting them. The Choshu are using the Emperor to overthrow the Shogunate. The Councilor arrives just in time to prevent violence.

In private at a Shinsengumi banquet, the Councilor says they are grateful to them because they have forced the Choshu samurai to flee Kyoto. Serizawa starts to rough up the Councilor, but is stopped by the appearance of the courtesan Miyuki. Serizawa gets drunk and starts behaving badly, despite Miyukiís reproaching him for it.

At home in his room, Serizawa is upset with himself. He asks Oume to hold him. Isami shows up to kill Serizawa. Isamiís men kill some of the guards around Serizawa and Isami keeps thrusting his sword into Serizawa until he is dead.

Isami now assumes leadership of the entire force. He makes it clear to everyone that the highest codes will be applied to them and they will behave themselves. He also announces the discovery of three Choshu spies among them. The spies are taken out of the room, they try to escape and are all killed. Their heads are displayed at Senjo-gahara.

A meeting of some Chosu samurai is held. It is said that the Emperor and the Shogun are cooperating with each other, but still the Court and the Shogunate are feuding. The group is cautioned that they must wait a while more before taking action.

The Shogun is coming to Kyoto again and will need protection. A group of Shinsengumi have sent a spy out dressed as a beggar to find out what he can. The spy reports that there is one very suspicious man, but he has yet been unable to find out what he is up to.

Summer 1864, first years of the Genji period. They are torturing a man to get him to confess. Isami finds out that this antiques merchant is Kodaka Shutaro of Oomi. He confesses that they plan to burn the palace and the mansions of the Shogunate Daimyo. Then they are planning to kidnap the Emperor and take him to Choshu. They gather tonight to finalize their plans. Isami starts barking orders for the plan to stop the plot.

Since it is the night of the Gion Festival, the streets are extremely crowded. The Shinsengumi watch the Ikeda Mercantile where the plotters conspire. Miyabe is their leader. He receives a letter from Katsura. There are some 40 to 50 men reported at the meeting. And there are an additional 30 men at Ikeda Mercantile.

Isami waits for reinforcements, but they are not coming. So Isami snaps into action on his own. He tells Toshi to take 20 men and attack Shikoku Mercantile. Meanwhile, he along with Okita and Yamanami will go to Ikeda mercantile.

Isami and his men bust up the meeting and have to fight for survival, since they are vastly outnumbered by the meeting attendees. The fight continues up on the roof and out in the waters of the canal. Okita is slashed across the face, but continues to fight. Now itís leader against leader, Isami against Miyabe. Not surprisingly, Isami is the victor.

The Shinsengumi arrive from Shikoku Mercantile. No one was there. Now they mop up the rest of the bad guys. And now the Aizu soldiers are deployed against those of Choshu.

A group of Shinsengumi visit the recovering Okita. They says the Shogunate has rewarded them for foiling the Ikeda Mercantile Conspiracy. Now the guys want to celebrate with a party, but Isami arrives to tell them not to get too cocky. Everyone is watching them now after their success.

A group of three Shinsengumi are ambushed and killed for revenge for the massacre at the Ikeda Mercantile. A reluctant Isami grants the dead an honorable funeral.

A doctor tells Okita that he has only two more years to live. Okita is thankful for the two years.

1864. The Hamaguri Gate Incident. There is a pitched battle with the use of cannon. The Choshu are back at it again. The palace is surrounded with ashes. The Choshu leave, but set fire to the city of Kyoto before going. The Shinsengumi return home saying they cant rely on the Shogunís army. Apparently, the Shogunate can no longer raise a great army.

Isami is congratulated by the Councilor for defeating the army of Maki Izumi at Mt. Tennozan in Yamazaki, the last refuge of the Choshu. The General now wants to make Isumi a Shogunate vassal. Isumi says he just wants to remain the leader of the Shinsengumi. He says he wants a favor instead. He noticed there was no one in command to unite the Shougunate and fief forces. Isumi wants to go to Edo to tell them how desperate the situation is in Kyoto.

Edo Castle. Isumi implores the Councilor to tell the Shogun to go to Kyoto as quickly as possible. He says Satsuma has abandoned the Shogunate and gone over to the Choshu. Lord Awa comes to speak to Isami and tells him it is too late to save the Shogunate. He even goes so far as to suggest the disbandment of Shinsengumi itself. Isumi calls Lord Awa irresponsible! He leaves.

Isamiís men have brought him Master Ito Kashitaro. Isami tells him that he needs his help because he wants to build-up the Shinsengumi. Isami returns home to see his wife and daughter Tamako. He has been gone for two years, but he might have to return to Kyoto tomorrow.

Isami asks for the 500 ryo the organization has. The accountant can only give him 450 ryo and Isami tells him to commit seppuku. Some of his officers beg him not to make Kawai commit seppuku over a lousy 50-ryo. He has written to his father for the money. Isami agrees to wait for ten days.

It is now snowing. While Isumi is away, Hijikata decides to have the seppuku ceremony performed for and by the accountant. Kawai is very afraid, but he either slits his belly open or he is to be beheaded. Kawai makes a run for it, so his second has to kill him with numerous blows from his sword. Shortly afterwards, the messenger arrives with the money. Isumi is upset with Hijikata, but Hijikata says he just followed the orders he had.

Isami has a new female servant, Oyuki. Mr. Hijikata bought her contract on his behalf. She was so happy he did.. She has prepared his favorite: sugar candy. Oyuki tells him that ever since she met him three years ago, she has been in love with him. Isumi returns her sentiments. He asks her to bring her sister to live with them.

A message comes to Isami that Yamanami has deserted! Okita on horseback went after him. Yamanami stops Okita and says he will go back with him, because if he didnít, Okita would be blamed for his escape. Okita tells him that he has tuberculosis and only has two more years to live. He begs him to flee. Yamanami says they both will go back together.

The Commanders asks Yamanami why? He said he was just so sick of all the killing. Yamanami says he used to like Isami, but now his once warm blood has become frozen. Now he is just like Mr. Hijikata.

Yamanami drops a bomb when he says that Hijikata was responsible for the death of Kawai. The 50-ryo was used to buy out the Shimabara womanís contract. He calls Hijikata and Isumi puppets. Yamanami commits seppuku and his second Okita lops off his head.

In his home Oko tries to kill Isumi for killing her husband. Oko turns out to be the sister of Oyuki. Standing in front of Isami to protect him, Oyuki tells Oko she will have to kill her first. Oko starts to run at her sister, but Isami grabs the knife and takes it away from her. She cries that she hates the Imperialists and the Shongunate and the entire world.

The Emperor and the Shogun are now both dead, along with their dream of reconciliation. Satsuma and Choshu plot to use the new Emperorís ascension to destroy the Shogunate.

Hijikata asks the Shinsengumi military advisor Ito if he is a spy. The man then goes to Isami and says he is taking a group of fifteen men and acting as spies they will infiltrate the Choshu government. They will report their findings back to Isami. Isami agrees to let them go.

As the military advisor walks down the street one night he is confronted by Isami. They duel and Isami kills the man. His disciples rush to him promising vengeance on Isami, but as they begin to pick up their master, they are all cut down from behind by Shinsengumi men.

The new Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu reinstates Imperial rule. People start to flee Kyoto saying that the Satsuma and Choshu are coming. Isami talks with Oyuki and asks about her sister. Oko is working in Edo, says Oyuki. He tries to give her money so she can run away to somewhere safe and start a new life. He says he wonít be returning. The Aizu clan has left for Osaka Castle with the Shogunate forces. The Shinsengumi now have to pacify Fushimi. They all have to leave Kyoto. Oyuki says she will stay with Isami. When she learns she can't go with him, Oyuki says she will wait right here in Kyoto until he returns.

Isami rides to Fushimi. He is ambushed along the way. He receives a gun shot to the shoulder. The men who rush him say this is in revenge for Master Ito. But Isami kills a number of them and gets away.

Shinsengumi Headquarters. Four men carry the bandaged Isami in a palanquin to Osaka Castle, while the others wish him well.

The Battle of Toba and Fushimi. The Shinsengumi are out of their league. Their enemy is using rifles and killing quite a few of them. Okita takes a group of men and charges the enemy, but it turns out to be a suicide mission. The bullets cut them all down.

The still living Shinsengumi learn that their enemy has raised the Imperialist flag, which would now make the Shinsengumi rebels. But they are not opposed to the Emperor! Now they learn that the Shogun has gone by ship to Edo. They decide to go to Edo to be with the Shogun.

Tsune returns home to find her husband there. She hugs him and cries. Tamako is with her uncle. Isami is dressed in a peasantís costume. He has to tell his wife that he has to go. Isami says he will be back soon.

Isami tells Lord Awa that he just came to say goodbye before they leave for Koshu with the Koyo suppression force. He admits that Lord Awa had an elegant way to remove the Shinsengumi from Edo. But before he goes, he wants Lord Awa to know that he hates war. The Shogun has given up authority after 300 years, but Satsuma and Choshu have tried to make him a traitor and have dragged him into this war. He says to hell with the Imperialists because they only support the Emperor to gain power. They canít retreat now or the proud history of the Tokugawa clan will be damaged. This is why he fights.

The black and white banners of the Koyo Suppression Force wave in the breeze as the force moves forward. A group from Isamiís home of Tama beg him to let them join him in the fight. He refuses politely. A little later a ferocious battle takes place.

A signpost says Shofusa, Nagareyama. Staff Officer Arima Tota of the Imperial Army shouts to the men of the Nagareyama headquarters that they are surrounded. He demands that the Shinsengumi and Isami surrender immediately!

The men go to speak with Isami. They say the Koyo Suppression Force was defeated and now they are surrounded. Isami tells all his men to flee, to escape while he is meeting with the enemy messenger. Toshi doesnít want to let Isami stay behind, but Isami insists.

Isami goes down and speaks with Arima Tota, who was the former Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Their side is mad when they realize that Isami has sacrificed himself so his men could escape.

Isami is to be beheaded. Arima wants him to have the privilege of committing seppuku. In fact, he really wants Isami spared so that he can serve the new Meiji government. To fight the foreigners, Japan will need men like Isami. But General Tani insists that Isami be beheaded.

A big crowd has come to see the death of Isami, including the two main women in his life. Isami says he was a neglectful family man and he wishes he could have seen his daughter for one last time. He asks Arima to give him a dagger so he can shave his growth of beard. He wants his head to look good wherever it is to be displayed. Isami says to the executioner: "Please proceed." And off goes his head.

In the 4th year of the Keio period, on April 25, Kondo Isami was executed at Itabashi.

 

Good movie.  Follows the story of Kondo Isami (1834-1868), the founder of the Shinsengumi, an police organization that became well known for arresting a radical cell of shishi (i.e., Japanese political activists).  Kondo was caught up in the fight between at least three forces:  those behind the Emperor, those behind the Emperor for their own designs and those behind the Shogun.  Kondo started out just wanting to protect the Shogun when he was in Kyoto negotiating with the Emperor.  His career took off from this limited beginning to include the police and the military.  ToshirŰ Mifune is such a good actor that it is not surprising that he was again very good in this role as Kondo Isami.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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