Band of Assassins
(Review from A Tribute to Toshiro Mifune: 40 Films Starring Japan's Greatest Actor)
Director: Tadashi Sawashima. Screenplay: Toshio Matsuura. Photography: Kazuo Yamada. Music: Masaru Sato. Co-stars: Keiju Kobayashi, Kinya Kitaoji, Rentaro Mikuni, Kanemon Nakamura, Katsuo Nakamura, Yoko Tuskasa, Junko Ikeuchi, Yuriko Hoshi.
The exploits of the shinsengumi have been popular fare for Japanese movies since the days of silent pictures. Most of Japan's popular film heroes of the thirties appaeared in one version or another of this durable legend. This film, along with Rebellion, is among the best productions of Mifune's own company. It is also widely regarded as the finest of Mifune's performances apart from Kurosawa.
As the Tokugawa Shogunate's power begins to crumble in the 1860s and pockets of resistance to its authority begin popping up more frequently, a fencing teacher named Isami Kondo, fiercely loyal to the Shogunate, takes a group of his adherents to Kyoto to defend his government against those who would restore the Emperor's authority. This severely disciplined group of paramilitary patriots relies for its good will in the community on the restraint and good behavior of its members. These qualities were not always displayed by the popular but rowdy rebels. Thus when one of Kondo's men steps out of line, he is expelled. When Kondo unearths a plot to destroy the capital, he and his men are for a time received as heroes. But the tide has turned inevitably against them and Kondo is eventually executed as a traitor.
Just as Kunisada Chuji and other of Mifune's "nihilistic heroes" have been lionized because they stood up against the oppressive force of authority, Kondo represents another kind of popular film hero: the underdog. The man who is fated to lose but who fights on valiantly for a cause he sincerely blieves in is highly regarded in Japanese lore.