Much like The Revolt, the movie feels almost made for me, although I’m sure many Japanese history buffs appreciated it to at the time. Put out by Toei Films, I, unfortunately, have little information as to how exactly this film was received upon its release. None of my Japanese friends have heard of it, but modern audiences rarely watch older films, regardless of the country.
Much like the more well-known movie Tora Tora Tora, which would premiere a year later in 1970, Memoirs of Japanese Assassins in a docudrama, which some might find boring, but I have a certain love for these types of historical films. Unlike Tora Tora Tora, this movie has no overall plot or protagonist and is just a series of scenes.
Despite being a country with low crime, political assassination has a long history in Japan. Although not nearly as common before World War II, there have been assassinations post-1945, most notably when Otoya Yamaguchi killed Inejiro Asanuma on live TV in 1960.
Japanese assassins occupied a special place in the Japanese psyche. Often times, the sincerity of their beliefs were given consideration, and if they were motivated by selfless causes, their punishments were often less severe than a nonpolitical murder. That being said, this was not the case of all assassinations, with Japanese society far more divided than some postwar historians have portrayed it as, i.e. a regimented military dictatorship.
The assassinations depicted alternate between cold detachment and a sympathetic biopic.
Prologue – The Sakurada Gate Incident
Shown in a maelstrom of snow and blood, this sequence dramatizes the bloody assassination of Il Naosuke – a minister of the Tokugawa Shogunate – in 1860 by ronin samurai, one of which is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama of Lone Wolf and Cub fame. Infuriated by his unequal treaties with the West and perceived slights against certain daimyo lords, these samurai marked him for death, killing him outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle. The late Tokugawa Era – Bakamatsu – from 1853 – 1868 was notorious for political assassinations, bordering on civil war.
It’s a good intro to an entire movie about political assassinations, as it is the dawn of modern Japanese history.
The Assassination of Toshimichi Okubo
In 1878, one of the three nobles who led the Meiji Restoration – Toshimichi Okubo – had his carriage surrounded by disgruntled samurai. Okubo was from Satsuma, the western province that played an important part in toppling the Tokugawa Shogunate and restoring the Emperor to power. In 1877, a rebellion broke out under the command of Takamori Saigo. Named the Southwestern War, it involved former samurai from the Satsuma Domain, including Saigo. Okubo sided with the government and when Saigo was defeated, Satsuma samurai branded Okubo a traitor and marked him for death.
The Attempted Assassination of Shigenobu Okuma
In 1889, Foreign Minister Okuma was attempting to renegotiate some of the “unequal treaties” with Western countries. Like China, Japan was forced to accept some of these lopsided agreements, though they were never as humiliating as what the West inflicting upon China. Added to that was the “weak-kneed” foreign policy like not interfering with Korea’s internal politics that enraged right-wing nationalists. Chief among them was the infamous Dark Ocean Society (Genyosha) which led to one of its members – Tsuneki Kurashima – lobbed a bomb at Okuma, which only succeeded in blowing off his leg, before committed a grisly suicide.
The Assassination of Hoshi Toru
In 1901, a middle-aged fencing instructor named Sotaro Iba brutally murdered Toru Hoshi. A local politician, Hoshi was mired in a corruption scandal, but ultimately acquitted. The movie scene is unique, as it is show in first-person perspective, as if we voyeuristically take place in his assassination.
The Assassination of Zenjiro Yasuda
In 1921, the head of the Yasusa Zaibatsu Conglomerate – Zenjiro Yasuda – was assassinated by Heigo Asahi, leader of the patriotic society Righteousness Corps of the Divine Land. It has a better ring in Japanese. Determined to build a hotel for poor laborers, Asahi requested a financial donation from the wealthy Yasuda, but was turned down. Whether motivated by greed or pure ideals, Asahi proceeded to slaughter Yasuda with a yoroi-doshi sword.
Funny enough, Yasuda was the great grandfather of Yoko Ono. There’s a story where John Lennon saw a photo of Zenjiro Yasuda and felt it was him in a past life.
“Don’t say that,” Yoko said. “He was assassinated.”
The Crimes of Daijiro Furuta
Not all political assassinations came from the Right. In 1924, a young man in Osaka formed an anarchist group – Giroschinsha, the Guillotine Society. In the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, the government murdered several prominent anarchists – Noe Ito and Sakae Osugi – out of fear that they might take advantage of the chaos to overthrow the Emperor. Outraged and seeking revenge, twenty six year old Daijiro Furata conspired with like-minded anarchists in his Guillotine Society to assassinate Crown Prince Hirohito. Lacking funds, Furata targeted a bank teller transporting funds in a briefcase. The movie shows the awkward and bumbling Furata haphazardly stab the teller over and over, before finally wresting the briefcase from the dead man’s hands. Needless to say, this incompetent amateur was soon arrested, tried, and executed for treason.
The Assassination of Junnosuke Inoue
At this point, we’re only twenty minutes into the film and have already covered six assassinations. As mentioned, there is very little characterization, plot, or story structure throughout the movie. We’re introduced to the assassin, learn about their motives through dialogue or narration, their day in the sun arrives, then we move on to the next scene.
However, this particular episode feels the most like a traditional movie. Taking place from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, this segment dramatizes the life, radicalization, and violent fate of Sho Onuma, played by the legendary Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba. Onuma fell under the spell of the infamous Nissho Inoue (no relation to Junnosuke Inoue) and his patriotic society – the Blood Brotherhood aka the League of Blood (Ketsumeidan).
Information on the real Sho Onuma in English is sparse, and I’m not sure how much dramatic license the movie takes. However, Onuma himself was alive during the making of Memoirs, and apparently served as a consultant. There are photos of him conversing with Chiba on set. I particularly liked this character study, since too often history books skim over these Japanese assassins with paltry summations of their deeds and motives.
The film documents Onuma’s beginnings as a laborer involved in a new restaurant, only to see it swallowed up during the Great Depression. Drowning himself in booze and self-pity, he has a religious awakening after a female crush of his dies from the inability to afford decent medical care. From there Onuma becomes immersed in the world of Nichiren Buddhism and the Blood Brotherhood. In particular, he falls under the sway of its prophetic sensei, the enigmatic priest Nissho Inoue and Lieutenant Hitoshi Fujii, a Navy officer with radical ideas on how to reorganize Japan. Lieutenant Fujii and his contacts in the Navy, begin to supply the Blood Brotherhood with weapons and training.
This segment feels almost like a Japanese Travis Bickle, with Onuma wandering around in the vast, sprawling metropolis of 1930s Tokyo, miserable in his urban isolation, set adrift without purpose, and a deep, nameless anger burning within him. Outside of the Blood Brotherhood, his only human connection is a bar hostess – Taka – who he implores to quit her job. Taka refuses, unless someone truly loved her.
“You have gone someplace far away,” she says, realizing that Onuma is heading down a path she can never follow.
The wounds of the Great Depression are raw and breed a myriad of plots against the government. One of the most famous, dramatized briefly is the October Incident of 1931. Army officers who plotted the March Incident once again plan to launch a coup de’tat in October of the same year. But their selfish plans are exposed by Fujii, who accuses them of wanting power for power’s sake.
In 1932, Lieutenant Fujii departs in to fight in the Shanghai Incident where he is killed in action, leaving his fellow Navy officers Taku Mikami and Kiyoshi Koga to carry on his work. Meanwhile, Nissho Inoue gives Onuma his mission and target: Junnosuke Inoue, the former finance minister. Inoue was blamed for allowing the Great Depression to ravage Japan’s economy and for clinging to the gold standard during tenure. Ironically the other victim of the Blood Brotherhood – Takuma Dan – was marked for death for his role in the Dollar Buying Incident, which involved going off the gold standard.
In a series of trippy religious-inspired hallucinations, Onuma’s convictions harden as he trails Inoue until their paths cross with deadly results.
The Assassination of General Nagata
By 1935, the Imperial Army was rife with political factions, most notably the Imperial Way (Kodoha) and the Control Clique (Toseiha). Both factions were militaristic but differed on domestic issues. Fueled by an almost mystical worship of the Emperor, the Imperial Way Faction favored a more radical agenda, instituting drastic reforms to combat poverty by redistributing wealth and believed a war with the USSR was inevitable. The Control Faction realized an upcoming war would be a total one, and knew that heavy industry would play a vital role. Therefore, they were not as anti-capitalist as the Imperial Way.
While the Imperial Way rallied around certain officers, the Control Faction never viewed themselves as an organized group. Indeed, the name “Toseiha” was invented by the Imperial Way as a slur to distinguish themselves from other officers who they disagreed with. One of these “Control Faction” officers was General Nagata, who was accused of “putting the Army in the paws of high finance.”
In August 1935, Lieutenant-Colonel Saburo Aizawa – a dedicated Imperial Way officer – walked into Nagata’s office, drew his sword, and butchered him. So detached was Aizawa from reality, he was more concerned with retrieving his peaked cap and fully expected to depart Japan unscathed to his new assignment in Manchuria.
The movie dramatizes this unintentionally comedic and bizarre episode in under five minutes, but it is an effective scene. And in case anyone was wondering, no, I did not name Inspector Kenji Aizawa after this officer.
The Assassins of the 2-26 Incident
The so-called Aizawa Incident had a major impact on young Army officers in the Third Infantry Regiment. Inspired by his daring assassination, they plotted a coup de ’tat which erupted on February 26th 1936 – the infamous 2-26 Incident (Ni Ni Roku Jiken). The movies shows the coup attempt in a series of black and white scenes, Army officers scattering over a snow-blanketed Tokyo and gunning down prominent politicians, while a narrator provides exposition.
There have been many films dramatizing the 2-26 Incident, and the episode here is fairly brief compared to others. We see a montage of assassinations, then the demands of the Young Officers to the Army leadership, before finally their ultimate capitulation in the face of overwhelming might and the demands of the Emperor himself for them to surrender.
Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of this event knows that unlike the assassins of the Blood Brotherhood and 5-15 Incident, the ringleaders didn’t receive light sentences from sympathetic judges. Instead, they were court-martialed in secret, demoted, then executed by firing squad. Their last words are recorded in the film while bloody gore pours from their fatal wounds. While most scream some variation of “Tenno Heika Banzai,” one in particular from a civilian collaborator – Zensuke Shibukawa – is the most ominous.
“Listen Japanese citizens, don’t trust the military!”
The assassins of the 2-26 Incident are still controversial in Japan. Some consider them true reformers dedicated to stamping out poverty and corruption. Others view them as violent fascists and the start of when the military began to run amok. Historians talk about a “fascism from above” in Japan, meaning the government instituted a fascist state on its people. However, there is a case to be made that the 2-26 Incident was the last attempt for a “fascism from below” in the vein of a March on Rome or Beer Hall Putsch. In the end, the Young Officers failed and discredited the Imperial Way Faction, leading to the amorphous Control Clique to guide Japan’s foreign policy into the Second World War.
Memoirs of Japanese Assassins may not be for everyone, but everyone who is interested in modern Japanese history should see it.