It’s now or never for meek university professor Shinji Kikyo. He is the target of the Japanese Population Control Council’s collection of quirky assassins and his athlete’s foot is acting up worse than ever. If he’s to survive the nefarious plans of the Council’s sinister leader, an insane asylum director obsessed with war and murder, he’ll need the help of his friends, a spunky female reporter and a loyal car thief. Charismatic leading man Tatsuya Nakadai stars as the milquetoast scholar who is more than he seems, facing down deadly eye-patches, killer crutches, evil hypnotists, heavy artillery, and a bevy of swimsuit clad beauties. Age of Assassins is Dr. Strangelove meets The Pink Panther, a spy-spoof spectacular bearing the hallmarks of the “Kihachi Touch”.
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Age of Assassins intriguingly shares its Japanese title with Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947). It’s an unusual convergence, but the films do share a lighthearted treatment of some darker corners of human nature. Okamoto’s film is a giddy milkshake of a movie, blending super-spy thrills, political farce, and Tatiesque gags. The plot of Age of Assassins, designed like a Rube Goldberg mousetrap, commences with Nazi agent Bruckmayer demanding that Shogo Mizorogi, a lunatic asylum operator and head of the Japanese Population Control Agency, demonstrate the capabilities of his patients-turned-assassins. Three victims are randomly selected from the phone book. The first 2 murders go off without a hitch, but the last, of nerdy professor and mama’s boy Shinji Kikyo, fails. A cat and mouse game of pursuit between Shinji and Mizorogi’s organization follows, with Shinji relying on the help of a dutiful car thief, Otomo Bill, and cunning female reporter, Keiko. This is another Okamoto film where the less said is probably better, but Shinji gradually reveals himself to be more astute and more capable than should be expected, prevailing over increasingly insurmountable odds and evermore elaborate machinations against him and his friends.
This is Okamoto at his wildest and most garish. His frequent use of low angles, deep focus, and extreme contrasts between close-up and distant planes in the same shot, techniques frequently employed in Oh, My Bomb!, appear with even greater severity in Age of Assassins. It represents the pinnacle of Okamoto’s talent for composition; a film that consistently demands attention and bulges beyond its frame. The movie is anarchic in its pace and style; its characters occasionally placed in the position of direct address to incidentally break the fourth wall. It boasts affectionately cheap-looking sets reminiscent of Seijun Suzuki’s contemporaneous gangster films, including an all-white, art-nouveau mental institution and a mod, pop art-styled night club. Yet the visual appeal and action film pace of Age of Assassins should not obscure its sociopolitical content. Okamoto’s theme of wartime guilt lying beneath the veneer of capitalist prosperity is as relevant to this spy comedy as it is to The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman. Age of Assassins is an enthusiastically and enjoyably infectious film that is as charming as its leading man and as unconventional as its maker.