Sure Death I & II
Hissatsu!:  Sure Death
Year:  1984

Director: Sadanaga Masahisa

You need a fair amount of acumen and a great facial recognition ability to have a clue as to what is going on in this film for a while. Clearly, I have neither. It was about halfway through (in a 2 hour film) before I started knowing who was who and what their role in the film was. Characters come at you like cars whizzing by on a freeway. Eventually though you are like ah - he is the assassin who kills with wire, he is the assassin who kills with a fan, she is the assassin who kills with whatever one uses to play a shamisen and so on. There are a few female assassins and they all powder their face white which did not help. I also was not familiar with any of the actors. So it was basically total confusion for a long ways. I found out later why this might be - the film series (five I think) is based on a popular TV show, Hissatsu that ran from 1972 to 1991, so I would guess Japanese audiences knew the basic background and characters. It sounds like an unusual TV show - hard to imagine it playing in America back in the 70's - about a group of assassins . . .  who are the good guys. Meting out justice.

Edo in the 1860's seems to be filled mainly with Geisha girls and assassins. Hard to imagine there is enough work for all the assassins and in fact a hostile takeover is happening. Assassins are turning up dead with broken bodies and a 6-mon coin in their mouths to allow them to cross the River Sanzu. Our heroes are a small group of assassins who are practically unionized or a guild. They consist of a mother and son, a happily married couple, a woman who teaches the shamisen, a lawman and a few others. Tradesmen by day, assassins at night. The lawman is Nakamura Mondo (Fujita Makoto) and is the unofficial leader and was in the TV show and the later films.  A puppeteer is a free agent assassin and perhaps the best of them all. They all have their specialties. In work and in murder.

These assassins are the good guys because they only kill those that they determine are worthy of death after a client comes to them with their tale of injustice. If they don't think so, the money is returned. They are concerned about these killings and worry that they are next so they begin to snoop around and the mother figures out who is behind the killings. Time to band together. Considering that the film is full of assassins there is actually very little action in the film. It is primarily a drama with moments of comedy thrown in - Nakamura is henpecked by his mother-in-law or in their search for assassin help they come across a master poisoner - what did you think says one - that he is going to go up to the man killing us and ask him to take poison?

But the finale is one very lovely action set piece in which they all work together against the Assassin and his many killers. This may need another look at some point - it will make much more sense the second time through and it was good enough to watch the second in the series and wish I had all five of them. It certainly has a TV tinge to it but that is fine with me. It has a great twangy-trumpet Spaghetti Western with touches of Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain soundtrack that may perhaps be borrowed but is terrific. And every time this mysterious woman shows up with her red umbrella the music shifts to a Lady Snowblood sounding motif.

Hissatsu: Sure Death! Brown You Bounder (1985) - 5.0
Director: Joe Hirose

As soon as the music begins to play in this film, you know it is going in a different direction than the first in the Hissatsu series of films. In the first film there was a Morricone like soundtrack that foretold a serious film - but this one begins with a light jaunty jazz sound and you know goofiness is ahead. And it was. Lots of it. If I thought the first film was confusing at times, it is simple math compared to this one. Just as I had finally gotten to know the players in that film, they switch most of them on me and come up with a new group of characters with a few exceptions who return. But most of the assassins are elsewhere. But Nakamura (Fujita Makoto), the lawman, is back and it is in his job as a lawman that gets this one going.

The Shogunate orders him to go to this ancient mansion and retrieve some stolen documents and protect a secret device of war hidden there from the era of the very first Shogun, a few hundred years before. He hooks up with one of his assassin friends (Ayukawa Izumi) and inside the mansion they find themselves in a maze of corridors and doors - think they have discovered the Shogun's gold only for it to turn into gold insects - and come upon a cartoony group of protectors of the device selling things who with their ancestors have been safeguarding the device for 300 years. They are nutty and silly and whatever chance the film had of being serious goes down the drain.

It turns out a lot of people are interested in this secret device - the Shogun, his secret police, a couple not very good Jr. ninjas, the Kyoto Yakuza, Nakamura, the protectors and then to top it off some dastardly Westerners who have enough firepower with guns to tip the scales. All fairly bad so far. Then at the 90 minute mark, Morricone comes back on the soundtrack and it is time for the big action set piece finale. Which was ok at best. This film has its TV roots on full display - deeply embedded and it was kind of dull. Too bad. I was hoping it would build on the first film with the same characters.