The inspiration behind Sure Death (aka: Hissatsu!, 1984) was a popular 1970s' Japanese television show 'Hissatsu Shikake-Ni'. TV spin-offs characteristically carry over a good deal of baggage when they hit cinemas. Viewers come to them with expectations already firmly in place, while over-familiarity with the main characters mean that any drastic changes to the format involved are viewed with suspicion. There's also associated problems of opening up any small screen drama satisfactorily onto a larger canvas. Without access to the original shows, it is hard to tell exactly how Sadanaga's film compares to the original, although its weaknesses suggest that it indulged the home audience's familiar expectations at some expense of dramatic tension and logic.
The two-hour film concerns a group who are ostensibly respectable members of 19th century Japanese society, but who moonlight as assassins-for-hire, working to avenge injustice on the side. Threatening their pre-eminence now is the elusive mastermind 'Copper Coin' (so named after his habit of leaving these items in his victim's mouths) who, presumably, wants to secure a monopoly of Edo murder. The bulk of the film concerns the attempt of the good team to fight off the predations of the bad - either by recruiting new members or, as it turns out, relying upon their own special skills and courage to face up to the menace in an extended finale. A lot of this intrigue is spun out at rather a leisurely pace, with some digressions - notably the early, pathetic attempts by a young whore to find an avenger for her cat's death. Western viewers unfamiliar with the original will take a while to place the multiple characters in context, as they are introduced seemingly quite casually. This meandering exposition, the amount of padding, and lack of a true dramatic structure are the film's biggest problems.
Fortunately it is all helped by some very flattering cinematography and includes set ups a mile away from the modest, low budget origins of the piece. Sadanaga and his cinematographer have a good eye for composition and colour often, if not always, distracting the viewer from longueurs elsewhere. Some scenes, like the beheading viewed from overhead, exteriors, the odd crane shot amongst cluttered roofs, or the confusion and noise of the fatal festival are particularly effective, and show the necessary step up from TV horizons has been achieved. In particular there's a fondness for the colour red, displayed to good advantage in the film. Copper Coin's coquettish female accomplice has a trademark of a twirling red umbrella, and the director often excels in using this as a visual 'hook' in a scene, whether prominent in a busy market or picked out through the vibrant greens of surrounding foliage.
Although this is a *chambara* (swordplay) movie, mounted in fairly traditional fashion, Sure Death is less concerned with a straight treatment of the genre than with knowing infusions of satire and pastiche. Confirmation of this is to be heard in the choice of music: the use of mock spaghetti western and 1970s' funk give an ironic edge to proceedings which, 20 years on, give it a modern, knowing, flavour. Understandably, a lot of the film's in-jokes and subtle mockeries would be lost to western audiences, then and now. What remains, such as the 'play' on the killing skills, unique to each of the assassin squad's regular daytime profession, is enjoyably imaginative. A roof-tiler kills by throwing sharpened tiles for instance, while a Shamisen maker kills with the instrument's strings; another fighter (an acupuncturist?) pushes steel needles into the ear drum to kill, while still another, nicknamed the 'Stone Turtle', burrows at high speed beneath his opponent's feet to attack and so on. By both exploiting and exaggerating superhero action stereotypes, a trick familiar of late from such films as Hollywood's uneven Mystery Men (1999), the present film creates some comically surreal effects while at the same time commenting on audience genre expectations. It succeeds best in the martial sequences, which are well paced and staged, while dialogue scenes can weigh more heavily. As an action film Sure Death passes the time, but its lack of urgency finally tells against it and it emerges as a minor piece of work.
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