Monday, April 11, 2011
Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins Review
I've mentioned my anticipation of this movie a few times, now I've finally seen it and it doesn't disappoint. Miike's movie is a remake of the 1963 movie of the same name and pays tribute to the greatest of all samurai movies at least for me anyway, Seven samurai.
Opening in 1844 towards the end of Shogun era Japan, Lord Naritsugu of the Akashi clan is a powerful and sadistic psychopath who is to receive even more power due to his lineage. He kills and maims at will for something to do and shows no mercy to man, woman or even child. Sir Doi, advisor to the shogun decides this reign of terror cannot carry on and plots to kill Naritsugu as political avenues could damage the peace Japan has been enjoying. Sir Doi summons Shinzaemon, a samurai to formulate a plan to save Japan from the potential tyranny of the evil lord. Shinzaemon is outraged by the deeds Naritsugu is responsible for and vows to kill him.
The beginning of 13 Assassins is the most Takashi Miike like part of the movie. The scenes that set up the Lord Naritsugu character are typical of Miike, as we see him casually murder an entire family, firing arrows at the tied up parents, while their small child looks on, before turning the bow to the child himself. The slow reveal to Shinzaemon of a woman Naritsugu has butchered is a powerful scene and another grotesque Miike moment for his collection. After this the film feels more traditional, and settles into a "men on a mission" genre piece. Shinzaemon gathers together his team of samurai, who are willing to take part in what is basically a suicide mission, for a multitude of different reasons the main one seemingly is the desire to use their deadly skills, dormant for what feels like an age for something worthwhile.
The film has some great dialogue, especially from Shinzaemon who, once the team is assembled, rouses them by saying "He who values his life dies a dogs death" and "You've entrusted me with your lives, I'll spend them at my disposal."
Lord Naritsugu has his own team of course, and his team is lead by Hanbei, a samurai very much like Shinzaemon, in fact they were sparring partners in the same school while learning their skills and both men are equally wary of each others abilities. Again the dialogue between them is excellent adding welcome depth to the characters. Hanbei is a true samurai, his only thoughts are to obey and protect his master no matter what. The tactical battle between the two samurai is riveting as they try to outmanoeuvre each other and gain the upper hand, with Shinzaemon using guile to force Hanbei into a small town his men have fortified for the all out warfare inevitable from the start.
When the finale arrives, its a truly memorable sequence that lasts for an amazing forty minutes and features some of the best swordplay I've ever seen. The wholesale slaughter is incredibly intense, dirty, exciting and brutal. Just because its Miike though don't expect Lone Wolf and cub style arterial spraying, its bloody but its not that kind of gory. Interestingly the violence seems to be welcomed by all of the characters involved, with Naritsugu revelling in the carnage of his own men as well as his enemies. Even Shinzaemon seems to welcome the return to bloodshed after years of peace.
All the actors do a really good job, with Koji Yakusho being excellent as Shinzaemon, bringing a real sense of integrity to his character and reminding me of the great Takashi Shimura who plays the similar role in Seven samurai, high praise indeed! As Hanbei Masachika Ichimura also shines, following his Lord's orders and accepting his insults with honour and dignity, even though he knows he shouldn't but his samurai code is all he has to hold on to. The rest of the team are all solid, although inevitably with 13 assassins to fit in, not all of them have enough screen time to really stand out, but Yusuke Iseya in the Toshiro Mifune role from Seven samurai is great fun as the 13th member of the team.
The international version seen here is edited down to 126 minutes from the original 141 minutes, apparently a sequence set in a brothel with the samurai just before the end battle is the major casualty of the missing fifteen minutes, its a shame as anymore character development would have been nice to see. The only flaws are a few instances of poor CGI, although this is forgivable as its use is so cool, and the previously mentioned lack of character development for some of the assassin team, but to be fair Kurosawa had 207 minutes to flesh out his seven member team, and the screenplay does pretty well considering. After finishing 13 Assassins, I'd enjoyed it so much I viewed the (awesome) Criterion blu ray of Seven samurai and although Miike's film is not as good (How many films are?) they prove the "men on a mission" genre even after fifty plus years, still has plenty of life left in it.
Not only is 13 Assassins a terrifically engaging movie, it looks and sounds great too, with wonderful photography and some striking imagery. The sombre score adds to the feel generated by the excellent visuals and really suits the films mood. The result is a real achievement for Takashi Miike, its his most accessible and accomplished film to date and while his more rabid fans may accuse him of selling out, I disagree, he's proving to be a very versatile filmmaker.