Finally got around to seeing 13 Assassins—couldn’t face any of the new film releases this week—and I can’t tell you how soothing it is. It’s a reverent throwback to the great 1950s-’60s Japanese samurai films, and it’s done in neutral shades of gray and white and tan and black. Other than the copious blood spray, of course, which stands out beautifully red against the muted palette. Oh, it’s lovely, lovely!
And Takeshi Miike, that guy can direct. Nothing so relaxing as going to a movie and seeing in the first couple of shots that you’re in good hands, no need to keep tensing up over the fumbling and foozling of some unskilled bastard with the cinematic sensibility of a stoat. No, you can just sit back and let it roll through you like a pleasant dream.
This is not to say that the movie’s as good as the great 1950s-’60s Japanese samurai films. It couldn’t be; pretty much nothing is. But it’s remarkably good considering it’s a contemporary film made by contemporary people, and as everyone knows, we’re horrible. We don’t do quiet seriousness well, and that’s the key to the proper Japanese samurai film. The divinest moment of any such classic film is two samurai masters facing each other, standing stock-still, swords raised, for what seems like a solid minute, waiting to strike the lethal blow. Generally just one blow, then one samurai master drops, and the fight’s over.
(Our classic Westerns used to have a lot of such moments. Gunfights, the high-noon confrontations between hero and villain, were largely devoted to admiring the cool stances of the gunfighters as they stood waiting to draw. It’s tough slogging showing old Westerns to young audiences these days—they are generally bored stiff by them.)
Critics are marveling that Takeshi Miike has segued into staid classicism with 13 Assassins, as well as the upcoming remake of Hara-Kiri, a must-see in 3-D, and highly-creative use of 3-D it is, so they say. Miike is famous for his shock effects, as you know if you’ve seen Audition, which is his biggest hit in the Western world. (You know the one where the demure young lady tortures the middle-aged male suitor in creative ways involving piano wire. But the build-up to that famously grisly sequence is very long, quiet, and somber.) Miike’s done lots of different kinds of genre films, apparently—he works like a mule cranking out films, a real old school studio system director—but “extreme cinema,” as they call it, has put him on the map.
Personally, I’ve never been into “extreme cinema” as a category. As soon as the label gets slapped on and filmmakers start trying to live up to it, the films tends to lose their impact and get stupid fast. But in the right context, when a shock effect can really shock, then it can be commendable. Miike gives us a severe jolt in 13 Assassins when, at the climax of a scene that has proceeded in a stately, reserved manner, a girl who’s been raped, tortured, and mutilated is suddenly displayed. It’s not often anymore that a jaded filmgoer is tempted to yell “YAH!” in horror, but when the girl is revealed, writhing slightly to keep her balance because her arms and legs have been chopped off, well…YAH!
13 Assassins is a remake of an old 1963 film, and concerns a last hurrah of the samurai in the mid-19th century toward the end of the Edo era. The corrupt shogunate is allowing the shogun’s half-brother, Lord Naritsugu (played by pop singer Goro Inagaki as a baby-faced Caligula) to pursue a personal reign of terror, raping and killing so indiscriminately he inspires an act of hara-kiri in protest, by a member of the ruling class. The seppuku is the film’s opening scene, lovingly shot.
A secret assassination of Lord Naritsugu is commissioned, and the job falls to Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), an aging samurai warrior who’s literally gone fishing, sitting out what has been, up to that point, a disastrously peaceful era for samurai. He laughs in grateful relief when he hears his commission:
“How fate smiles on me, a samurai in time of peace hoping for a noble death.”
So that’s Act I.
Act II is when Shinzaemon assembles those few worthy samurai he can dredge up, in a sequence that’s a swifter version of the one in Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai, sketching in the various characters of the twelve other assassins, illustrating the effect of the long fallow period on samurai in a world that no longer values them. They plan to intercept Lord Naritsugu and his 70 guards in a rural village that they buy out and rig up as a death trap. However, Shinzaemon’s true opponent is the head of Lord Naritsugu’s retinue, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Shinzaemon’s former rival in the old samurai training days, who represents the ancient fealty of the samurai in his unquestioning devotion to his master, no matter how despicable his master might be. Hanbei anticipates Shinzaemon’s attack and fortifies his lord with 200 guards.
Act III is the battle scene, approximately 45-minutes long, involving attacks of arrows, spears, rocks, explosives as well as swords. It has some excellent interludes, but I confess I was a little disappointed in it overall. Miike keeps inviting comparisons to Seven Samurai, so no matter how you try to resist, you can’t help thinking how perfectly Kurosawa brought off his epic final battle scene, how clearly drawn each of the samurai characters were, how wrenching each of their deaths, how distinct and precise each phase of the battle was even in the confusion of lashing rainstorm, rushing movement, plunging horses.
Miike’s battle looks like a mess, though of course, that’s how he wants it to look. He’s headed into the weighty territory required of ’50s-’60s samurai films, that of questioning the worth and significance of the mission, of warfare, of the samurai code, of samurai themselves. I always have a hard time with this part, though I realize it’s necessary to the form. Samurai culture is critiqued, in Miike’s film, through a feral young mountain man Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) who becomes the unlikely thirteenth assassin and carelessly declares, “Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!” (He’s the obvious counterpart to the Toshiro Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai.)
Koyata fights with an uncannily accurate slingshot, plus tree branches or anything else lying around. But because he’s so effective a fighter, he begins to lose respect for the samurai, declaring them useless. He advocates a goofy, earthy, life-loving, duty-free philosophy that clearly represents the attitudes of the encroaching modern era, which gains credence as he is one of only two assassins to survive the battle. If he fights just as well with rocks and branches as samurai fight with swords, and has a much jollier outlook, who’d want to be a samurai?
Then, on top of that, the vile Lord Naritsugu becomes the advocate for samurai warfare. After witnessing most of the battle while being protected by his men, so that he doesn’t even have a spot on his satiny white robe, he is so impressed he intends to use his power to re-establish “an age of warfare.” The surviving samurai, covered in blood and mire, are appalled by his approval.
This is supposed to grind you right where it hurts. Like Lord Naritsugu, you too are just looking on unspotted and admiring, and it seems like this film is trying to teach you a lesson about how war is hell, and nothing but hell, and hell is to be avoided at all costs. And samurai films don’t generally drop into oversimplifications like that.
So I was getting pretty nervous about the ending of 13 Assassins. (Belated spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know how it ends, good-bye for now.) In the last scene, after the battle is won, one of the two surviving assassins, now a trudging mass of dirt and sweat and dried blood, is so devastated by the carnage, he’s about to throw away his sword. The movie seems to be steaming dangerously toward an outright rejection of all things samurai, a sort of equivalent to High Noon, featuring Western hero Gary Cooper dropping his sheriff’s badge contemptuously in the dirt at the end.
And I thought, if that’s really the end, if he drops that sword, if that sword hits the ground, I will do damage…! But then, though he swings his arm to fling it away, the sword stays in his hand, as if it were glued there. He trudges on, sword-wielding and conflicted, as is proper.
Nice save, Takeshi Miike!
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