Monday, February 6, 2012

13 Assassins

I haven't watched all that many films featuring samurai in them, but most of them have been Akira Kurosawa movies (with the exception of the very cool Sword of Doom).  Obviously, that's not a bad thing by any means, but when Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins came to America last year, I was excited.  I've seen five of his films so far (for the record, the Dead or Alive trilogy, Audition, and Sukiyaki Western Django), and his talent for ridiculous violence and sheer "Did I miss something in translation" weirdness would seem to lend itself well to the violence of a samurai movie.  Imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch 13 Assassins and found it to have a comprehensible narrative, free of excessive gore.  I guess that makes this the acid test for Miike --- can he make an entertaining movie without being ridiculously extreme?
You don't count flaming, explosive bulls as extreme, right?

13 Assassins starts out with a scene of utter manliness.  A man sits down and commits seppuku (AKA harakiri) all by his lonesome.  That might not sound especially bad-ass, but the basic act has a samurai giving himself a mortal wound by slicing his belly open --- since this was an honorable death, an attendant would cut off the samurai's head before he could start screaming "Oww...!  What the hell was I thinking?!?" and thus maintain his dignity (NOTE: that may or may not be a highly inaccurate summary of seppuku).  So a dude killing himself without the benefit of a sympathetic beheading is pretty tough.  Why did this guy do such a thing?  Out of protest.  You see, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is the son of the last Shogun and the brother of the current one; nepotism being what it is, Naritsugu has a position of great power and is essentially untouchable.  He takes advantage of that freedom to rape, murder, and butcher people left and right, usually out of boredom.  Seppuku guy was protesting the imminent promotion of Naritsugu to the second-most powerful position in Japan.
The new position?  Douche Lord
Nobody wants to see this spawn of Satan in a higher seat of power, but the Shogun will not admit that his future heir lacks quality.  How can Naritsugu be handled in a way that doesn't throw off the delicate political balance of Japan?  If you answered "hire a guy to kill the jerk," you're way off.
The correct answer is "hire thirteen guys"
So, the fuse has been lit.  The leader of the assassin samurais, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), plans to attack Naritsugu and his entourage as the evil lord makes a long trip.  His plans are complicated by Naritsugu's head samurai figuring out that Shinzaemon plans to kill the lord; the target is now traveling with 200 samurai instead of 70, and they are all on guard.  Shinzaemon's response is to take over a town that Naritsugu needs to pass through and declaring "We will transform [this town] into a town of death!"  And then the last forty minutes is filled with samurai death and awesomeness.
Good guys wear black

I will be blunt.  13 Assassins surprised me.  I was expecting over-the-top violence, blood mist spraying in the air and a healthy dose of severed limbs.  That doesn't really happen.  Sure, there is some violence and a good amount of fake blood, but I was expecting to flinch occasionally or maybe rewind a particular scene to take in the ridiculousness one more time.  Instead, 13 Assassins tells a very macho tale of honor and doing the greater good, without exploiting the shocking gore that super-sharp swords can create.

That's not to say that 13 Assassins skimps on the action.  The sword fights are not amazing, but they are definitely plentiful.
Above: Shinzaemon vs. three extras, Part XVIII
What I liked most about this movie was not the quality of the violence or even the quantity.  I loved the attitude of it.  Honor and responsibility, and the personal interpretation of the two play large parts in this story.  In a lot of ways, this film clearly indebted to Seven Samurai, and yet it both acknowledges the futility of samurai life in the 19th century and also makes it seem like the manliest lifestyle imaginable; most films indebted to Kurosawa take the simplest message possible and run with it, so it was nice to see some complexity here.  Complex or not, this is definitely one of the best guy movies I have seen in a long time.  It's like somebody watched Conan the Barbarian and said "This would be good, if only someone would give Arnold some more testosterone."  Here are some examples of this movie's awesomely macho moments:
  • A master swordsman stands at the end of an alley with his apprentice behind him.  Thirty or forty bad guys enter the alley and the master asks his apprentice to "Kill the ones that get past me" with the nonchalance of someone carrying laundry asking you to pick up any socks that fall on the floor.
  • Dual wielding?  Skyrim is awesome!
  • After the assassins make their initial attack, Shinzaemon announces "Only 130 left!"
  • 'Nuff said

Director Takashi Miike took a premise that could have easily fitted his established talents of crafting crazy-violent, weird-ass movies and played it straight for a change.  The results are far more interesting than I would have imagined; he shot a beautiful movie with an engaging story that made sense.  Except for that dude from the woods, who I assume was supposed to be a Japanese godling or an elf or a fairy or something like that; he's not the important part of the movie, so having just one bit that crinkled my brow was a huge step up for Miike in the storytelling department.  Oh, and for the record, yes, I realize how odd it is to think of 13 Assassins as a relatively nonviolent film, considering that 200+ samurai characters die in the movie; the difference between this movie's violence and other Miike movies is similar to the difference between war movie violence and horror movie kills.

The acting was pretty good all around, but there are a lot of characters and very few have time to shine.  I thought Kôji Yakusho was pretty good as the leader of the assassins.  I liked the friendly and deadly rivalry between his character and Masachika Ichimura's role as lead protector of Lord Naritsugu.  Both actors internalized a lot of their emotions and gave some layered performances.
Samurai chess is serious
I also enjoyed Gorô Inagaki's turn as the emotionally numb Lord Naritsugu.  He was suitably evil for most of the film, but his reaction to seeing a large-scale slaughter first-hand was chilling.  And his last scene was extremely gratifying; it was exactly what I hoped it would be.

It's always nice to stumble across a movie that is willing to surprise you, and that is what I got from 13 Assassins.   I appreciated the fighting, enjoyed the story, and was pumped up by the unrelentingly bad-ass characters.  While I do enjoy foreign films, I have had difficulty making sense of foreign action films in the past, but this story was easily understood.  If Miike had indulged his graphic sensibilities a little more and shown some super-cool deaths, this would move up in my book from "good" to "awesome."  Still, if you're looking for a movie with brass balls and are tired of the homo-eroticism of 300, this is a nice pick.

1 comment:

  1. I think your rating it just about on par with my own (I would have probably bumped it to an 8). While more unique Miike-brand graphic violence would have been nice, my flaws are: 1. Making the characters more distinct. It was difficult to tell the difference between a bunch of dudes dressed alike with similar haircuts before the action began. When the battle started, it was often impossible. 2. A little less "good guy fights a set of black ninjas." During most of the battle, an ample amount of bad guys could have killed the 13 while their back was turned. 3. A bit too much about honor, loyalty, and judgement talk in the end for my liking. We get it.

    Otherwise, I think Miike did a fantastic job doing a traditional samurai flick. (The evil dude was awesome in the final act!) But I expect nothing less from the legend. If you are ever ready for some Miike-Lynch-Judas type of pain, check out one of my faves from Takashi, Gozu. Total massacre.