Thursday, May 05, 2011

13 Assassins

Directed by: Takashi Miike
Produced by: Minami Ichikawa; Tôichirô Shiraishi; Michihiko Yanagisawa;
Written by: Daisuke Tengan; Kaneo Ikegami
Starring: Kôji Yakusho; Takayuki Yamada; Hiroki Matsukata; Kazuki Namioka
Music by: Kôji Endô
Cinematography: Nobuyasu Kita
Release date(s): September 9, 2010 (Venice Film Festival)
Running time: 141 minutes; 126 minutes (International version)
Country: Japan; United Kingdom
Language: Japanese

The UK newspaper The Guardian asks if 13 Assassins (2010) is Takashi Miike’s most violent film till date? This can lead to some violent arguments among his fans. There are several contenders — Audition (1998), and Ichi the Killer (2001) are just two examples. Yet, 13 Assassins is unlike anything Miike, a prolific director who has been making an average two movies a year since 1991, has done so far. Now, this is saying a lot, since Miike has done almost everything conceivable — for Yakuza to exploitation to western to extremes to, surprise, children’s film, and has a cult following across the world, especially since his blood-cuddling Audition.

Miike, besides being prolific, is an original filmmaker. Each of his films are unique, better than most films. Yet he hasn’t made a movie which you can call a masterpiece (How about Audition? or, Last Life in the Universe (2003)?). His latest, 13 Assassins, comes closer to being a masterpiece. It is more of a classic Samurai action drama, a tribute to Seven Samurai or its ilk than a typical Miike film (Then, what is a typical Miike film?). Yes, there are gory battle scenes, body horror, heads being chopped off, and so on, yet the pace of film is restrained and languid and it is told with a seriousness which you don’t often see in a Miike picture.

Like so many Samurai sagas, this one too is set in the fag end of feudal Japan under the rule of the Shogun, where peace prevails and the Samurai retainers have very little to do, except that Lord Naritsugu, the current Shagun’s half brother, is a sadistic and evil man, and the Shogun’s advisors, especially Sir Doi fears that if Naritsugu becomes the Shogun after his brother, the people will suffer. But he cannot openly voice his concerns. So, he hatches a plan. He asks Shinzaemon Shimada, a respected but laconic Samurai, to arrange an assassination squad and finish off Naritsugu. And, Shinzaemon and the team he assembles become the 13 assassins.

You know what happens in the end. Everyone dies of course, well almost. That’s not the point. The point is how the mission is accomplished. To achieve this, Miike takes a straightforward route. First he establishes the evilness of Naritsugu to warrant a mission, and evil he is. In one scene, he captures a family, ties them in the courtyard and kills them one by one while practising archery. His simple argument: since he is a master, it’s his duty to punish the subjects. In another act of cruelty, he chops off the limbs of a farmer’s daughter and uses her as a plaything (The film actually begins with a prolonged scene of a man committing hara-kiri). In these scenes, you sense the presence of the classical Miike of Ichi the Killer. Yet, Miike refuses to revel in these scenes, as he did in Ichi the Killer. The implications here are different.

Yet what stands out is how the film is shot and the period details it employs. The film begins languidly and what catches you unawares is the hyper-realism it manifests. The scenes look so real, it reminds you of anther Samurai film, The Twilight Samurai, and of course, you can almost spot the ghost of Saven Samurai. For example, the 13th assassin, a hunter who becomes the team’s guide, is clearly modelled on the Toshiro Mifune character from the earlier film.

Miike has always been associated with blood and gore, and extremes. Yet, he is a filmmaker with wonderful sense of visual, and a genius in setting up memorable scenes. Both these qualities are exploited to its full potential in 13 Assassins, and that’s one of the reasons that make the film one of the best Miike has ever made.

Miike has an enviable list of films in his oeuvre. It’s impossible even for a die-hard fan to seen all his films. I have seen quite a few of them, thanks to a friend of mine who is a self-confessed Takashi Miike fanatic. Among these, the film I liked best was Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), a yakuza film that also focuses on family, foreigner and native politics and homosexuality, among other things. Yet, it was a very dissatisfying viewing, as the film at the end failed to live up to its promises. What it lacked was polish. It looked as if the film was made in a hurry. This is actually true. That year Miike made four films. Imagine. What I wished if Miike could give some more time to Shinjuku Triad Society, and it could have been a masterpiece.

In that sense, Last Life in the Universe , story of a man who fails to commit suicide, is a better film, replete with black humour and assured narrative, while the entertaining Sukiyaki Western: Django is an Asian Western, whatever that means, a fantastic parody of the Western genre gorgeously shot, starring, among others, Quentine Tarantino. Imagine.

The plot-slot of 13 Assassins in Wikipedia.

The Salon review of 13 Assassins.

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