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March 22, 2011

13 Assassins


Jusan-nin no shikaku
Takashi Miike - 2010
Magnet Releasing 35mm Film

The first day of spring, when thoughts turn to chanbara. Maybe not. But for myself, it was the opportunity to see Takashi Miike's newest film a couple months before its stateside theatrical release, and contribute money to Global Giving on behalf the relief efforts for Japan.

13 Assassins is more autumnal, about the waning days of the samurai era, with a decidedly older group of swordsmen. Stately is not a word one might typically use to describe a Miike film, but one could almost say that the film plays like a melding of Yoji Yamada in the first two thirds followed by an extended battle scene that resembles something done by a hyperkinetic Akira Kurosawa. Titles explain that the film takes place in 1844, just twenty-four years before the Meiji Era, when Japan began modernization. The quietness of much of the first scenes made me think of Yamada's recent series of films about the end of the samurai era. Comparisons to Kurosaws's Seven Samurai are not inappropriate as Miike could be said to capture some of Kurosawa's style with the traveling shots of the band drenched in rain, mud splattered, or lost within a mountain forest. Almost is the operative word here as there are elements informing us of the arrogance and evil of the villain, Lord Naritsugu, that will remind veteran Miike watchers of Audition and Ichi the Killer.

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I don't think it's giving too much away to say that the film is about twelve samurai, plus a rescued hunter who joins out of curiosity, who plot to kill a decadent lord. In this case, it's not just a ranking member of the Shogunate, but the Shogun's brother. Naritsugu rapes, amputates and murders people for sport and because he believes his position obligates himself to treat others with impunity, no matter how extreme his actions. The plot against Naritsugu is not only to stop is actions, but also to prevent his further rise in the ranks of government, potentially undoing a reign of peace within Japan.

Several of the usual Miike collaborators are here, star Koji Yakusho as Shinzae, the group leader, screenwriter Daisuke Tengan, and composer Koji Endo. Maybe if I pulled out a bunch of my CDs, I could identify the musical influences on Endo's score, but the shorthand description might be to say that it sounds like something by a contemporary classical composer, maybe something associated with the Kronos Quartet, elegiac, moody and dissonant. The colors in the film are muted and dark, save for the white kimono worn by Naritsugu, and the red splashes of blood.

Given the opportunity, I would love to see the original 1963 version directed by Eiichi Kudo. Not only is their the obvious interest in comparing films, but also to see two of my favorite actors, Junko Fuji and Tetsuro Tanba. Coincidentally, several of Tanba's last roles were in films by Miike. Even without seeing the earlier film, this version of 13 Assassins can be thought of as a personal film, perhaps more than some of Miike's other work. Miike has always chronicled extreme behavior, both benign and brutal. There is the sense, at least for me, that as he gets older, Miike is reexamining himself, or at least some of his work, which arguably used shock for its own sake. While there is much violence, much more of it is suggested than might be expected.

The final battle is thrilling, with arrows, swords, a town turned into a maze of traps and dead ends, and flaming boars running through the streets. In keeping with classic period samurai films, the odds are ten to one, with a final duel to the death, down to the last man hobbling. I would hope that in its eventual DVD release, Magnet will see fit to release the complete version as seen in Japan. There are fifteen minutes cut for the "international version" that will be seen stateside, mostly described as a scene taking place in a bordello. Not that it is obvious that there is anything missing, and the film works well as it stands, but still there is the desire to see the film in its most complete version.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 22, 2011 08:14 AM