Takashi Miike’s latest work is released today, with the hugely entertaining 13 Assassins being something of a return to form for the director. Here’s an extract from my Little White Lies round-up of the Bradford International Film Festival 2011, where I saw the film a few months ago. Below that review sits a few thoughts from our very own Nathanael Smith, who produces the weekly Hope Lies In Animation article.
In 13 Assassins, considered by many to be Takashi Miike’s most relevant work since 2001’s Ichi the Killer, the filmmaker tackles the samurai film, with a work as ridiculous and audacious as one might expect from the filmmaker.
A subversive take on Seven Samurai, Miike’s film is full to the brim with over the top action, and while there is some semblance of a story in there it does little more than over-complicate matters. At the heart of the film lies the menacing Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), brother of the Shogun, and effectively infallible from justice. Having raped and murdered his way across the dynasty a plan is hatched to take down the man, with the titular 13 placed in the unenviable position of doing so.
While reliant on some of the archetypes of traditional samurai fare, such as the typical character roles of the gambler, the rookie and the fool, 13 Assassins never feels banal or tired, and, while hardly groundbreaking, the film manages to entertain on a base level without outstaying its welcome. Miike also manages to fit in a contemporary critical discourse, with Naritsugu, a man obsessed with the Sengoku Period, and Japan’s Age of War, making for an interesting commentary on current affairs.
Here’s the complete piece at Little White Lies.
And here’s Nathanael Smith’s take on the film -
A group of Samurai working for honour not money use a small town to fight a group much larger than themselves, resulting in lots of death. They are joined by a madcap wild man who can fight well but isn’t a Samurai. There is a lot of mud and rain. Comparisons with Seven Samurai are inevitable when watching 13 Assassins, and it doesn’t really work favourably at all. Because as character after character pops their clogs and you realise you don’t care about any of them, you can see why Seven Samurai is so great. As each character died in Kurosawa’s masterpiece, you knew who it was that was dying, and you cared about it. Here the 13 are largely indistinguishable save a ‘badass ronin’ and the ‘wild man who isn’t a Samurai’. So as the death toll inevitably mounts, it gets a little tiring to see someone calling out their mate’s name as he is repeatedly stabbed/slashed. Because you just don’t care. The film doesn’t even have the visual flair of Kurosawa, which disappointed me greatly.
Yet even more problems abound in the first act. It largely consists of people sitting around talking for an hour and a half, and then going somewhere else to sit and talk. This is broken up by scenes of sadism that are unpleasant and apparently typical of the director. I’ve not seen any other Miike films but I can assure you I’m not in a rush to, as this appears to be his most restrained film. So after a dull first half of talking yet still somehow neglecting to develop the characters, and a suitably disgusting villain established, we reach the village in which the showdown will take place and the 13 get ready to fight. Then the fight goes on for a long time with stabbing and slashing and the aforementioned death of people you don’t care about in increasingly repetitive manner.
Yet if this wasn’t one of the most solidly entertaining battles I’ve ever seen I’ll commit Hara Kiri. Miike really knows how to stage a fight. Yes, you only care about approximately five of the 213 people fighting, but that doesn’t stop it being riotous, relentless entertainment. Miike keeps shifting the pace of the battle, mixing it up and changing the dynamics to keep it constantly fresh and watchable. So enjoyable is the second half that it almost entirely makes up for the turgid first half. The villain struts around enjoying the spectacle, as the 13 shoot arrows, jump from rooftops and send flaming cows down streets. There are explosions, fires, beheadings and one particularly awesome scene in which the badass ronin (the closest this film has to a Kyuzo) takes on loads of the enemy with several swords sticking out of the ground. This film’s Toshiro Mifune, whilst never matching up to the might of that performance, is very entertaining and elicited more than one very vocal reaction from the audience who laughed, gasped and cried as the film progressed. All in all, it became a really enjoyable cinema experience because of it. It’s not really a great film at all, and you are better off watching Seven Samurai, but the final hour is magnificent and well worth the ticket price.