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Sometime in the first twenty minutes of director Takashi Miike’s latest film, 13 Assassins, viewers might wonder if he means to play it straight.  Miike, with more than seventy film, stage and television titles to his credit, is known and beloved for his avant-garde, often way, way, way out-of-the-box filmmaking.  Could this be his attempt at classicism? All the signs are there; 13 Assassins is based on a true story and also a remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, giving the piece a certain framework not usually seen in Miike’s projects.  Is 13 Assassins a sign that Miike, the wild man of Japanese cinema, is finally settling down?  Happily, from the first time we meet an eerily realistic limbless rape victim to the unforgettable battle scene featuring a stampede of flaming cattle, one is reassured that steadily told though this film may be, it’s very much within the director’s uncompromisingly stylish and singular vision.

Near the end of the Feudal Era, the code of the samurai is fading as noble houses decommission their retainers.  The Shogunate; the elite governing class, is still in place though not quite the unquestioned authority as has been for centuries.  A relative of the reigning Shogun, Lord Naritsugu, reveals himself to be a complete psychopath; a total degenerate who rapes, maims and kills without a second thought.  This winner is next in line to the second most powerful seat in the country behind the Emperor.  The sure disaster that will befall the country if this nutjob becomes Shogun is debated in secret by nervous government officials who defy the law to plan the elimination of this threat.  When we first meet Shinzaemon, he’s peacefully fishing as would any good retired samurai master.  Content but bored with his life of leisure, he’s more than interested in taking up this dangerous mission.  The risks practically make him giddy, but being one of the most respected warriors in Japan, Shinzaemon realises it’s going to take as many able men as he can find to complete the job, which is now made more difficult by a clever old rival’s conviction to protect his master, no matter what.  Shinzaemon’s plan is to attack Naritsugu as he makes his way toward Edo.  The problem for Shinzaemon is given the secrecy and speed with which he must enact the mission; he’s only able to recruit a grand total of thirteen to his army, versus the huge garrison that accompanies Lord Naritsugu.  Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide the enemy force down along their route until he can trap the greatly reduced guard in a small town fortified for the war Shinzaemon and his band have declared on the evil tyrant.

Breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking.  As a long time fan of Jidaigeki {Edo period} samurai lore from Kurosawa {Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Ran (1985)}, to Okamoto {Sword of Doom (1966), Kiru! (1968)}, and Misumi and Kitano’s tales of the blind masseur with samurai honour {The Tale of Zatoichi/Zatoichi (1962/2003)}, I was excited to see Miike try his hand at a serious samurai film.  As I mentioned, Miike is known for his creativity, but here he plays it fairly straight and his discipline is astounding.  This is action filmmaking 101.  Besides everything else that is so right with 13 Assassins, Miike gives moviegoers exactly what they want with nearly an hour’s worth of pure, hard-driving samurai sword battle.  Though it seems no cows were harmed (I hope), the battle is brutal and ugly.  In this tiny town, against impossible odds, these thirteen courageous men who’ve each joined Shinzaemon for their own reasons will show us that war is indeed hell.  While the stuntwork is stunning, no one should expect any wire-fu or gimmicks; this is simple and dirty ground battle.  Swords are flying, blades are bloodied and ingenious traps are set for the enemy troops, and sometimes those traps don’t work, and sometimes your good guy loses – badly.  The wonder of it is that we do have thirteen guys to keep track of through this war zone and you care for every one.  Not only is that due to 13 Assassins’ intelligent script, but also through each actor breathing life into these diverse characters.  There’s only one bad guy and even he is so clearly in need of a Feudal Era Bellevue that one must wonder why no one dealt with his obvious metal illness before it threatened the country.

Standouts in the cast must begin with Koji Yakusho as Shinzaemon, an old war horse not ready to be put in the stable just yet and champing at the bit for one last gallop into the breach.  Yakusho, one of my favourite actors, captures humour and a little eccentricity in Shinzaemon that feels right not only for a Miike film, but lightens the heavy premise.  Tsuyoshi Ihara as Shinzaemon’s apprentice is the big action man of the show, and I predict enrollment at Kendo schools will go through the roof after watching his amazing sword work and heroics.  Yusuke Iseya previously worked with Miike on 2007’s bizarre Sukiyaki Western Django; here he plays it off beat as a fighter who drops out of the trees to become Shinzaemon’s thirteenth assassin.  This performance as well the initial premise of gathering a rag tag group of samurai to ward off an evildoer will remind many of Kurosawa’s magnum opus, The Seven Samurai {1954} with Iseya’s wackiness and bluster a far tamer recall of Toshiro Mifune’s samurai wannabe wild man.  The story of the 13 Assassins is apparently based on a true event, so the similarity is forgivable -- also there are five more guys.  Special praise must also be given to Goro Inagaki as the twisted Lord Naritsugu:  Inagaki plays this psychopath as a prince to the manor born who simply doesn’t understand why he can’t do exactly what he wants when all his life he’s been spoiled and untouchable (- unless he has to urinate and even then he has someone to help him out).  Inagaki’s Naritsugu is the kind of creepy that gets under your skin immediately and no amount of scrubbing can rid you of the snakes in your veins.

Excellent performances, excellent film.  This is what an action film should be; gigantic, amazingly staged, thrilling and filled with excellent characters from a great script.  I’m calling it right now for Oscar consideration.  I just hope Academy voters have long memories.

Takashi Miike has single-handedly revitalised that cornerstone of Asian cinema, the samurai film, and taken it to new heights with incomparable style and excitement.  Make all possible haste to see this movie on the biggest screen you can find and enjoy it for the grand-scale epic that it is.

Run as if flaming cattle were chasing you!
 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 8th, 2011

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Magnolia Pictures)

 

 

 

 

 

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