Wednesday, August 10, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: 13 ASSASSINS
Directed by Takashi Miike
Starring Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Takayuki Yamada
I realize that "damn near perfect" is in no way an acceptable, scholarly assessment when it comes to film criticism, but it's hard to think of any other way to describe Takashi Miike's samurai epic 13 Assassins. Some films just hit every note they strive to hit impeccably, and while there may be the occasional out-of-tune instrument or an odd tempo, the movement as a whole is a strong, splendid, and arresting piece of work that doesn't appear to have any flaws. The notes hold the hole thing together.
13 Assassins begins as the age of the samurai is ending, in late 19th century Japan. It contains a simple story, and one with no murky moral area. The villainous Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) rules over his land with clearly defined craziness. He rapes the women at will, kills whole families indiscriminately, and, in the film's most disturbing scene, has cut all of the limbs off of a peasant woman and kept her as his slave, only to toss her out on the road when he finished with her. As the half-brother of a local Shogun, Naritsugu treats his servants and people sadistically, like a spoiled child of Hades. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), a low-ranking local official, recognizes the evil inherent in Lord Naritsugu, and plots the insane man's death so that it may be at the hands of one of twelve chosen samurai. The film chronicles the recruitment of these samurai during its hour or so, and then spends the rest of the film displaying one of the longest, bloodiest, best-choreographed action sequences you're ever going to see.
More on that action sequence later. First, most of the samurai chosen to complete this quest are glossed over by the screenwriters and Miike, and are characterized either by a specific talent they're asked to use during the battle with Naritsugu's army (one is an expert swordsman, two are explosives experts) or a personality trait they exhibit (one samurai joins the group in order to seek redemption for a life of gambling and womanizing). The last assassin to join the group, Kiga Koyota, is a hunter caught up in a woodland trap. While unconnected to the events, Koyota agrees to follow the men into battle. The fact that most of these characters aren't well defined isn't necessarily a criticism of the film, just an observation. The screenplay makes sure they're more than just interchangeable faces, but doesn't spend time making sure we feel as deeply for each one of them.
The one we feel the deepest for is their leader, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), who gets the most screentime. As a samurai past his prime, it is understood that this will most likely be his last quest, and while Naritsugu is his primary target, Shinzaemon has an opposite number in the form of his former friend, and current right hand of Lord Naritsugu, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). While Shinzaemon fights for the good of the people Naritsugu oppresses, Hanbei is loyal only to the Shogun, and vows to protect his master until the very end.
It is this theme of fighting for what one believes in that is explored in a myriad of ways throughout 13 Assassins. It's a theme as old as storytelling itself, but the film never feels like it's treading over well worn ground. The movie is old fashioned in that it delineates clearly between good and evil, and good guys have only one goal: to take down the bad guy. The heroes are righteous, the villains odious. Miike aims to distinctly portray Naritsugu as an abomination, so that the plight of the men hired to assassinate him becomes purely virtuous. It is this simple representation of right versus wrong, good versus evil, honor versus loyalty that makes 13 Assassinsa a breeze to follow, allowing Miike to impress with a brisk pace, gorgeous cinematography, and well-choreographed fight scenes, and lets the cast have fun acting acting out the two sides. Goro Inagaki is the biggest pleasure in the film, performance wise. Naritsugu is a villain for the ages, and Inagaki inspires hatred in not only the characters, but also the audience. The movie is spent wanting to see this monster dispatched, but enjoying every menacing moment he's on screen.
Takashi Miike is known for a few things, the least of which is his prolific body of work. His filmography runs the gamut - everything from Westers (Sukiyaki Western Django) to teen horror movies (One Missed Call) to surrealist domestic comedy (Visitor Q) to a horror musical (Happiness of the Katakuris). With each genre, Miike has displayed a penchant for the bizarre, and a compulsion to portray the odd and grotesque in boundary pushing ways (see his 1999 horror film Audition). With 13 Assassins, however, Miike is more restrained, and the movie is all the better for it. While the director doesn't completely eschew everything odd from the film (Koyota may or may not be an immortal demon; the limbless girl is shot in agonizing detail), 13 Assassins is by far his most accessible and entertaining film.
Most of that entertainment comes from the last forty or so minutes of the movie. I promised myself I wouldn't just fill this paragraph with hyperbole, but I'll be darned if 13 Assassins doesn't have one of the best extended action climaxes I've ever seen in a film. When Lord Naritsugu arrives in a town renovated by the samurai to be one giant booby trap, the film escalates into a gigantic fight between our heroes, who number a baker's dozen, and two-hundred of Naritsugu's men. As each of the assassins has spirit enough to fight until the end, they shed much blood through a slice of the sword, buildings rigged to explode, spiked barricades, and flaming bulls (yes, this movie has flaming bulls). Throughout the battle scene, Miike keeps control of the action with well shot choreography, establishing geography, and makings sure the momentum is kept by giving out heroes different things to do. It's amazing work, and there isn't one American action director who couldn't learn a thing or two by watching the scene.
Overall, 13 Assassins is an overly impressive, technically marvelous, yet simple piece of work. It's Takashi Miike's best film so far, and stands alongside the best samurai films (Seven Samurai included) of all time. It's damn near perfect.