13 Assassins Dir. Takashi Miike

[Magnet Releasing; 2010]

Styles: samurai, action
Others: Harakiri, Yojimbo

To be a Takashi Miike fan almost requires an extreme level of cinephilia. The Japanese cult director’s output in the last two decades reaches to nearly 80 films, ranging from family-friendly entertainment (Zebraman) to some of the most notoriously violent provocation (Ichi the Killer). I’ve only seen a handful of his best-known films, but when I heard that his latest, a remake of a 1963 black-and-white samurai film, concludes with a 30-minute fight sequence, I had to wonder: would the film be merely a throwaway excuse for one-dimensional heroes to have it out in that glorious bloodbath, or would it be a carefully considered samurai epic in the classical style with characters who stood for genuine ideals?

To my surprise, it was both. Indeed violent but hardly excessive, 13 Assassins feels like a storybook come to life, a resolutely old-fashioned film that plays as a tribute to the male-dominated samurai epics of old, and to which it thankfully never makes explicit reference. In a post-Tarantino world where “meta” is the safe word in countless hyped-up fanboy productions (no offense to Edgar Wright), it’s incredibly refreshing to see a filmmaker dabble in genre with a respectful consistency in story and insight into his characters. A classic tale about placing honor above all else, 13 Assassins knows it’s in a long line of films about the same subject, but makes no bones about it; it spends the majority of its running time figuring out exactly who these men are and why they’ve joined the cause, making the gleefully prolonged final fight that much more fun to watch.

Miike’s formal and thematic precision are evident from the very first scene, in which a prolonged act of seppuku (ritual suicide) is first shown in long shot, then the camera cuts to a close-up of the man’s face as he does the deed. Miike doesn’t even show the entrails falling to the ground, which proves that, contrary to his reputation, he’s not here to shock. A hushed tone defines the atmospheric first third of the film, in which a middle-aged samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), is told by a government official about the imposing tyranny on feudal Japan. We hear and see accounts of Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the Shogun’s younger brother, raping a woman and killing her husband, but even these scenes suggest more through aural and visual edits than physical violence, cutting back or reframing smoothly with a loud and polished sound design. When Shinzaemon is asked to assassinate Naritsugu, he accepts it with visible and soulful gratitude; as a samurai, this is his calling.

Perhaps the most classical element of 13 Assassins is its resolute perspective of the good. This is not a movie with moles or double crosses; Naritsugu recruits men who do what they do well, taking themselves seriously in a way that eschews both grandstanding and caricature. Miike’s introduction of these characters is mannered, their names dispassionately labeled onscreen; one of the few running gags in the film is of men pissing outdoors, lightening the mood while also reinforcing the film’s portrayal of the experience and concerns of men. All the exposition in the film is defined by clear motives — affirmation, loyalty, money, or sheer gambling — and it is this archetypal frankness that calls the viewer’s attention and earns our investment. A rushed training sequence, as well as the rather sudden commencement of the third act, demonstrates that Miike is not here to waste time with Western action-movie clichés. “There are no small tasks; all are equally important,” says Naritsugu, and we believe it.

By the time the battle begins, we know what these men are up against; but while the fight is never boring, it marks a contrast when added onto what is otherwise a highly conservative film. Plenty of explosions, narrow escapes, crashing gate traps made of bark — it’s a stunning setpiece in medium close-ups, one very nearly cheapened by some epic deaths. The first and most blatant use of CGI in the film is too amusing to be given away, but it’s one of the few moments when Miike seems to wink at the audience, where artificiality is used as a strength. The film never devolves into full-on cartoon like you might expect it to; the villain, Naritsugu, with his frequently expressed love of power, borders on caricature, but this is fitting, as the one self-referential character stands in opposition to the selflessness of the brotherhood of the samurai.

Despite its length, 13 Assassins is not quite an epic: it is precisely because of this stripped-down precision that Miike’s film inevitably feels like a trifle, albeit an impressively executed trifle on almost every level. Nearly everything in this film is kept in check, and in a cinematic age of overstimulation, it’s hard to ask for more.

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