Monday, June 27, 2011

FILM REVIEW: 13 Assassins, by Mark Donovan

Mark Donovan

 FILM REVIEW: "13 Assassins," by Mark Donovan

The second and possibly most memorable axiom in the Hagakure, the book of the Samurai, is this; “The way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult.” That is quite true. Death is easy, as is blind obedience.
 And, if director Takashi Miike had been reading the Hagakure, which he almost certainly did-- he probably also noticed this other axiom; “If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said the skin will come off.”

Miike is probably best known in America for two movies, Audition and Ichi the Killer, though he has made some 84 movies over 20 years, and for a while he was churning out films at the blistering pace of six per year. These days he seems to have limited himself to only directing two movies per year, which is still quite the accomplishment.

To say that his movies can be offbeat – or off-putting- would be putting it lightly. He is a director known for making weird genre mash-ups and films of almost staggering violence; his 2001 musical-comedy, Happiness of the Katakuris, featured dancing zombies and a claymation fistfight; Dead or Alive ended (spoiler) with the entire world exploding, and then went on to have two sequels. Given his reputation, the most surprising aspect of 13 Assassins is how straightforward and reserved the movie is.

The first hour is given over to political maneuvering and set-up. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is a sadistic feudal lord who enjoys violent oppression of the general population, to put it mildly. When other politicians hear that he is to become the Shogun’s chief advisor, they hire Samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate Naritsugu. From there, Shinzaemon assembles 11 other Samurai, and one outsider, to take on Naritsugu and the hundreds of men that are protecting him.

While 13 Assassins is a direct remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, it owes quite a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It certainly has the feel of Seven Samurai, with more postmodern violence. The titular 13 assassins also have echoes of Kurosawa’s film, most notably Yusuke Iseya as a forest bandit who evokes Toshiro Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo.

Action film fans may find the earlier scenes to be a little on the slow side; especially if they aren’t inured to Japanese history, or classic Samurai films. Miike keeps the carnage to a minimum in the early going, letting the film build like Bolero towards its chaotic, extremely violent, and immensely enjoyable climax, set in a small town that has been turned into a death trap/maze. The fight scenes are shot extremely well, given the number of actors on the screen, and it rarely gets confusing in the way that most current action films do. The audience knows who the characters are, where they are, and what they are doing for the majority of the fight, save for a scene filmed from the perspective of a dying Samurai. And it was all done with a minimal amount of CGI. It is like the swords and Samurai version of the hospital shootout at the end of Hard Boiled.

Still, no Samurai movie would be complete without some philosophizing about the code of the Samurai. What do servants owe to their rulers? And what does a servant do when it is clear that their ruler is wrong? Why do so many choose to follow someone that is clearly not worthy of their faithfulness? Part of the fun of 13 Assassins comes from knowing that the 13 assassins are just in their cause, and that, at least in Miike’s film, right makes might.

Film website:/

Written by Mark Donovan
Editor: Rod Webber

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