Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Movie Review: Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins

At one point in Japanese director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, the character of Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) makes a remarkable statement. When asked to plot the assassination of a cruel lord, which in effect would guarantee the end of his own life, Shinzaemon responds not with a "why me?" or a "no way," but instead stammers, "How fate smiles on me." The chance to perform a good deed and die a noble death is a blessing to him. This illustrates the character of one of the great men of this film, and the audience's admiration for its 13 heroes is much greater than their admiration for Miike's overlong, climactic battle.

Miike is the most famous of modern Japanese directors here in the West, but he has only achieved this status through shock value; his movies such as Ichi the Killer (2001) and Audition (1999) are exploitative and stomach-turning in their violence. 13 Assassins is easily the best and most watchable film I have ever seen of Miike's, but it is still in danger of drowning in its own blood.

The film has a simple plot, divided into three segments. First, Shinzaemon is approached to kill the evil Naritsuga (Goro Inagaki), and we witness the lord's misdeeds in flashback. Second, Shinzaemon gathers 11 other faithful samurai to join his new cause (the thirteenth warrior joins up later). Finally, after some brief travel, Miike slices his film into a 50-minute battle, with more action than I have ever seen in an uninterrupted sequence. I can't be sure, but I believe this easily sets the body count record for a samurai film, as 200 soldiers square off against our heroes.

Miike still fails to show restraint as a filmmaker, and this awesome action movie suffers for it. The final battle is too long, as one bloody, telephoto shot full of bodies and swords and mud rolls into the next. The events become very difficult to differentiate. The battle is actually less effective than those in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) because Kurosawa's film does not drag the action out until it has lost all impact and become formulaic; Kurosawa also set the standard for chaotic, close-range battle footage shot with long lenses in Samurai. To Miike's credit, the rape of a married woman by Lord Naritsuga is left off-screen, but shots of Naritsuga's mutilated-- but living-- sex-slave recall Miike's inability to make a movie that doesn't offend.

13 Assassins looks spectacular and benefits from wonderful performances, and I even liked it enough to consider a Blu-ray purchase, but overall it doesn't live up to the standards for meaningful but entertaining samurai films set by the Kurosawas and Goshas of yesteryear. It tries so hard that it bleeds out right off the edges of the screen.


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