Takeshi Miike his quite the reputation, not only being one of the hardest working directors in the business, between 1999 and 2003 he made more than 15 feature films, but because of the nature of his work. He has created his fair share of controversial films, whether that controversy comes from gore in the likes of Ichi the Killer or whether he is openly trying to be notorious with films like Visitor Q. Every so often he releases a film in which his distinctive oeuvre takes a backseat. A case in point includes 2001’s agitator and his most recent film in 13 assassins.
13 Assassins is a remake of the 1963’s the thirteen assassins, directed by Eiichi Kudo. Just like in Kudo’s film, Miike tells the story of a small group of assassins who decide to take the gamble by going on a suicide mission to kill to the adopted son of the shogun and the lord of the Akashi Domain, Naritsugu. The reason he needs to be killed is because of the way which he plays fast and loose with his standing in society. He is responsible for many hideous things from bringing about the unnecessary seppuku of one of his vassals in Mamiya to the needless murder and hyper violent abuse of others just for fun. Through Naritsugu, 13 assassins is yet another perverted example in the ever escalating means which cinema uses to express how truly evil a bad guy is, when and where will this end? Anyway, this all leads up to a ragtag group of samurai joining forces to assassinate this monster.
Miike’s latest resembles two types of film, the first is obviously the samurai epic made famous by Akira Kurosawa and Seven Samurai, which this could be argued to be a contemporary cousin of and the second is martial arts cinema. The second one is true because of the way in which a few men band together to take on corruption, with China’s great and horrid history this is a common theme in martial arts cinema.
It evokes both of these as they both include the rebellion against a greater and more powerful force and also because they look at the politics and complexities of the time. The political complexity of the era in which the film is set are twofold. Not only does the era have the complexities of the samurai code but this is also an area where samurai only wear their swords for decoration as the country has long since been in a state of peace. Peace which is about to end, as this film takes places when the shogunate ceases to have power and the emperor regains it.
The whole first hour of the film goes to painstaking lengths to paint a complex picture of the politics of the era, and if you have no interest in the colourful Japanese history then this is going to be a real task for you. The only lulls in this first hour are those occasional moments which paint the vivid and graphic images of just how much of a monster Naritsugu is and why he needs to be killed. It might be a lull from the politics and the social mores of the samurai code, but it is far from comfortable viewing. The same can be said for the opening scene which shows Mamiya committing seppuku in an uncomfortable scene. This is much harder to watch than all the hyper violence than Miike is known for and it cuts away from the sacrificial act too.
I realise that the first hour is very slow; this is true even for someone who is interested in Japanese history. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for someone who has no interest in this. Well, I imagine it will be very boring. If you are patient and sit it through to the second half of the film you will be rewarded massively as this section of the film is a massive battle scene which follows the small group of samurai that Shinzaemon has gathered. A group that includes all the usual suspects, from the ultimate badass, the joker, the nervous one and so on, it’s like a samurai version of the seven dwarves with more blood and swords.
The only word I can use to describe the whole second half on the film is cool. Not only does it have some amazing moments from the token bad ass, it also has huge scale and scope. Buildings explode, limbs are severed, and it’s a cornucopia of blood and chaos that is almost impossible not to watch with your mouth aghast at the sheer insanity of it all. It was easily the most exciting hour in cinema of the year so far, nothing comes remotely close.
As faithful as this all is to the vast Japanese history and samurai genre it is all sold by a sea of brilliant performances. With the restrained and composed allure of the master samurai in Kôji Yakusho as Shinzaemon and the detached insanity from Goro Inagaki as Naritsugu. The whole cast is worthy of note in their recreation of the decorum of the epoch which has been so lovingly recreated by the director at the helm. In this respect it’s incredibly evocative of the classic samurai films which were performed with poise and subtlety rather than the over-the-top excess which its American cousins are known for, both then and now.
We’ve had when the last sword is drawn and Twilight Samurai bringing the historical epic into the 21st century, but in 13 assassins we have the first classic since the genres heyday. I may be a fan of the genre and a casual fan of Miike but I never expected this. In moving away from his usual territory, Miike has not only made his most mature and restrained film to date he has also made his best film which is as stunningly choreographed as it is performed.