Wednesday, 11 May 2011
Film #42 13 Assassins
It's the cinematic equivalent of the vegetable gardener's 'hungry gap' at the moment, post-Easter but not quite into the Summer blockbuster season. Hence the appearance of this at my non-more-mainstream Cineworld: a rare chance to catch a Takashi Miike film at your local multiplex.
But before I begin, it's confession time: I come to this film with a couple of cinematic blind spots. Firstly and more specifically for Takashi Miike. Of his 80+ films, I'd seen only one: the horror/shocker Audition. Secondly, my acquaintance with Japanese cinema as a whole is fairly limited. Beyond the film-geek standard of Kurosawa and the obvious recent horror films I'm essentially illiterate: an Ozu here, a Mizoguchi there, a couple of Miyazaki animations and a few half-forgotten Toho movies - I know enough to know how little I know. So doing the standard review thing of setting the film within both its creator's oeuvre and its wider cultural context will be tricky.
But anyway - the film. Based loosely on a true event, we're in 1840s Japan and the Shogun's brother, sadistic Lord Naritsugu (pop star Goro Inagaki, perfectly blank and listless), has been going too far, murdering, raping and generally abusing his power in horrific ways. Therefore, a plot to assassinate him is hatched and veteran samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is tasked with building a crack team to execute the plan. Recruiting a further eleven archetypal warriors (and meeting a mysterious thirteenth along the way) they fortify a small town and prepare an ambush for Naritsugu and his 200-strong armed escort.
So, while the set-up is intriguing and well-played (if overlong), the real payoff comes after an hour or so when the proper fighting begins. I would struggle to think of a better choreographed (or more violent) mass-battle in recent years; some of the sequences are breathtaking, particularly one involving a courtyard mysteriously filled with swords and fire.
An obvious touchstone is Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a film with which it shares numerous similarities of plot and tone (though 13 Assassins is actually a remake of a 1963 film with the same name). It also put me in mind, oddly enough, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, particularly The Two Towers in its few-against-many central set-piece, careful use of CGI (burning cattle as a weapon of war!) and blood-spattered, visceral combat (maybe this isn't that surprising: both Miike and Peter Jackson have a strong horror background). The samurai code of honour - of which this film could be seen as a critique - gives the film a moral backbone; the violence may be excessive but it is not mindless. Some moments betray Miike's guts-'n'-gore past: one scene that will stay with me involves a peasant girl whose arms, legs and tongue have been mutilated by Naritsugu. A cheap shot really, in terms of 'look what a bad man the villain is' but it's highly effective.
There are flaws: it could've been about twenty minutes shorter (though the Japanese cut is twenty minutes longer), and a fair bit of the lengthy setup is a tricky to follow. Also there seemed to be inconsistencies in the quality of the film stock and the sound volume, though this may be an issue with the projection or well-travelled prints. Clearly the relentless bloody action will not be everyone's cup of tea either. All that said though, I really enjoyed this, certainly more than any other action film this year. Highly recommended.