Thursday, May 5, 2011

13 assassins

SPOILER warning: Significant plot points are revealed. Read at your own peril.

Walking in to 13 Assassins this evening, I didn't know it was a remake of a 1963 black and white film of the same name directed by Eiichi Kudo. All I knew is that it was a samurai drama (jidaigeki) directed by Takashi Miike. The Miike name was enough to get me to the theater.

Miike is perhaps best known in the West for his disturbing "love story" film Audition and yakuza revenge piece Ichi the Killer. I've also seen Gozu and Dead or Alive 2. Based on these four films and things I've read about his rather lengthy filmography, I had certain expectations going into 13 Assassins. The fact that it didn't meet this expectations in no way is meant to denigrate the film.

13 Assassins is a movie about samurai, plain and simple. While that does mean guys cutting into each other with swords, samurai movies, at least Japanese samurai films, often revolve around a lot more (for instance, see: Twilight Samurai. But see: the 26 original Zatoichi films). Their is imperial politics, the relationship of retainer to lord (and ronin - masterless samurai), honor, family, and such; 13 Assassins pulls in all of these. But there's a good amount of hacking, slashing, bloodshed, and decapitation, too.

The plot, in brief, concerns the assassination of one Lord Naritsugu, son of the previous Shogun and brother to the current. He's a depraved noble, convinced that his birthright gives him not only the right but the duty to rape and murder those whose station in life is to serve him. With the announcement that he will ascend to the rank of Shogun's council and basically be the second-in-command of Japan, a plot is set in motion to make sure he never gets home to take that title. Under secret order from the Shogun, Shinzaemon, a veteran of the Shogun's guard, collects 12 other warriors to help him kill Naritsugu and his army of 200 men at the small town of Ochiai.

There are several of your basic warrior archetypes here. Just to name a few... Hirayama, Shinzaemon's pupil, is the swordsman of unmatched skill. He wields two blades in the final battle a la Miyamoto Musashi and is a general terror. Then there is Ogura, a youth full of devotion but who has never killed a man before. He takes his first life, is shaken by it, and receives reassurance from the more experienced samurai, transitioning him at last into their brotherhood of blood. Shinroukuro is Shinzaemon's nephew, a warrior disillusioned with samurai ways but brought back into the fold, and Sahara, a spear-wielding ronin who fights not for honor, ideals, or his master but demands payment up front to extinguish his debts, take care of his family, and to afford a brief taste of the luxuries he has never known. And then there's Koyata Kiga, a feral hunter released from a trap by the heroes while they are lost in the woods. He guides them back to the road and joins the 12 samurai in the final battle at Ochiai. Unlike them, he fights primarily with the very un-samurai weapon of rocks and slings, either tossing the rocks or using them as a makeshift flail.

Miike's movies are known for the grotesque, surreal, and sometimes downright ridiculous. The torture scenes in Audition, Ichi's masochism, or pretty much the entirety of Gozu including the brutal murder of a small dog, a cow-headed woman lactating, a suit of human skin, and a woman giving birth to a fully grown man. 13 Assassins has precious little of that. The international version of the film, at 126 minutes, is 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. Perhaps Miike's signature shocking imagery and gore were cut either for time or sensitivities of foreign film-goers.

There were a few moments that seemed to show Miike's touch. For instance, one of Naritsugu's examples of cruelty was cutting the arms, legs, and tongue out of the daughter of the peasant who led a revolt against him. She is presented to Shinzaemon fully unclothed, writhing in her painful, pathetic state, to persuade him of the necessity to kill Naritsugu for his inhumanity. And while hiking through the wilderness, Kiga catches a big bug and sucks out its guts. Visually, it's depicted in quite a staid manner. Some members of the assassin's cadre are plague with leeches at one point, but this is mostly played for laughs rather than disgust or silliness.

The sword fights, where I expected to clearly see the hand of Miike at work, were relatively subdued and mild. Like the genre from which it springs, in 13 Assassins, most people are hit with the sword and then fall down to die. Limbs are not dismembered with explosive fountains of blood. Fingers are not chopped off in close up. Nobody gets stabbed through the eye in magnificent CGI glory. People are hit with the sword. They fall down. They die. That's pretty much it.
There are three notable exceptions. First, in the first example of Naritsugu's cruelty, we seem him attack the young Uneme Makino from behind and repeatedly hack into him. Blood splatter Naritsugu's white kimono with every blow but we don't see the blade hit the body. Young master Makino, a newlywed, had come to investigate why his wife Chise was delayed. Naritsugu had earlier dragged her by her hair across the floor into his room and raped her. The elder Makino, Uneme's father, relates this personal grievance against Naritsugu to Shinzaemon first before revealing the horribly disfigured to elicit the veteran's cooperation.

Second, during the first encounter between the assassins and a band of ronin paid by Naritsugu's retainer Hanbei, Ogura's sword gets stuck in a man after he cuts deeply into his shoulder. Ogura struggles to free his blade while the man attempts to strike him with a short sword. But the gore isn't played up here and it's not meant to be over the top, at least in the international cut.

Third, when Shinzaemon finally faces down his old rival Hanbei at the end of the film, he decapitates the man after admonishing him that they had been equals in skill in the dojo, implying that when the civility of the dojo is gone and it's life or death, Hanbei had always been outmatched. It wasn't just lucky breaks that moved Shinzaemon ahead, as Hanbei alleges, but a real difference in the character of the men. Hanbei's head comes off, but not on screen. We do not see the sword cut through his neck or blood spurt from the wound. Instead, we see the head fly from off screen onto the ground with an absence of arterial blood spray.
With his final guard defeated, Naritsugu is left to take on the hardened warrior Shinzaemon. Naritsugu kicks the head of his faithful retainer. But this isn't for laughs like the CGI cockfight in DOA2. It's a final example of the utterly malevolent heart of the Lord. Shinzaemon prevails and decapitates his foe but again without a lot of red-dyed corn syrup.

(NOTE: I had to take a bathroom break during the final battle in Ochiai right after Hirayama and Ogura die. I suppose there may have been Miike-type ultra-violence during that 4 minutes I missed.)

All of the assassins save Shinroukuro and Kiga are dead at the close of battle at Ochiai. Kiga runs off to try to woo his beloved Upashi, wife of his boss and the reason he was originally caught in the trap. Shinroukuro, encouraged by his uncle in his dying breath to lay aside samurai ways and do what he wants, considers becoming Japan's greatest bandit or perhaps sailing to America and sleeping with lots of (white) women. The two part ways headed in opposite ways through the bloody, burning carnage of the small town.

Comparisons to The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven are ready. But there's also a more recent American movie that explores similar themes: 300. A charismatic leader, a small band of hardened warriors fighting against an impossibly large odds, swords, a depraved and decadent enemy leader. Both 300 and 13 Assassins are based on supposedly actual historical events. But in 300 the heroes go out stop the enemy from invading their home, therefore assuming a defensive role, the 13 assassins are sent out on a mission to kill Lord Naritsugu. And 13 Assassins obviously hews much more closely to reality than the over the top cinematic action of 300.

One flaw in the movie, one that 15 minutes of cut footage probably wouldn't remedy, is the large number of heroes, for the most part, don't really stand out as individuals. Unlike another recent American movie, Lord of the Rings (or the dwarves that press Bilbo into service in The Hobbit), it's difficult to keep many of the 13 assassins apart. They are initially introduced and then, besides a single-dimension portrait (the comic relief guy, the demolition guys, and others that don't even stand out), they're all guys in dark clothes with swords. But this a criticism that gets leveled a lot of films. Video games, too. The Ocean's 11 remake did a good job of crafting a unique identity for each of the almost as large cast of role-players.

13 Assassins is a great film but it's very much a period piece following the conventions of the genre. It starts out slow, establishing the intricacy of politics, personal relations, and depravity that launch Shinzaemon and his followers on the road to Ochiai. The second third has a little more action as the heroes take to the road, have a limited confrontation, and begin putting their plan into effect to force Naritsugu and his army to Ochiai. The third and final act sees the heroes fortify Ochiai before the epic battle of 13 against 200 unfolds in all its violent, explosive, moving walls, sword swinging glory. No buckets of blood or flying limbs but 13 Assassins is a thoroughly enjoyable, dramatic tale of honor and duty in pre-Meiji Japan.

UPDATE 30 May 2011: You can now pre-order 13 Assassins on DVD or Blu-ray .

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