Monday, June 13, 2011

13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010)
Dir. Takashi Miike
Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura 

Takashi Miike is one of the most daring and controversial modern directors to come out of Japan in a long time, and has produced some crazy films which are already acknowledged as genre classics (from ICHI THE KILLER to GOZU to SUKIYAKI WESTERN: DJANGO). He's made shocking horror films and family films, and in the period between 2001 and 2002 alone, Miike is credited for directing 15 films (so says Wikipedia). Problem is I, ah, haven't seen any of them. I've seen enough of AUDITION to get the picture, but somehow managed to completely absorb the hype without ever actually watching one of his films all the way through. So whatever his latest --13 ASSASSINS-- has to do with his work as a whole I honestly couldn't say. So to paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, 'when you meet a legend but you don't know his body of work, you have to divert from that fact. Hey Takashi Miike, do you like SEVEN SAMURAI too?"

I'm guessing he does, since 13 ASSASSINS is basically a remake of Kurosawa's seminal 1954 action drama (actually, Wikipedia says it’s a direct remake of a 1963 Japanese film of the same name, but I'm guessing that one borrows pretty heavily from SAMURAI too, even though its supposedly based on real history). But that's OK, if you're gonna remake SEVEN SAMURAI with an extra six characters, you might as well have somewhere interesting to go with the concept, and Miike does nicely giving this thing a reason to exist.

It's a surprisingly straightforward, classic Samurai picture, which surprised me a little given Miike's reputation for shocking and boundary-pushing horror. There are a few little hints of the kind of craziness that seems to have endeared him to my more cinematically educated peers, but mostly they're just flavor in what is otherwise a classy, superficially normal period action piece. Sure, Kurosawa would probably not have showed us the naked quadruple-amputee lady bleeding from her eyes, but a few little touches like that just make the rest of the film seem more conventional. Not that that's a bad thing, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting given Miike's reputation. Seriously, you could show this alongside any number of Samurai films from the last 40 years and only find a few clues that it's a modern film made by this crazy auteur.

The action is quite good, and some of the set pieces are awesome and respectably crazy. There’s a couple oddball touches like these giant walls of heavy tree trunks (never explained) which leap out of nowhere to block escape, or a bunch of flaming bulls released to run down the enemy Spaniard-style. But mostly, the battle sequence is just watching our guys fight against approximately 200+ attackers by any means necessary. They get creative a couple times but I’d say a good 170 die by being slashed by swords. Since all our 13 Assassins wear the same color of dark purple and sport identical haircuts and no facial hair, it can be hard to tell them apart, especially since the camera tends to shake around a little. Not so much as to become incomprehensible, but enough that it’s hard to tell if that’s Hioki, Horii, Higuchi, Balin, Dwalin, Sleepy, Grumpy, or whoever fighting that particular group of faceless opponents with a sword (everyone except one guy uses a sword, so that’s not much help).

Miike compensates for this by having someone yell out the guy’s name every time something major happens to him, which makes it easier to figure out but also gets funny after the seventh time or so. Every once in awhile they’d show this guy with a little heavier build and I’d get excited because he’s easy to recognize, but then I’d see he was using a spear instead of a sword and I’d remember that no wait, there was another heavyset guy and I guess this is the other one.

Pretty much any given frame from the second half of the film looks like this.

What I’m saying is that with 13 instead of 7, you don’t get a whole lot of characterization of anyone except the Yul Brenner of these assassins. Most of the 13 get at most a line or two of personality exposition before they’re off to meet their deaths. Kurosawa probably got it right by paring the number down to a more memorable seven, although to be fair each one has enough flavor that you can pretty much keep them straight (‘right’, you’ll says, ‘it’s that guy who was supposed to train on explosives’, or ‘oh yeah, it’s that guy who was sitting to the left in that one scene and he seemed like he was in charge, I think his name begins with an M’). It still hurts when they start to go down, but it might hurt more if we knew a little more about them and had a few more human moments here and there.

So there’s just more people, more attackers. The geography is generally pretty clear but in the chaos of battle it’s hard to tell where everyone is or how close to their goal they are. Miike gets the most out of having so many attackers by filling up frame after frame to bursting with bodies in motion. It gets a little funny because every time one of our guys catches a moment to breath and it seems like Jesus Fucking Christ, look at those piles of corpses, surely that must be all of them… suddenly in rush what seems like 100 more opponents. I do not exaggerate when I say this happens six or seven times. It’s kind of funny but also helps you see what an exhausting slog it is to mindlessly chop your way through hundreds of opponents to find that one guy you actually want to kill. On the other hand, I’d almost have to say that SEVEN SAMURAI’S final battles feels even more like an exhausting ordeal, and there’s way less cannon fodder. It hardly needs to be said, but the SEVEN SAMURAI comparisons are inevitable and are obviously going to favor Kurosawa.

So what's the different here? Not much. The structure is virtually identical to SEVEN SAMURAI, with an hour of setup and recruiting the 13, and then the entire second half consisting of the final battle. Half setup, half payoff. Although these folks are assassins out to kill the Shogun's brother instead of protect a village, they set up their ambush in an abandoned village so it still has a kind of siege element in a single location. They’re trying to keep people from leaving rather than keep them from entering, so that’s a nice twist, but the similarities are really too overwhelming to ignore. If there's a difference here which I haven't seen in a samurai picture before, it's in the subtext.

This is a film about suicide. It starts with a man committing hara-kiri in lieu of making a direct complaint, and he’s not gonna be the last. All 13 assassins are working with the explicit knowledge that they’re going to their deaths, and they’re just going to have to find a way to be OK with that. Hell, it beats dying peacefully after a long and uneventful retirement.

Allow me to explain: The stage is set in the waning days of feudal Japan, and life is pretty peaceful in its rigidly ordered way. That seems great unless you’re a samurai, whose only purpose in life is to fight to defend the Shogunate. These peaceful times are killing the trade, and most of the Samurai haven’t seen any real combat in a long time, making their lives kind of pointless and empty. We meet our protagonist, Shinzaemon (frequent Kiyoshi Kurosawa player Koji Yakusho, CURE, SEANCE), sitting alone fishing and –with no wife, children, or work—pretty much just waiting out the clock. He’s thrilled when he hears that he’s going to get to die in the service of his profession. He’s been called out of semi-retirement because of the one person who does still seem to be enjoying his job, the Shogun’s half-brother Naritsugu (played to the hilt with bored malevolence by Goro Inagaki). Naritsugu is the one who de-limbed that poor gal I mentioned above, and he’s a hateful sociopath of breathtaking proportions, raping and murdering with impunity due to his high social status. Everyone but everyone knows this guy has to go, but due to their rigid social hierarchy, not only can no one do anything about it, no one can even bring themselves to say it. When he finally makes the mistake of killing people with connections, Shinzaemon is called in and told using a series of artful euphemisms that Naritsugu needs to no longer be in his position of power. They leave it at that, and so does everyone else. The very concept of conspiring against their hierarchy is virtually unthinkable, and the Samurai are just happy that someone gave them something to die for that they can secretly know is actually the right thing to do.

And that’s the genius of this film. It’s about this awful open secret that everyone is party to, and yet no one can acknowledge aloud. Everyone --probably even Naritsugu-- knows that he’d be better off dead, but instead of just killing him and calling it a day, everyone’s going to have to die so that they can claim the system is working. That’s where the film’s most interesting conflict comes in, in the form of Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu’s head Samurai. He knows better than anyone what a stunning piece of shit Naritsugu is, and it’s written on his face the whole film. He has the trapped horror of a man being gradually eaten alive from the inside. But this system has given him only one purpose in life, which is to defend his lord. If he does his job, he has to spend his life and others’ lives to protect someone actively engaged in making the word an exponentially worse place… but if he casts aside that system, his life has been completely meaningless. The horror of that conflict is constantly dancing in his eyes, but the most he can ever do to admit it is to halfheartedly say that his circumstance is unfortunate for reasons which he doesn’t elaborate on.

This is what makes the film more than merely a slightly bloodier SEVEN SAMURAI. It becomes a commentary on living in a system which so inflexibly assigns value to lives and jobs. Shinrouko, Shinzaemon’s nephew and one of the 13, is first encountered in a brothel/gambling house type of situation where he’s spending cash, getting hammered, and presumably fucking absolutely everyone in sight, wasting his talents as a samurai on booze and games of chance. Shinzaemon’s quest convinces him to stop his fun and take up the sword again. That’s where most films would stop the character arc, but by the end of this one is becomes pretty clear that he had it right the first time. Everything here is a terrible waste of life and effort, and it’s all because the feudal system which gives them no options except to walk happily into suicide and thank the guy who sent them there.

Without needing to say anything explicit about it, Miike demonstrates how horribly trapped everyone is by this system which survives entirely on the strength of people refusing to acknowledge how flawed it is. No one complains, everyone acts honorably, everyone does exactly what good samurai are supposed to do, and most films like this would leave us to be impressed by their discipline and commitment. But Miike ends the film by focusing on the piles of bodies and silently daring us to argue that this was a good use of their lives. Without comment, he informs us that the system of feudalism fell about 20 years later (he doesn’t mention that their feudalism would eventually twist itself into fascism, which brought along most of the same problems to the same culture). It’s not an anti-war picture, it just wants you to think a little bit about what kinds of things are really worth dying for, and if you should trust a society where dying for a cause is more important than living for one.

On the other hand, this poster makes a pretty compelling argument for violence.

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