Friday, June 10, 2011
Movie review: 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)
Homeys! We got some slayin' to do...
Director Takashi Miike, who shall forever remain notorious for the grim and gruesome Ichi the Killer (2001), turns his cinematic eye on the samurai classics in his new film, 13 Assassins.
Filmed in elegant style to reflect the sweeping historical context and lush period setting, 13 Assassins takes us back to the Japan of 1844, in the declining years of the shogunate system of governance. Brutal psychopathic underlord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is about to ascend to overlord status, which would only serve to expand the scope of his depredations. One minister to the court chooses the honorable option of hara kiri rather than follow the Shogun's wishes to support Naritsu; another — Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) — goes the more clandestine (and less self-destructive!) route, by hiring a master samurai to mount an attack on the villainous lord as he and his retinue travel to their home province for the summer.
Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) takes on the mission, and begins soliciting the assistance of his samurai acquaintances — all of whom are either devoted to Shinzaemon (and thus honor-bound to act in his behalf), thrilled to have a chance to fight in this time of extended peace, or simply anxious to accept the payment offered. Eventually, twelve warriors are assembled to begin planning their suicidal assault against what they know will be a far superior force.
This fatalistic fighting force picks up thirteenth team member en route to their carefully-selected ambush site, though Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) is far from a samurai. Rather, he's a man of the forest, who knows how to live off the land (and swings a mean sling!). He offers to guide the assassin team through the hills, and then sticks around for the battle afterward, hoping it will provide a diverting entertainment.
The site they've chosen for their ambush is a remote village, which Shinzaemon goes so far as to purchase (using Sir Doi's funds, no doubt) — lock, stock, and barrel — in order to facilitate the ambushing process. They re-engineer the outpost into a "town of death," constructing blocking fences and swinging gates to control the access and egress of their foes. It's on this battleground that their climactic 10-to-1 encounter with the enemy will take place.
Think: Seven Samurai + six, in bloody living color. (The film is actually a remake of a 1963 movie of the same name; I employ the Seven Samurai reference on the assumption that that title will be more familiar to American audiences.)
The first 75 minutes of 13 Assassins are a study in contrast against the last 45, as they are mostly taken up with a story of honor and duty and politics, followed by the carefully-considered strategic planning sessions of the samurai hit team. It's those last 45 minutes that will have you on the edge of your seat, gripping the arms of your theater chair, perhaps spilling your popcorn as you attempt to dodge the slashing blade of a gore-slimed katana.
Fighting with swords (and spears, and the occasional bow and arrow) is hard, brutal, messy work, which director Miike seems to revel in demonstrating. Arms and heads fly hither and yon, and the muddy streets turn red with the pooling blood of the dead and dying. The irrepressible Koyata puts it best: "Your samurai brawls are crazy fun!"
Will the sadistic and egotistical Naritsugu survive to take the throne? Not if Shinzaemon has anything to say about it. And when Shinzaemon speaks, his sword does the talking.
HOW CONVENIENT: "Punishment is a master's duty." - Lord Naritsugu
SAMURAI WISDOM, PART 1: "He who values his life dies a dog's death."
SAMURAI WISDOM, PART 2: "No sword? Use a stick. No stick? Use a rock."
READY OR NOT: "Are you ready? Ready to die?"