Assassin-8 plus 5
13 Assassins Japan/UK 2010
Directed by Takashi Miike
Playing at cinemas now.
Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is a very surprising film, primarily for two reasons.
One, it is a relatively bloodless outing for a typical entry into the traditional Japanese chambara... at least in comparison to a lot of these kinds of movies released internationally since Kurosawa filmed that first extended gout of over the top arterial spray at the end of his Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro (if he’d have know the trend he was inadvertently setting, even in terms of international influence reaching up through the generations to be parodied by the likes of Tarantino in Kill Bill, would he have gone ahead and shot that final stand off between Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai in the same way, one wonders). Even though the movie starts off with a grim and determined display of the traditional form of seppuku, incorporating both the horizontal cut and the second vertical cut which opens up a persons belly, the scene is shot in tight close up with only the actors expressions and the sounds indicating the actual honouring of this ritualistic form of suicide portrayed on screen. A birds eye view pretty much shows a very subdued aftermath with only a small puddle of unobstrusive blood spilled on the ground. And then that’s it for the blood content up until about half way through the final battle scene.
Now it’s not realy like me for being one to concentrate on the goriness or bloodshed quota of a movie but on this particular movie it almost made the film lose credibility with me. This is because we see a fair few people killed and hundreds in the final battle, but the majority of this is without showing any blood whatsoever and, franky, when you kill a person with a sharpened object such as a samurai sword it tends to make a mess (this is something I have come to believe due to common sense backed up with many years of watching various gentlemen slicing each other up on screen in a celebration of this traditional style of story). There is always some fair to middling blood flow and not really any such thing as a tidy death, especially when one is in the heat of battle. So all the way through the movie I was wondering just what the censors were playing at. I would have expected the full quota of, admittedly mind numbing on occasions, squirting fountains of arterial spray splashing against the camera lens at frequent intervals. This film, in some places, felt like watching an episode of The A Team in respect to its treatment of the expected Japanes penchant for the after effects of slicing and dicing. Also, I knew from previous experience of this prolific and often wonderfully sublime director that Miike’s usual modus operandi is to push the gore content beyond where any of his contemporaries are willing to go to, creating a more surreal artform with the realisation of the absurdity of situations such demonstrations of enthusiatic bloodshed often herald.
The other reason that this is a quite surprising film for a Miike movie is that this is such a traditionally put together form of chambara, including many genre cliches, most of them harkening back to either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or the kinds of chambara Toho and Daie were putting out through the sixties and seventies such as the Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub (Babycart) movies... some of the characters and situations could have almost walked straight out of these movies and into this one. This is a strange way of working for Miike, or at least it seems that way to me for a director who almost prides himself in assembling movies which are chaotic and genre-bending in their basic make-up at best. Mostly this movie follows a path from A to B, stays on course and within time period and genre with all the characters... and then finishes with a certain sense of resoution, none of which is by any means a given in a Takashi Miike movie. There is one little slight little tweak towards the end which I think might have been Miike’s little reminder to people watching out that he’s not “sold out and gone all Hollywood” so to speak... but I’ll leave that little bit to the end of this review.
The movie is surprisingly similar in structure to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, perhaps a little too close for comfort but then again, this kind of arrogance would be expected of someone like Miike so in some ways it’s almost a comfort that he’s daring to take on Kurosawa at his own game a little... at least in the basic direction this film takes. Starting off with a suicide and a background into the political turmoil Edo period Japan would find itself in if a very important official is not soon killed to prevent the crazy cruelty of his actions scandalising the Japanese people instead of the village raided by bandits which lies at the heart of Seven Samurai, the film then starts to follow that template very closesly in style as a widowed samurai puts together a team of samurai assassins to help him accomplish his deadly mission to rid Japan of this menace... giving number checks as people join, just like in Seven Samurai and its famous Western genre remake The Magnificent Seven. We then get the journey to, in this case, a village to which they reroute their enemy... a village which they buy out and then begin to fortify with defences (just like in Seven Samurai) and traps to help even the odds a little... after all, they believe the thirteen of them are going up against only about seventy people.
En route to the village they pick up a non-samurai, arrogant thief/farmer who is very much the Toshiro Mifune character in Seven Samurai in spirit and also rather blatantly even in posture. The "lovable rogue" is openly critical of samurai but he can cut heads and split bodies like a trooper with the rest of them... and so another genre cliché comes to pass.
The final battle when it comes is quite ferocious and, for the first part of it, almost entirely bloodless... although halfway through the sequence the blood begins to flow as it probably shoud. It doesn’t spray like a fountain from severed limbs or jump up and do violent sommersaults in the most surreal arterial-airbrush demonstrations ever... but it is at least present and therefore a sense of reality is somewhat restored to these scenes. It’s quite a long battle scene due to the fact that some miscalculations in strategy on the part of our unlucky heroes means there are actually over 200 soldiers accompanying their target but it never really drags down into tedium when it threatens that this could happen and is certainly reminiscent in some ways of the final denouements to be found in the aforementioned Lone Wolf and Cub movies, where our hero would single handedly take on (and win) against entire armies on his own (with the occasional little bit of help from his 4 or 5 year old son).
I’m not going to give anything away as to how many survivors are left at the end of this pseudo-blood bath, or even whether the 13 Assassins accomplish their mission or not... but what I will say is that it’s at this point where that “little gesture of Miike” comes to light...
Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen his Dead or Alive trilogy but the second and third films in this trilogy are absolutely amazing with some very entertaining touches and some perplexing moments such as the characters in the third film (who are played by two actors who play the male leads, but totally different characters in the previous two films) inhereiting from the actors who play them an almost shared race memory of the characters in the previous installments... admittedly before they merge and transform themselves into a giant mechanical penis which flys through the air to exact revenge on their enemy. The very first film in the series, however, is almost (and I stress the almost) just a dull and plodding cop versus yakuza movie which can’t maintain or live up to the absolutely frenetic pace of it’s first five minutes... but the punchline of the joke of the film lies within the last minute or so of that particular movie and, truth be told, if it didn’t have such a “what the f*ck just happened” kind of ending to it... then I would have never bothered with the second and third movies in the series and that would be a shame because the second one’s quite moving and the third one is... well let’s just say, if you like Blade Runner you’ll find Dead or Alive: Final an interesting movie at the very least.
At the end of the first Dead or Alive movie... something happens. I’m not saying what but it’s a real poke in the face and my best interpretation of it would be that it’s Takashi Miike saying, “You’re not really taking this yakuza stuff seriously like it’s anything to do with real life are you? Leave it out... cinema has moved on. Watch out or you’ll fall behind.”
Similarly, at the end of 13 Assassins, a character who you’ve already seen pretty much killed suddenly returns, none the worse for wear and muttering something along the lines of, “Pah! I’ve had worse wounds... that was just a scratch.” Now if you’ve not been paying close attention (which is easy to do when you’ve been watching leaping figures enthusiastically jumping around and slicing each other up in close quarters for over half an hour of screen time) then you may just believe him... but there’s that little part of me that’s a bit more familiar with Miike’s penchant for iconoclastically destroying genre preconceptions and it’s almost like this scene is a feint echo, in tone but not in content, to that earleir end sequence in Dead or Alive... it’s almost like Miike is saying, “You know this guy can’t get up and walk away again, let alone bound about and tell jokes like this... so come on, time to stop taking these old chambara movies seriously and move onto something new.” I can just imagine him wagging his finger at the camera now.
So there you have it. 13 Assassins is very much a genre throwback to the cliche ridden but absolutely crackling and watchable chambara of days gone by. A brilliant homage which very much keeps the genre alive, despite my interpretation of the ending... after all, intent is not result and at the end of the day, Miike has delivered a vastly entertaining take on a classic template deriving from Kurosawa and his ilk. If you like samurai movies then this one is definitely not one to miss!