Home > Uncategorized > Resurrection of a Genre: 13 ASSASSINS

Resurrection of a Genre: 13 ASSASSINS


Let me make this point clear right off the bat: I love Takashi Miike.  I think he has carved out a nice niche for himself as a shock director who also mixes in a decent to good plotline with each of his films.  I’d like to point out, I’ve only seen Audition, Sukiyaki Western Django and Ichi the Killer, and seeing as this man rivals Woody Allen in sheer work ethic, that’s a very small sample size of his total output (I just started his Imprint contribution to the Masters of Horror series as I’m typing this).  Just based on those three films, it’s obvious his films are very stylistic, bloody, and brimming with anti-heroes.  I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for the moral depravity and blood-spurting glee that drips from Ichi the Killer.

I always found Miike’s films to be slightly flawed, mostly over-the-top (Sukiyaki Western Django, Ichi) or just the opposite with the singular slow-boil  horror tale of revenge, Audition, which was his closest attempt at art.  He favors style over substance, and I never had a problem with that, but he would forever be marginalized by the majority of the cinephiles for never delving deeper than the surface of human pain.  There’s definite seeds of this in Audition with the lonely widower exploiting his resources and the ensuing carnage of his selfish act, but more so in Ichi the Killer, with it’s confused, sexually ambivalent anti-hero, Ichi, and the commanding,  morally indigent sadomasochist, Kakihara.  Both of them have pain and needs beneath the surface that fuel their outward bahavior, but unfortunately these points are usually overlooked by the blood squirting, face slicing, and limb severing that surrounds these depraved characters.  I love every weird second of that film, because it feels like it exists in a world I am unfamiliar with, and gladly so.  It makes me feel dirty, like I’d have to dip my brain in boiling water to disinfect the stench from the filth I’ve just seen.

Now, we come to 13 Assassins.  I’m going to state this very succinctly, and despite it’s rash nature, I mean every word of it: this film is a direct decendant of the films of Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi.  In terms of samurai films, I hold no two directors in higher regard than Kurosawa and Kobayashi.  13 Assassins is the film Takashi Miike is capable of when he dials back the gallons of blood and delves into a deeper substance.  There is that trademark stylistic nature Miike employs so well; he knows how to frame a shot and how to uniquely stage an important moment.  But here, the substance is there to accompany the style, as much as a Kurosawa film told a story while also displaying a deft touch at framing an action sequence.  The film builds tension and commands your attention simultaneously, never offering a mundane scene or expository borishness.

Quick synopsis: in feudal Japan, the half-brother to the Shogun has been a very naughty boy.  He rapes, kills, and treats his people as he wishes.  Unfortunately for the masses, he is in line to be second-in-command to the Shogun.  When he kills the son and daughter-in-law of a high ranking advisor, exception is taken and proper action in set in motion.  Judging by the title, I’m sure you can guess where it goes from there.  It helps to have seen a few samurai films before viewing this, their customs and the code of the samurai are moderately stated, but could be confusing if you enter into it a blank slate.  The true role of a servant is to die for their master, and as such, a samurai lives to serve and protect his master with his very life as a sacrifice.  To die in vain, or of old age,  is to die a dog’s death, dishonorable and not samurai worthy.  To understand the purpose of these men is to truly understand their motive in accomplishing the task put forward.  We’re treated to multiple scenes of seppuku, or harakiri, which is the honorable suicide of a person who has been disgraced.  Not knowing this tradition could affect your understanding of the film.  So, for a better cinematic understanding (and because they freakin’ rule) you should watch as many old samurai movies as you can.

All that being said, this film kicks so much ass.  It feels closer to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai than any other samurai film.  I like to think of it as a mix of that and Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion.  To clarify, I’m not saying this film is as great as either one of those two, but I think a mention of them needs to be included in any review of the subject matter.  It resembles Kurosawa’s landmark action film in more than just the numeric title, but in execution and involvement of the audience in the goal of the film (execution of an evil lord/protection of a village from evil bandits), as well as amazing action sequences that would make his predecessors proud, with a little trademark Miike blood-splattering here and there.  Where this film falls shy of Kurosawa’s classic is in character development, but I’m going to give Miike the benefit here.  13 Assassins has a running time of just over 2 hours while Seven Samurai clocks in at 3 hours and 20 mins.  We meet similar ancillary characters in both films, but they are barely or completely not fleshed out at all in 13 Assassins.  It’s not a particular detriment, but it keeps the film at a level below those films as it hovers closer to the action genre.  Given more time the characters could feel more real, but I think Miike enjoys the carnage more than the character, and that works for me too.  He took a genre that at one time knew the glory of being the pinnacle of Japanese storytelling, much the same way the Western was the paradigm of American values, a genre that has wasted away from years of exploitation, slapped the paddles on it and shocked it back to life.  I’d love to thank him personally if I could.

I don’t want to get too far into it, or get didactic and start theorizing on the similarities between the old samurai films and this one.  I felt like this was an amalgam of at least 3 or 4 films that predated it by 40 or 50 years, and by God, Takashi Miike did them justice.  It’s rare to see these days.  There doesn’t appear to be an American director who will duplicate the films of Hitchcock or Welles, or a Spanish director who can satirize life, love, and religion like Bunuel, or a European filmmaker with the personal insight and perplexing philosophical dissections as those of Bergman.  Now maybe he didn’t channel Mizoguchi and Ozu (who could?) but he did his damndest Kurosawa impression and did it strikingly well.  I only hope a newer wave of directors currently muddling in mediocrity rise up and make a film of this caliber.  If the world hadn’t taken notice of Takashi Miike before this, they better stand up and shake his hand now.

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