Takashi Miike has been a polarising figure for many film fans – when his name is mentioned it is often alongside the more extreme examples of his output, none more so damning or praiseworthy, depending upon your perspective, than Ichi The Killer. However, in amongst the lavish sadistic violence of such titles as Ichi, or the candy-coloured insanity of Yatterman, there lies a body of work slowly evolving at key steps along the way. Audition may be a hard watch due to its sadistic Misery-esque scenes, but it would be hard not to describe it as a mature and studied look into a world of unsuspecting terror. He’s previously given his own twist to a yakuza classic by remaking Kinji Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honour and injecting his own brand of mad-dog violence and rabid intensity, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that he has chosen to remake another classic. However, the subject material, feudal Japan, is somewhat different and the overall tone of the original arguably doesn’t lend itself to the aura of nihilistic brutality that he seems to favour.
Miike’s 13 Assassins tells the same story as Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 jidaigeki Jûsan-nin no Shikaku – namely in essence a band of 13 warriors must fight to assassinate a man whose ambition and ruthlessly evil nature could plunge Japan back into an age of bloodshed. Lord Naritsugu is, in layman’s terms, a nutter of the first order; he rapes, murders and uses women and children for live archery practice. The catalyst for action against this maniac is the symbolic hara-kiri of an Akashiclan nobleman, an act intended to highlight the deeds committed during an ill-fated night which resulted in the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband. Unfortunately justice is not so simple to attain, as Naritsugu happens to be the son of the former Shogun and half brother of the current incumbent. He is, officially, close to untouchable, but a senior official in the Shogunate, Sir Doi, realizes the impending danger, as Naritsugu is about to attain a higher political position, from which he will be set on his path to power.
Much of the opening half hour is scene setting, and it is something Miike manages particularly well. The hype surrounding the film has almost entirely been centred around the climactic battle sequence, but the director shows a great hand at pacing the early forays into the mires of feudal Japanese politics and the ethos of social strata, servitude and order that defined the era. The film opens with the act of hara-kiri, and the cinematography is absolutely perfect for the deed it depicts. There is a sense of stillness and calm in the frame, with equidistant objects and borders surrounding the body that is about to meet its maker. Far from revelling in the bloodshed, Miike cuts to a tight shot to focus on the man’s face as the knife is plunged into his own abdomen. The ensuing crimson is only revealed as the camera pulls away to indicate the significance of the token suicide. As Sir Doi enlists the help of Shinzaemon, a respected widowed elderly Shogun samurai, we delve into the half-light of political intrigue and manoeuvring; the meetings between the two men happen but have officially never happened. Here Miike shows his verve for the extreme, showing the living aftermath of one of Naristugu’s devilish moments of terrifying cruelty. Just like the rape and murder, there are no grisly shots of the actual brutality, just the effects of it, and Miike uses this instance, the unveiling of a female victim, to hit home with a ferocity that lets you know that the director has no intention of negating the horrors that underpin the story, he is merely saving them for a time that they may be unleashed upon the viewer to best maximise their effect.
Once Shinzaemon has borne witness to the devastating extent of Naritsusgu’s sadism, his fate is sealed. As he sits laughing and trembling, it becomes clear that Shinzaemon wanted such a mission as much as Sheen’s Willard in Apocalypse Now, only not for his sins, but rather to fulfil his samurai desire for a noble death; he is moved by the girl’s story and current state, but the overwhelming emotion is that of thankfulness that such a worthy cause should give him the opportunity to give his life on the battlefield. He is to assemble a group that is capable of assassinating the heavily guarded Naritsugu before he reaches Edo, whereupon he will be promoted in rank and wield too much power to be touchable. Time is short and the odds likely insurmountable, but the greatest obstacle in his way is a former classmate in swordsmanship, Hanbei. Equally matched in many respects, Hanbei now finds himself as Naristugu’s chief samurai and as such will be tasked with protecting his Lord.
This duality brings us to one of the central themes, the shift of era and with it, attitudes. The story takes place towards the end of the Edoperiod, where peace between rival factions is largely established and Samurai are an adornment of societal hierarchy rather than an active warrior class. Both Hanbei and Shinzaemon represent the samurai ethic, however they differ in their views of servitude, the former believing that the established hierarchy is all one needs to attend to, whereas the latter sees society as a whole, and the people of Japanas those most in need of service.
Thankfully most of the assembled 13 assassins are equally as memorable as the two wily rival combatants and can be interpreted as part of the same analogy of a shift in era and attitudes. None more so than Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shinrokurō, a gambler and womaniser who follows his uncle’s noble mission, he is still green but having grown up in the age of peace has yet to test his sword, he is hesitant and his inclusion represents perhaps the only real flaw in the international cut of the film as we don’t get to witness his scuffle with a few patrons of the gambling den which went some way to depicting the beginning of his journey into a true samurai. He is the inbetweener, not linked to the idea of the old ways of blind devotion to one’s master but also as such not entrenched fully into the life of a samurai, he is not battle-hardened but is born to a life that he seems ill at ease with when he begins the quest, the perfect symbol of the interim character, yet to find himself, whose life and direction lies somewhere between the Edo and Meiji era.
There are other notable examples of the samurai life, the master of the spear technique whose wife died of hardship, he is affable in his desire to fight for money yet knows it to be a suicide mission. The greatest of the initially assembled 12 though is Hirayama (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara – Letters from Iwo Jima), a ronin who has used Shinzaemon’s dojo for practice and has wanted an opportunity to repay this debt. He is a brooding force of manliness, all scowl and piercing eyes, he swaggers into an early fight sequence, when called to identify himself he gives only his name and status as a ronin in a deep gravelly pitch before cutting down his attackers with ease, never setting himself but using a lackadaisical one handed style at times. There’s more than an air of Yojimbo about the character and it wouldn’t be entirely too praise-worthy to say that there’s something of the Mifune about Ihara’s performance, taking purposeful strides and exuding confidence in battle.
The last of the group to enlist is the ace up Miike’s sleeve, and one that elevates the characterisations from a few simple period analogies to the more mystical. There are various ways to interpret the figure of Kiga Koyata, and once again the international cut actually helps, keeping an air of mystery about him by removing two scenes in which the cards were arguably tipped. When you look at the area he was found in, how he was found, the conversation that takes place whilst the samurai are in the woods, the snapshot of the girl he longs for or his ability to hunt, all combine to make a great ambiguous talking point not entirely expected in an otherwise straightforward jidaigeki.
Once the 13 are banded together, the action can start a proper, and boy does it not disappoint! In pursuit of their goal to assassinate Naritsugu, the samurai have been given enough money to buy an entire town and transform it into a trap of epic proportions. Like a feudal A-Team, these men, with a couple of days and enough tools and bits of wood, can turn a normal settling of humble houses and minor businesses into an arena of death. You may be looking at your watch and thinking “this is too soon for the end fight scene”, but you’d be wrong, it stretches on for over forty minutes in a manner that makes Woo’s climax to A Better Tomorrow II look like a brief playground scuffle. If you were assuming Miike, with his leanings towards extreme violence, would fall on the more exploitative end of the jidageki spectrum, like many 70’s samurai flicks with their limb severing and gorily paused death shots, you couldn’t be more wrong. There’s claret aplenty, but the overwhelming majority of this humungous sequence seems massively respectful for the lineage of the narrative and its subject material. Swords are swung, blood is let, but it doesn’t descend into decapitation titillation.
Inventive means are used to ensnare and dispatch the larger-than-expected forces of Naritsugu; as the army wanders into the town everything is normal, the people are going about their everyday lives and women and children are present in the streets. However, the game of cat-and-mouse is finally at an end when the townspeople silently flee and the escape routes are blocked and the bridge destroyed. Arrows rain down from the roof tops, giant wooden barriers are brought crashing into place when needed to separate one of the 13 from his pursuers or to divide the enemy tactically. What begins as a force is soon whittled down into small mini-armies whose proficiency with the sword is weak, as many samurai have neglected their battle training in this time of peace. These, more manageable, pockets of combatants are tackled with guile, and some interesting use of livestock, until the 13 throw down their bows, dismissing these petty tactics with the machismo-tastic line “only 130 left”. At a ratio of merely 10 to 1, it is time to draw swords and fight like samurai.
Unlike many jidaigeki that get bogged down in the political nature of feudal Japan, Miike’s 13 Assassin’s keeps the premise simple and the villain suitably villainous. Naritsugu is easy to hate and if the early examples of his vicious nature were not enough, when he finally sees the carnage of battle with his own eyes he loses the final shred of sanity he may have had, deciding to purposefully send the country back into the age of war. His presence, and these moments of madness, helps keep the impetus for the bloodshed on track in the viewer’s mind, it would be all too easy to become somewhat wearied by such a long drawn out fight, but just as it feels like it may slip into pointless Rambo bodycount territory he is brought forward as a reminder of the cause, like an uber-Richard
III, clawing at power and what he might do with it. Hanbei though keeps him safe, and the scene is obviously set for his loyal retainer and Shinzaemon to finally meet for a true duel. It is a short encounter, but it perfectly crystallises both men as characters and symbols of larger themes. The final reel brings with it not only the most satisfying moment, a hard task to accomplish given the likelihood of an anti-climax, but also the ace up Miike’s sleeve – a genuine head-scratcher that’ll force the interested audience into another viewing.
In recent years we’ve been blessed with Kitano’s interpretation of Zatoichi and I’m delighted to say Miike’s take on the story of the 13 assassins is every bit as accomplished. It may be weighted towards the battle sequence, but to overlook the script, character and methodical pacing up to that point would be to do it a great disservice. 13 Assassins is a mature and purposeful look at the turning of eras, all wrapped in an entertaining, artistically shot and stunningly choreographed slice of swordplay.
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