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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Day Of The Samurai 4: 13 Assassins - 2011

13 Assassins is the greatest Samurai film to have been released recently. Not only is it a brilliant hearkening back to the glory days of the genre, but it is also one of the very best films to have been released this year.

13 Assassins was not a financial success in the West, but it's reception from film buffs and critics alike was almost unanimously positive. It literally came out of nowhere and took the various film festivals by storm, I did not know what to expect when I first saw it, as Miike is well known for his unpredictable nature. But fortunately it was a very straightforward hearkening back to the Golden Age of Samurai films, as a fan of the genre, I loved it.

Takeshi Miike is well known amongst film buffs for both the speed with which he makes his films and the controversial and horrifying content often found within.
While the extraordinary rate at which he makes films is unchanged, Miike does seem to be maturing and taking some rather unexpected paths as a director. His reputation was largely based around the controversy his films have created, but when focusing on this people often overlook his other works, which include some relatively mainstream works and even a film aimed at children if I'm not mistaken.
I say all this from the point of view of someone with little more than a passing knowledge of Miike's work, having only seen 2 of his many films. And while I will continue to avoid his more controversial work (just can't stomach that kind of thing) I am nonetheless very intrigued by this director.
Recently Miike has moved away from the shock and horror that usually defines his films and has made 2 films firmly rooted in the Samurai genre, 13 Assassins (a remake of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film of the same name) and Harakiri (yet to be released, a remake of the Masaki Kobayashi film of the same name I reviewed here).
And based on what I have seen in 13 Assassins, I can safely say that the transition was a most successful one, it is by far one of the best Samurai films of recent years, and is very different to the usual Samurai fare of the last decade or so. Many amazing Samurai films were released in the past decade, most notably When The Last Sword Was Drawn, but they all represented a rather significant departure from the Samurai film tradition, a tradition that this film returns to, in that they were far more artistic and intellectually driven, less intent of entertaining through bloody action scenes than providing insight onto the way of life of the Samurai while at the same time creating compelling dramas.
This film however retunrs to the the more action/adventure type of Samurai film, complete with all the honour, bloody battles and samurai camaraderie that goes with it.

13 Assassins is set in Feudal Japan, the Shogun holds absolute power over the various clans and it is a period of relative peace and stability. However the Shogun's younger brother, Lord Naritsugu, a vile sadistic bully who is fully aware of the privileges his status grants him and uses them to protect him from retaliations while he rapes, kills and maims all he comes across for his own amusement, is disrupting this tranquillity. After a high ranking Daimyo (Lord) commits harakiri, and another comes to complain over the murder of his son and the rape (leading to suicide) of his daughter in law at the hands of lord Naritsugu, a high ranking advisor to the Shogun decides that Naritsugu must be eliminated.
It is a suicide mission and can only be entrusted to the best and most loyal of Samurai, so the esteemed Shinzaemon is tasked with putting together a trustworthy band of Samurai to carry out this task.

A plan is drawn up, a location chosen, a curious character encountered, fortifications made, traps laid, and the battle begins.
And what a battle it is! A total massacre (as stated in the film), that ranks among the finest sword battles captured on film for many years, Miike avoids any of the ridiculous shaky cam that has been plaguing the screens and instead goes for a large scale massacre, using wide shots when possible, and frequently having several different fights taking place in the same shot.
It is both strikingly realistic and completely over the top, realistic in that it avoids many of the fancy swordplay and gravity defying leaps evident in so many Asian films, but over the top in it's sheer scale and execution.

What is interesting about this film is the fact that one can almost picture how the film would have been as a Hollywood (or any Western production for that matter) production.The main difference would be the attitudes of the characters, here the Samurai are ready and willing to carry out this glorious task. I cannot imagine a band of Western heroes (of any era) having the same mindset.
I mentioned previously that this film was considered quite a departure in style and content for Miike, and while that is true, there are still slight touches of his trademark penchant for disturbing, shocking and just plain weird content. The foremost example of this would be the tragic victim of the evil lord, a young woman entirely dismembered (both legs and both arms missing) and with her tongue cut out. Not something you'd see in any other film of the genre. The presence of the almost demonic character of Koyata, the are several small clues to his character scattered throughout the film, but it seems fairly obvious that he is some kind of demi-god/forest spirit made incarnate. He provides both the large part of the comic relief, and an admirable homage to Toshiro Mifune's character in the Seven Samurai, with which he has much in common. However his very nature makes him an unlikely element for a traditional Samurai film to include, so he can be seen as another of Miike's touches.

Ultimately, 13 Assassins just goes to show that the Samurai genre is not dead, even though it's output has lessened considerably. Films like this, are hard to come across these days as our attitude to such films has changed considerably, but thankfully Miike has decided to take it upon himself to bring the glory days of the genre back to life (lets not forget his upcoming remake of Harakiri) in a competent, respectful and highly entertaining way, while still making them Miike films, not dull reflections of such films as The Seven Samurai or the original Harakiri, but strong films in their own right, changed where needed for contemporary audiences, but still great pieces of cinema. I can barely wait to see his remake of Harakiri, as I adored the original and am confidant he will something quite exceptional.

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