Director: Takashi Miike
File it under “a sign of the times” – later this month the Cannes Film Festival will, for the first time in its 65-year history, include a 3-D movie in competition. But it’s arguably at least as important and noteworthy that said three-dimensional feature, Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai, is also the first time that a film by maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike has been selected to compete at the world’s most famous showcase of cinema.
File that under “better late than never”: 13 Assassins will be, by rough count, Miike’s 48th film made for big-screen release and his 71st overall (including video and TV movies) – not bad going, considering he made his debut only 20 years ago, at the age of 31. His secret is that he hardly ever writes or even contributes to the scripts he films, moving quickly from project to project and operating at a breakneck pace behind the camera.
Still perhaps best known for the movie that provided him with his major international breakthrough, nightmarishly extreme horror Audition (1999), he’s also responsible for the controversially uber-violent Ichi the Killer (2001), Japanese box-office smash One Missed Call(2003) and the genre-blending Tarantino collaboration Sukiyaki Western Django (2007); though his less widely-screened Gozu (2003), The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), Shangri-La: Japan Goes Bankrupt (2002) and sui generis children’s fantasy The Great Yokai War (2005) are at least as worthy of attention.
There hasn’t been a prominent, respected director on the world stage boasting this kind of prolific output since Germany’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder made out 40 features in the 13 years between 1969 and his death in 1982. But while Fassbinder was quickly recognised as a major creative force – a key figure in the ‘New German Cinema’ alongside the likes of Herzog and Wenders – Miike has often been dismissed as a marginal oddball, churning out outré genre fare with a particular emphasis on violent, sexually-transgressive horror and yakuza material.
And although – perhaps inevitably given his prodigious work-rate – consistency has never been a Miike hall-mark, his is already one of the most astonishing directorial careers in contemporary cinema – propelled and elevated by an inventive boldness, an idiosyncratic sense of humour and an eclectic audacity that makes the vast majority of his peers look like timid journeymen.
A relatively big-budget enterprise that sees Miike on (relatively speaking) “best behaviour”, 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white picture of the same title, itself heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) – later to be remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven (1960). We’re therefore in what will be quite familiar terrain for many viewers: the assembly of a skilled band of warriors to oppose and defeat a powerful, villainous adversary, culminating in a spectacular battle-to-the-death.
Set in the Japan of the mid-19th century, when the country’s feudal era was drawing to a close, Miike’s 13 Assassins is in many ways a dutiful addition to the long and colourful samurai-movie tradition. Aware that his royal connections place him effectively above any law, the Emperor’s evil brother Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) conducts a reign of terror – rapes, murders, mutilations (graphically realised in one particularly horrific sequence) – across the land. The more level-headed aristocrats and samurai gradually realise that something will have to be done to stop Naritsugu before his power – and atrocity-count – increases further, and it’s left to middle-aged Shinzaemon (Koki Yakushi) to assemble a crack, undercover assassination squad.
The first part of the picture is slow and steady, to the extent that action-fans may find themselves glancing at their watches wondering when – or even if – the promised martial-arts shenanigans are going to arrive. But this is all part of the crafty design that underpins Daisuke Tengan’s screenplay – a two-part affair that’s essentially an hour of build-up followed by an hour of near-non-stop battle-action as Naritsugu and his forces are ambushed while passing through a rural town.
Having carefully rigged the town with all manner of infernal devices and booby-traps, Shinzaemon’s dozen samurai give themselves a fair chance of outsmarting a foe of considerably larger numbers: it’s the Battle of Thermopylae (as seen in Zack Snyder’s 300 movie) as played out with samurai swords against a claustrophobic backdrop of wooden buildings, muddy ditches and scattering livestock (including some flaming bulls – a rare CGI flourish in what’s otherwise an unashamedly old-school exercise in craftsman-like film-making).
It’s 13 Assassins, not 13 Samurai, incidentally, because the twelve noble warriors are joined along the way by a wild-card additional member: Takayuki Yamada steals every scene in which he features as mountain-man Koyata, an irrepressibly extrovert live-wire who eschews traditional weapons in favour of ad-hoc improvisation – with raucously entertaining results.
At the other end of the professionalism scale there’s the full-tilt bad-ass ronin Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who’s at least as charismatically compelling as James Coburn – who played the equivalent role in The Magnificent Seven. Indeed, a sequel following Koyata and Hirayama’s further adventures would certainly not go amiss, even if certain narrative developments would appear to render this somewhat tricky – but then again, in the world of Takashi Miike, the impossible is merely another hurdle to be jauntily vaulted.
26th April, 2011
written for the 5th May edition of Tribune magazine