Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Samurai For An Eye: 13 Assassins review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Takashi Miike
Stars: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki
Running time: 126 mins 

13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, will be a shock for Western audiences familiar with Takashi Miike's gore-iffic (word) Ichi The Killer or the magnificently depraved Audition. The film finds the director in a mainstream mood, taking on one of the archetypal stories of the jidaigeki genre (a gang of samurai band together to defeat an opposing force) and holding back much of the splatter with which he is commonly associated by  international fans.

That's not to say he doesn't have a little fun along the way: the villainous Lord Naritsugu is as sadistic as any character in Miike's bloody filmography, happily using his position to rape, mutilate and torture anyone - with a particular taste for women and children - who catches his eye. The film only has one genuine 'shock' image, but its power is multiplied by the more sober film surrounding it. Although Miike is a prolific director back in Japan, Assassins feels like an attempt to convince Western audiences that he has more strings to his bow than cult horror.
The results are a mixed bag. The first half, mostly concerned with establishing Naritsugu's cruelty and giving us a sense of character for each samurai enlisted to slay him, moves slowly and is too familiar to be compelling. There's an interesting undercurrent about the slow decline of the samurai honour and the breakdown of the ruling hierarchies dominant in Feudal Japan, but it's not enough to enliven the 'putting a team together' scenario which fans of Japanese cinema will have seen countless times before. Having such a large number of samurai means that there's not enough time to give more than a handful of them distinctive personalities beyond the usual archetypes (the ageing master, naïve novice, rebellious super-swordsman etc). It's easy to predict how each character is going to turn out within a few seconds of their introduction, so the remaining time spent in their company outside the battlefield feels wasted. Consequently, as terrible as Naritsugu's actions are, his scenes become ones to look forward to by merit of his being the most unpredictable and active character.

That's not to say there is nothing of note in this first half. Once the samurai have made their plans and settled on a location in which to trap Naritsugu, the cinematography opens up with some gorgeous shots of mountains and woodland. Even the shadowy dojos, where the conspirators meet to decide what to do about their psychotic new Lord, are lit and framed to match the mood of the scene. With such a great number of productions under his belt, Miike's experience ensures that every technical detail is spot-on, even if the labourious storytelling lets him down.

Fortunately, those familiar with Eiichi Kudo's film will know that the second half is where everything picks up the pace, and Miike's film follows suit. As with the original film, the final forty minutes is taken up entirely with a battle to the death between the eponymous samurai and the army standing between them and Naritsugu. Miike takes Kudo's template and makes it bigger, more elaborate and more violent, set in a single village brimming with murderous traps and left in wreckage by the end. It is in this showdown that Miike's camera comes alive, rising from the detached professionalism of the first hour to energetic glee at capturing every trap in lethal action, every splatter of blood from a freshly slain bodyguard, every bead of sweat running down his protagonists' faces as they realise the scale of what they are up against, but have no choice other than to keep fighting. Even when attempting to go mainstream, Miike seems enlivened by the thrill of violence, which stands in opposition to one of the film's main themes, but it's hard to care when having this much fun. After struggling through the tempered pace of the preceding hour, it feels like a deserved reward.

No character exemplifies this better than Naritsugu, who once again proves himself the film's most engaging character as he wanders the battlefield, his sadism engorged by the bloodshed around him, sending ever greater numbers of his men to die for his amusement. It's tempting to feel that Miike is making an observation on his viewers: just as Naritsugu's hunger for violence is borne out of boredom, Miike's own success could be said to be built on offering extraordinarily horrific imagery to people eager to be shocked out of the numbing effects of everyday life. Many of his films have carried subversive themes about the decaying effect of regimented society - echoed in literal terms here when Naritsugu's actions force a government official to break ranks and plan his assassination when no-one else is willing to speak out against the brother of the Shogun -  so what are the odds that Miike's critical eye has finally turned back on his audience?

Although ending on a blood-soaked high, the sluggish first half never quite feels vindicated. If Miike did want to prove to his foreign fans that he could do straight drama and character just as well as he can do violence, the film only ends up confirming that he'd have done better to stay in his element all along. The massive second half set-piece is as exciting an action sequence as any in recent memory (including, let's not forget, Fast Five's monumental climactic car chase and Inception's spinning corridor fight) and directed with the precision and clarity of an pro, but the energy of a first-timer. For anyone unfamiliar with period Japanese samurai movies, 13 Assassins may well set a new passion burning. For everyone who has seen Seven Samurai or its countless derivatives, you can arrive a good half-hour late in the knowledge that the good stuff is still to come. [ 6 ]


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