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Film review: 13 Assassins (2011) – a baker’s dozen of samurai mayhem

January 16, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews of stuff from last year.

13 Assassins Takashi Miike

13 Assassins
(Takashi Miike, Jap, 2011)

The sword-swinger dialled up to 11, with another two added to make up the baker’s dozen – for Miike, surprisingly old-school; for anyone else, mental.

It’s kind of clichéd and boring to say that the jidai-geki movie is to Japanese cinema what the Western is to Hollywood, but it’s hard to dispute when faced with a film like 13 Assassins. Basically, Takashi Miike’s movie is the samurai film is a compendium – or a remix – of classic samurai tropes, in exactly the way that Sergio Leone’s Westerns (themselves indebted to Kurosawa, of course) were.

The title and premise, even down to the presence of a scruffy peasant who joins the fight as an honorary ronin, arrive straight from Seven Samurai. The backdrop for the extended battle set-piece looks just like the ghost town where Toshiro Mifune squared off in Yojimbo. And the subversive, sceptical view of shogunate tradition and ritual, of hypocrisy behind sliding doors, recalls Kobayashi’s recently re-issued Harakiri – since remade by Miike himself. The only thing missing is a blind swordsman a la Zatoichi, but you can’t have everything.

Takashi Miike, a director whose pick ‘n’ mix approach to filmmaking has always been notable for its genre-hopping, reins it in here. There’s an admirable purity and restraint to the storytelling, with a slow-burning first hour that takes time to show what the stakes are. And a fiendish little narrative trap it is, too: a bold reimaging of Seven Samurai in which the enemy isn’t a rabble of bandits but a powerful lord, who is abusing his birthright by raping and pillaging. And Miike, the guy who made Ichi The Killer and Audition, knows a thing or two about making scary villains, and his Lord Naritsugu is a genuinely nasty piece of work – the unveiling of one victim is a chilling moment that justifies everything which follows.

And so the samurai have to break with protocol and become, as the title suggests, assassins – abandoning the letter of the law in order to respect its spirit. It’s a wonderful narrative conceit, one that refreshes the genre’s honourable standing without being in thrall to it. These warriors are relics, no longer asked to fight for glory but to serve the caprices of masters who are, at best, spineless, and at worst psychotic. It’s the end of an era, so one last noble kill might atone for their tarnished reputation. If it was a Western, it’d be The Wild Bunch rather than the Kurosawa-aping The Magnificent Seven.

But wider considerations apply – this is one of those films, beyond cowboys or samurai or soldiers, which concerns itself with the male death-wish, and the nihilistic urge to kill. It’s The Dirty Dozen, or 300, and when the final battle comes, the delirium is earned. An entire village is turned into a custom-built abbatoir, with home-made traps that hem in the enemy like the gates of hell. Even the cows here are on fire.

For Miike, the gore is relatively tame, but it’s quantity, not quality, that counts. How many must die in the pursuit of honour? Ironically, the intended victim, cocooned behind rows of helpers, is having the time of his life, energised by war and quite oblivious to the human cost. The biggest subversion here is that the good guys virtually share the same attitude, and are hurtling towards obsolescence as a result.

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