Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Of Samurai: 13 Assassins

(Welcome to the inaugural entry in Summer Of Samurai. AKA the best idea that I seem bound and determined to mishandle. In its first year I tried to devote the month of August to Samurai, which was a very bad idea. This year determined to spread it out over the summer I announced the revival of the series at the beginning of June and now present the first entry midway through July… Well better late then never, and I can’t think of a better film to start out on.)

Takashi Miike is a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me. If there’s one cult filmmaker whose bandwagon I’ve never been on its Miike. Maybe its because I’ve always liked Japanese Cinema enough that Miike simply wasn’t the only game in town when it came to extreme Asian cinema. Maybe its because you can only see so many people boiled alive in feces before the bloom comes off that particular rose. But mostly it’s because that Miike’s films just feel sort of empty, take away the transgression and there’s nothing there. Even the films that succeed purely by pounding one into submission, like his gleefully grotesque musical Happiness Of The Katakuri’s, do so by bludgeoning you with novelty.

This is all to establish that I am just as surprised as you are when I say that 13 Assassins is one of the finest examples of its genre that I know of. And could very well be one of the greatest action films I’ve ever seen.

Ironically the first thing that lets us know that it is a different Takashi Miike that we’re dealing with is Hari-Kari. In the opening shots of the film a Samurai lord commits seppuku, as a protest against the Shogun’s evil half brother. It’s easy enough to imagine how Miike would usually film that scene, with gore and gristle splattering all over the staid period settings. Instead Miike keeps the shot on the lord’s face throughout the action, emphasizing the time it takes, the emotions and pain that play out on his face. The amount of will it takes to do as he does. There’s more depth in that shot then there is in the rest of Miike’s films put together (It’s worth noting that when the one moment of traditional Miike transgressive perversity does come into play its meant to evoke sorrow, an emotion heretofore foreign to Miike's Oeuvre).

Spurred on by the act of the lord the high justice of the land commissions a faithful Samurai to assassinate The Shogun’s brother and his private army. The Samurai gathers together twelve other men for the task. It’s thirteen men against seventy, but then… Well that would be telling.

What follows is the kind of film that makes you a genre fan for life, and keeps you one when the love begins to wane. It’s classic man on a mission filmmaking, a slow burn that takes careful time with its characters, atmosphere and story that builds to an apocalyptic ending that just keeps going and going. It’s genuinely epic filmmaking and I feel sorry for the action fans who are getting suckered on Bay-splosions who for five dollars more could own this masterpiece. It’s one of the best of it’s kind and I know I’m sounding like a broken record here but I cannot freaking believe that Takashi Miike made this thing.

I envy the kids who get this as their gateway film. 


le0pard13 said...

Excellent look at this soon to be classic of the genre, Bryce. I saw this late-May at one of the two theaters showing it here. I was surprised how well Miike handled this genre piece (though he did supply some of his trademark gruesome touches early). That opening scene could have gone overboard, yet it was a superb bit of filmmaking (as you covered so well). The director here reminded me of Kihachi Okamoto's films (SAMURAI ASSASSIN and KILL!). And yes, the slow burn was done remarkably well to set up that 45-minute tour de force finale. Now, if there was only a way to remove the really unfortunate, obvious, and distracting CGI element in that one sequence, it would have been perfect. Thanks.

Henry Swanson's Glasses said...

I was kind of predicting, and hoping, you'd open up your "Summer of Samurai" with this film, and I am very glad it was your choice.

Yeah, lot of fantastic stuff here. I'm not a true Miike fan (I like some of his work, but I haven't really enjoyed one of his films in probably six years), but this to me is his masterpiece. There is just so much right with this film. The slow burning first hour guided by a shockingly restrained hand and the final battle that can only be described as a volcanic eruption of jaw-dropping battle scenes.

This is one of the best action films I've probably ever seen, and I propose it's up there with the best of Okamoto or Misumi.

A hero never dies said...

Probably film of the year for me already, I'm not really a Miike fan either but this is filmmaking of the absolute highest quality.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Le0: It's funny I was thinking of Kill myself.

As for the CGI effect, yeah that's a prime example of just having to give something a mulligan. I have to admit it made me laugh.

@ HSG: Respect Knux.

@ AHND: You know I hadn't really thought about it. But it's definitely up there.