The final 45 minutes of Takashi Miike’s new picture 13 Assassins redefines the term ‘badass’ in action cinema. A non-stop spectacle of carnage in which the titular thirteen face off against a horde of over two hundred rampaging samurai, it’s Miike’s strongest picture in years, eschewing the ironic tone of his previous (released here anyway) genre-bending effort Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) in favour of a straight-faced nod to the classic chanbara epics of Kihachi Okamoto, Masaki Kobayashi and the grand master of samurai jidaigeki cinema, Akira Kurosawa.
Opening with an act of noble self-sacrifice straight out of Kobayashi’s Harakiri (1962), the set-up builds in much the same way as Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954) but with a catalyst that could have only come from the mind of the filmmaker who gave us Ichi The Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001). When a peasant woman is brought before samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) and her robe is removed to reveal her amputated limbs at the hands of psychotic Shogun warrior Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), she’s unable to describe the events that befell her village, her tongue having been removed alongside her arms and legs. Kept as a plaything and discarded by Naritsugu, she clenches a brush between her teeth and scrawls the words “Total Massacre”, the final straw for Shinzaemon and an impetus to stop the man who aims to bring an end to “The Age of Peace” and an image that’s classic Miike.
“Who would have thought the Age of War would be like this. It’s Magnificent”.
It’s the ‘men on a mission’ movie promised by Tarantino with his disappointing Inglorious Basterds (2009), closer in spirit to Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the honourable attempt by Sylvester Stallone earlier this year with The Expendables (2010), but shot with a true cineaste’s eye for framing and light (candlelit interiors recall Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1962), Nobuyasu Kita’s photography deserving special mention.
It’s refreshing to see a commercial samurai picture dealing with the tail end of the Shogunate era that doesn’t star Tom Cruise, and with most of the chanbara pictures released in the West in the past decade seemingly more concerned with the codes of the warrior class and less with unrelenting bloodletting, it’s great to see a film like 13 Assassins (itself a remake of a 1963 Eiichi Kudo film with which I’m unfamiliar) that’s unafraid to aim for ‘crowd-pleasing’ over a more meditative and reflective tone.
I’ve heard whispers that the international release intends to excise 17 minutes of footage from the picture, presumably from the first half in order to arrive more swiftly at the final battle, which would be a real shame as the set-up works on many levels, gradually building tension and relationships between the characters, particularly Shimaezon and Naritsugu’s number one henchman Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), a faithful servant of the Shogunate with greater respect for loyalty than honour. The characters may be a little broadly drawn, archetypes of the genre to a degree, with Yûsuke Iseya’s Koyata (a lovestruck bandit providing comic relief and making up the thirteen) essentially aping the Toshiro Mifune part in Seven Samurai, but come the mid-point it matters little as preparations begin for an ambush on Naritsugu and his men of epic proportions.
Displaying a macabre wit and invention throughout and an astonishing sense of space and timing, the climactic assault really has to be seen to be believed. Giant gates are built to compartmentalise the village in which it takes place, turning it into a an enormous, labyrinthine booby-trap full of charging bulls set aflame, blood flowing in rivers (from the sky at one point after a particularly effective explosion) and a use of large-scale practical effects unseen for a long time in an era of CGI over-reliance. Computer effects are used, but they’re implemented in such a way as to appear mostly seamless, and come the final showdown I found it had been the best part of an hour since I’d blinked.
A rip-roaring success, 13 Assassins deserves to be seen on the biggest screen as soon as possible, it’s style and fluid sense of direction both in the creeping set-up and the ensuing mayhem makes me hope that if Takashi Miike continues to make three films a year as he has been recently, at least one of them is as assured and dementedly brilliant as this. At last, Kurosawa has found his rightful heir.
13 Assassins – 2010 – Japan – 126 mins – Dir : Takashi Miike
Screening as part of the Film On The Square strand at the London Film Festival on Saturday 23rd & Sunday 24th October.Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff