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rochefort [Film Festival 10.02.10] movie review action

Year: 2010
Directors: Takashi Miike
Writers: Kaneo Ikegami/Takashi Miike
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: rochefort
Rating: 9 out of 10

In the years just before the advent of Japan's Meiji era, the feudal Shogunate is waning as tensions rise among the Shogun's lieutenants and lords, mainly due to the rapid and bloody ascension of Lord Naritsugu (a superb Goro Inagaki), a young and spoiled samurai with a privileged and self-serving philosophy of war and the function of Japan's ruling class. His callous disregard for tradition and compassion results in a trail of bodies both peasant and noble, and "retired" samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) is approached by one disgraced nobleman to unofficially assassinate Naritsugu and restore balance to the system. Shinzaemon accepts only after being shown the dismembered body of one of Naritsugu's vicitms, then wastes no time assembling a group of thirteen samurai, ronin, and drifters for a suicide mission against the evil lord and two-hundred of his finest soldiers.

Director Takashi Miike doesn't need much of an introduction these days, at least not on a site like this one. If you're even the most casual fan of Asian cinema, you've heard of at least one of his more audacious films such as "Audition" or "Ichi the Killer". And Miike's output is massive. He directs and releases several films every year, and works in so many genres and under so many varying production conditions that the quality and tone can be all over the map from movie to movie. While I love many of his yakuza and crime movies, "Sukiyaki Western Django", "Audition", "Gozu", "Ichi", etc., there are almost just as many of his films that I can barely get through the first time. It's a trade-off, really, because when you get down to it, Miike is the epitome of the punk rock director, so much so that he's perfectly content to release a classic and a, well, not-so-classic back to back without missing a beat. That said, no fan of Miike is ever surprised that when he's in the mood to be great, great he most certainly is. "13 Assassins" sees Miike channeling Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (as well as the original 1963 film; yes, this is a remake) and its East-meets-West narrative (Kurosawa's original was itself clearly inspired by Jason's Argonauts) through his own modern sensibilities, both in terms of violence and the sociopolitical underpinnings. This is certainly one of the biggest films of Miike's career, and is arguably his best.

The story is split into two distinct and lengthy halves. The first half consists of a whole lot of sitting and talking, as Lord Naritsugu's heinous crimes are relayed from one person to the next and Shinzaemon recruits the various members of his assassin team. These scenes do more than just build up anticipation for the conflict to come: they drop numerous hints as to what we can expect when the fighting inevitably starts. Here's an example, one that some American audience members may not care about, but it's a telling technical point: when a katana (samurai sword) is pulled from its sheath, in the real world it doesn't make a metallic "shing" sound. No self-respecting swordsman would tolerate such a thing, as it means that metal is scraping metal and therefore dulling the blade. Miike won't tolerate it either, and the early scenes of sword training are super-authentic, right down to the arduous steps each practitioner goes through in the course of an exercise. And in addition to displaying a meticulous attention to matters of decor, politics, and subterfuge, these early scenes depict multiple and varying shades of devotion to the code of Bushido and national pride. A few of the thirteen come alive as we witness the way each tries to balance his own personality with the stoicism required by the way of the samurai, so much so that it soon dawns on us that Miike, despite a very traditional surface appearance, is making a highly subversive movie here, one that is not only interested in depicting a state of the art battle between samurai, but also one that questions whether of not Japan's Western modernization, and the death of the romantic samurai ideal, was such a bad thing after all. In this respect, "Assassins" is an extremely worthy successor to Kurosawa's classic.

The second half is the part where you won't want to blink. Once Shinzaemon's band begins their assault, the movie simply does not let up for more than a full hour, and a bloody, exhausting (in a good way) hour it is. Every setup pays off in the way that only the best action films can achieve, and it soon becomes apparent that Miike has pulled off yet another hat trick. See, the majority of the assassin band doesn't get all that much intro time in the first half of the film, and the biggest arcs are reserved for less than half a dozen of the film's main players. But in the battle scenes, key characters continue to develop right in front of us not through dialogue but through action, and while you may not remember the names of each of the thirteen, you will certainly come to distinguish each during his featured fight. And then there are the fights themselves. Miike has a reputation for bringing the gore, and here he balances his love and mastery of violent effects with a focus on depicting the battle with as much realism and intensity as possible. Imagine the final combat scenes of "Seven Samurai" shot through with the visceral authenticity of the first act of "Saving Private Ryan", and you pretty much get the picture. Like I said, a state of the art samurai film. See by any means necessary.

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bill (11 years ago) Reply

I'm stoked about this movie but I'd like to point out some inaccuracies in your reporting: 26 seconds into the preview material below the metallic "shing" sound made when pulling a sword is very present indeed.


Anonymous (11 years ago) Reply

You're right about the "shing" in the preview, which I hadn't seen until you pointed it out. It's not in the movie, however, so chalk it up to trailer glamour.

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