I don't know what I expected when I sat down to watch Takashi Miike's well-regarded 13 Assassins (2010). The second coming of Akira Kurosawa, maybe? That's what the reviews have suggested. Serves me right for reading them. What I got, instead, was a Miike movie, of course. Truth to tell, I'm not even sure how I want to write about it. Please bear with me as I stumble around the movie.
The story here takes place about 20 years before the Meiji restoration and the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, but the shogunate is already teetering. Poised to take a position of power is the shogun's brother, Lord Naritsuga, a man cut from the same cloth as Caligula. His idea of fun is using the family of a lord who protested his ascension to the shogun's inner council by committing seppuku as target practice. This is a man who everyone knows should NOT come near anything like the power of the shogun, but everyone is bound by the rules of the shogunate. No one can really stop it. One daimyo, Sir Doi, decides that the rules must be broken, and tasks samurai Shinzaemon Shimada with the task of assassinating Lord Naritsuga. To this end, Shinzaemon assembles a team of ronin to take on Naritsuga's entourage, pitting his 13 men against 200.
If Miike's name wasn't attached to this film, the scene in which Shinzaemon is convinced to assassinate Lord Naritsuga would act as a kind of signature. In this scene, Shinzaemon is introduced to the daughter of a peasant leader who dared question Naritsuga. The peasant leader was killed, but his daughter got the worst of it. In a scene of surpassing nastiness, we see her stripped bare, revealing that she has had her arms and legs amputated and her tongue cut out. Weilding a calligraphy brush with her mouth, she writes out the fate of her people: "Total Massacre." So much for the classical samurai film. The final, I dunno, hour or so of this film is one long action scene in which our merry band of ronin take on a small army of dudes. The way they go about it--by booby-trapping an entire village--has no acquaintance with naturalism, but it's striking none the less. It the sort of thing one sees in anime, actually. And then, of course the carnage starts. Miike is infinitely patient in staging his action scenes, with each piece of the action flowing into the next like quicksilver. This isn't a fast-cut movie, though Miike knows when to cut fast. The geography of most sequences is carefully worked out. I don't know that there's any subtext to this, really. It's not a film in which the placement of characters denotes anything but their tactical position in a battle. This is film as a kinetic art form, one that stages action for the sake of action. I admire the purity of its intent. For all intents and purposes, this is an hour-long display of Miike showing what a motherfucker he is.
And, I admit, it's exhilarating to watch.
On the surface, this is very much in the vein of the heroic bloodshed movies so popular in Asia, and its primary theme is how noble it is to die for a cause. If you dig a little deeper, particularly if you put the last scenes in some kind of context, and you get one of the anti-samurai movies of the 1970s. And you also get something inexplicable. One of the ronin isn't a samurai at all: he's a huntsman who has acted as a guide for our troupe of assassins. During the course of the big battle, we watch him die with a sword through his throat after cursing how useless samurai are. Then, at the end, when the lone survivor of the massacre staggers through the aftermath, our huntsman is there, seemingly miraculously healed. At this point, I was thinking a standard "what the hell just happened?" Is this a ghost? I think it might be. But the movie is blank-faced about this. It just kind of happens. I'm not entirely sure of what to make of it, much like I'm not sure what to make of the movie itself.
Updating my Fantastic Fest fundraiser, I'm off to a slow start, but I'm off to a start none the less. So far the drawing requests have been COMPLETELY awesome. Being asked to draw the likes of Christopher Lee and Francoise Dorelac makes this into pure pleasure on my part. You can still get in on this, of course. Here's the button, again:
Anyway, all told, I have awesome readers.