13 Assassins: a Review
So here’s a movie review. I tried to keep it brief as I’m wrestling with Writer’s Block, but those of you familiar with my very first blog and the reviews I used to do regularly on there know that that’s just not possible for me. Sorry — Matt
Takashi Miike is a weird dude.
He has made some pretty fucked up movies. Ichi the Killer, Audition, Three…Extremes, and Izo are all movies that came from a dark place that I don’t really want to talk about or relive the night terrors they bring.
Yet, he’s also made movies like Zebraman, which is a comedy about a man who’s a failure at everything except dressing up in a costume and fighting crime. Is Zebraman detached from sanity? Most certainly, but it’s still a comedy, absurd, but not deranged.
When I looked up his Wikipedia page to get some dates right regarding his movies (and I’ll admit, double check my spelling on his full name) it mentions that he did a few family films. He’s the Japanese Robert Rodriguez, bouncing back and forth across genres and age groups.
Granted, I’ve yet to see any of his family films, as the movies that are going to make it across the Pacific will be the graphically violent ones because they’ll sell on hype, controversy, and despite any differences in tone, pacing, and other more subtle aspects of storytelling, gore speaks across all nations and creeds.
So when I hear that Miike, the guy who did those horror movies that raised the bar in sheer creepiness and/or insanity was doing a samurai movie, my interest was piqued. I thought it’d be more in line with Rhyuhei Kitamura’s Versus which was a movie that had karate, sword fights, zombies, shootouts, prison escapes, magic, and someone getting their eyes punched out in the woods. It was a punk rock action movie.
Then I heard it was going to be a period piece. A movie about samurai set during the Shogun era when things were more or less calm, and there was little call for the samurai to take up arms and go to war.
I love samurai movies. While kung-fu flicks are about the intricacies of Chinese martial arts, and adapting styles to overcome seemingly superior ones, samurai movies are about brutal simplicity. There is an efficiency to the movements to cause the greatest amount of damage in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of effort.
How gory would this movie be? Would it follow a mad ronin on a quest for revenge? Would it have graphic depictions of entrails spilling to the ground, or bring back the neck geyser when someone gets their head cut off? What in the hell kind of period samurai movie would Miike give us?
As it turns out, 13 Assassins is a very well-paced, slow burn, men on a mission film.
Ironically, the movies borrows a lot from western films like the Magnificent Seven and the Dirty Dozen more than the Seven Samurai which of course actually inspired (gave the outline of the story and many of the characters) to the Magnificent Seven. However, aside from taking place in Japan and being, obviously, entirely in Japanese, the movie moves and works more as a western film.
Many of us (nerds) had our initial encounter with Japanese storytelling and pacing with either the Godzilla movies they used to show on TNT and SyFy on Saturday mornings or Cartoon Network’s Toonami block weekdays after school. The shows on Toonami were largely anime that had been localized for the US (dubbed, no on screen murders, blood edited out). My first real sustained interaction with Japanese storytelling were old episodes of Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing. While I enjoyed the concept and certainly the more advanced animation (at the time) the pace slowly began to drive me nuts.
I didn’t want to check in on what exactly every character thought at the exact moment, and I sure as shit didn’t want to do that every. Single. Time. Some. Thing. Happened. We’d always joke that they’d be powering up for entire episodes, but it wasn’t that; it was checking in with every other character in the series about every little thing that ground the story to a halt.
I found this happened in a lot of the movies and cartoons that were brought over here, perhaps not to the degree in children’s shows, but to say that that style of pacing was very popular would not be unwarranted.
13 Assassins, however, starts and just keeps going. It begins with establishing our villain, the Shogun’s adopted brother, Lord Naritsugu, as the most evil and vile person to ever live. Naritsugu does awful, unspeakable things, but with the the quiet detachment of a spoiled child now bored with his toys.
They spend so much time making Naritsugu evil that one starts to wonder if Miike is just going to make another weird, violent film except in the Feudal era, but after establishing that Naritsugu is bad, the movie goes about assembling the squad, plotting, counter-plotting, and preparing for the third act which is a single massive fight scene taking place over an entire town filled with booby traps.
Rather than pausing to see what each character thinks of every single decision or event, the movie moves relentlessly forward, and as each plan falls into place the violent outcome is inevitable. There are no quiet reflections or slow spots that don’t serve the movie, rather, the structure is kept intricate but lean, despite being over two hours long. Every conversation and small moment builds onto the story, rather than being stagnant or a tangent.
When I first saw the movie, I was blown away by the cinematography and the action choreography. Western filmmakers have learned all the wrong lessons from the Matrix and it’s always refreshing to see fight scenes where the camera is pulled back and kept still.
I love the Bourne series, but their impact on action films has been unbelievably bad, heralding an entire generation of shaky-cam bullshit action movies.
Being able to tell who are the good guys from who are the bad guys and really well-done fight choreography aside, the movie just looks good. Japan’s countryside is lush and green and the interiors of buildings are orderly and well lit. They make excellent use of the color palettes and lines in both indoor and outdoor scenes and everything looks fantastic. It’s highly competent film making. I can’t think of any other way to describe it, but it’s striking, and serves the tone well.
Initially I was put off by the fact that we only got to know three or four of the 13 really well, and that Naritsugu was arguably a cartoon, but upon reflection and a second viewing, the evil Lord Naritsugu and the band of 13 are less characters and more metaphors and symbols.
There are generally two kinds of samurai movies. Movies where the samurai are good and movies where the samurai are bad. Bear with me.
The Last Samurai is a good samurai movie where the warriors are everything that bushido demands of them. They are honest, noble, formidable, and honorable. They are the cultured warriors, completely at peace with the dichotomy of man and his talent for violence and desire for peace.
The bad samurai movies tend to focus on the samurai as members of a privileged class not used to hearing the word “no” and use the common people as playthings to rape or test their swords on as they do no actual fighting in real wars.
13 Assassins functions as a commentary on the two, by essentially pitting the two versions of samurai against each other. Naritsugu is the embodiment of appetite and ego. He is prone to violence, assault, and is a sick, sick man, alive in a time where warriors aren’t really needed and no one can stop him. Arrayed against him are Shinzaemon and his 11 samurai who live as disciplined men. They are forthright and just, and have dedicated themselves to a craft that will probably never again be called upon. This fight against Naritsugu is, on the surface, about defending the weak from an evil lord, ending corruption, and keeping Japan from free-falling into chaos, but dig a little deeper and every man is there because he’s bored.
Each is a warrior that’s never been tested and doesn’t want to live a life of leisure. This is their last chance to connect to and honor their ancestors and every man jumps at the chance to live in interesting times.
This is a movie about violence. Honor, justice, vengeance, all those themes are present and ruminated on, but at the end of the day it is about what a man can do and will do with a sword in his hand and the desire for that kind of life. In the early going, a lot of the violence and gore is implied or unseen. There are only brief flashes of blood and swordplay early in the film. Miike holds back so that in the third act when it’s most needed it has the most power. Everyone in the movie must deal with that desire for blood and the power that comes at the end of a sword and the price such a mindset demands.
Tangent/Subject for Debate: which is the exact opposite path Watchmen took. By exemplifying the violence, adding more and gore where there was less in the story, and taking it completely out of the third act reveal, the violence was robbed of its power in that movie.
My understanding/justification of all the characters as symbols fighting within a genre works to a point, but we are really given no time with eight or nine of the characters and at the end, they’re all dressed exactly the same with the same haircut using the exact same weapon. In fact the ones that we spend the most time with are the ones with different haircuts. I’ve seen the movie twice and I’m just able to keep track of who’s fighting where at the end. Granted, most people would desperately want to see the end again (it’s quite an ending), but you can’t hope fleeting glimpses and glances of people whose names we catch once or twice is enough to establish character.
I had no problem caring for any of the characters, largely because Naritsugu’s so evil, and the big four are charismatic enough to carry everyone else, but it’d be nice to be surer of who’s doing which badass thing.
13 Assassins is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year. If you like samurai movies, period pieces, action movies, martial arts movies, men on a mission movies, or want to see a really different movie by an interesting filmmaker, check it out. I first saw it OnDemand via my cable, but depending on where you’re reading this, it’s coming out in art house theaters on April 29th.
Posted on April 14, 2011, in Matt Loman, Movies, Pop Culture, Television and tagged 13 assassins, action, karate, kung fu, kungfu, Matt Loman, samurai, samurai movies. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.