Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Strange Films I've Seen: THIRTEEN ASSASSINS

Are you ready for some serious late-Feudal Japan ass-kicking? Takashi Miike brings the heat with Thirteen Assassins, his very large and polished remake of Eiichi Kudo's '63 original, and though Miike's is in full brilliant color it eschews the arterial spray the director is notorious for, replacing it with a skillfully choreographed and shot, rather accessible film. Westerners tepid over the interesting use of English in Sukiyaki Western Django may very well find a lot to love here, as should other international markets: it carries that based-on-a-true incident velocity, it's epic but not impenetrably confusing, the cast includes some of the finest Japanese actors (and by actors I mean males; there are very few women in this film), and it brims with action. Calling this "action-packed" does a gross disservice to what Miike's cut for us, as like the final two-thirds of this samurai film is one nonstop fight scene, with a kill ratio easily on par w/ anything else Miike's directed. Think about that for a minute.
The plot, despite its centering in late-Feudal Japan and lengthy cast of grubby, growling guys, is deceptively to-the-point. There's this petulant badass younger brother to the Shogun named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki at his most jealously ruthless), raper of women, pillager of villages, killer of all (the scene where he swiftly dispatches a well-meaning Takumi Saito, though Naritsugu was obvs in the wrong, just made me smile — and that's just b/c Saito-kun gets on my nerves. Sorry, Saito-kun!). Naritsugu wouldn't mind bringing back war games, amid other atrocities, and he needs to leave like now, but who's man enough (and crazy enough) to take on he and his legion of men? Enter the samurai Shinzaemon (perfectly chosen and played by Koji Yakusho, instantly added worldly cred to the role — the Western world doesn't have an equivalent, maybe Viggo Mortensen?), banding together a dozen hired swords (including Yusuke Iseya, aka the loose cannon with amazing cheekbones in Sukiyaki Western Django, as a mountain-dwelling brawler, and the imposing Tsuyoshi Ihara as a weathered ronin) to take his ass out. Mind you, that's 13 assassins total, vs. Naritsugu (who likes to shoot arrows into defenseless women at point-blank range, for example), his older but frightening retainer Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura, chewing up screentime whenever he's on), the embarrassingly whiny Zoudayu (c'mon Ken Mitsuishi! I guess even tough guys get these wuss parts sometimes) and approximately 200 soldiers.
We know where this is headed from the seppuku scene at moment one: Naritsugu's getting his ass taken out, w/o a doubt. The 13 buy out a village (run charmingly by Ittoku Kishibe, who gets his two minutes) and waste no time in converting it into a pre-Saw booby trap, replete w/ sliding spiked-log walls, old-school dynamite (two of the younger assassins, who I like to pretend are lovers in the film, trained in explosives), fireballs coming off raging bulls (seriously) and lots of gorgeous swordplay. The fight occurs just after a heavy downpour, and the muddy town quickly becomes laden with blood and corpses. Cheer at the decapitations! Gasp at the assassins' ingenuity in their sophisticated obstacles! Applaud at Shinzaemon's no.2 sword, played by Hiroki Matsukata, telling Naritsugu "we greet your passage with arrows". Boo when each and every one of our heroes bites the dust (but not before dispatching like 10 bad guys). Did you catch the part where the ronin systematically takes out like 30 bad guys, in a landscape filled w/ small fires and easily accessible katana stuck everywhere, Matrix-style, so he can grab a fresh sword and do his wetwork on the baddies? Plus the final showdown between Naritsugu and Shinzaemon is just as electrifying and satisfying as the 50+ minutes of bloodshed that preceded it, with another severed head as a punctuation mark. Miike-san, we bow down to you.