Sunday, June 12, 2011

"13 Assassins" (2010)

It would be entirely unwise of me to declare outright that 13 Assassins is Takashi Miike's best film. One reason is obvious: I have simply not seen all 70+ films of his. The second reason is not so obvious: I am not, nor will I ever be, a devoted fan of Miike. His work invites fanboyism and diehards (so much have I gathered) and his strange factory-style willingness to make more and more films has erased what sense of style I can perceive in him. He is, oddly, in the same league as the assembly line directors of the 40s and 50s who would churn out films by the dozen. I have so far seen only his most well-known films, Audition, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, Gozu. I am even a great fan of Imprint, a truly repulsive inclusion into the Masters of Horror series: a horror masterpiece and easily the best entry in a very flawed series. But nothing of Miike ever commits itself to me except a sense of unease at either the eccentric haphazardness of his style (which makes him at the same time, bizarrely, a master of genre) or at the insane productivity he manages to work with, seemingly tireless. But maybe I am secretly complimenting a very hard-to-define artist.

With all of these caveats out of the way, I can safely declare (at least) that 13 Assassins is the best film I've seen of Miike's. It takes no major stylistic risks if we were to compare it with his other well-known work, and I'm certain that a diehard would prove me wrong in considering such a conventional film as 13 Assassins as his best work (conventional, at least, in relation to how ruggedly unconventional Miike can prove to be). But 13 Assassins seems to me to show Miike at his most controlled, at his most efficient, at his most workhorse-like. He shows the acumen of a skilled and weary director who's done it all: this man can direct anything, provided you give him the time and liberty to pull it off. He has pulled off nothing less than an old school classic, one that dares to insert itself quite proudly in the worn-out samurai genre (something which has not been "reinvented" since the recent films of Yoji Yamada). Unlike Yamada's humanitarian turns, Miike sticks to what he knows: brutality, ultra-violence, human cruelty. Cartoonish cruelty, indeed, but cruelty nonetheless; the cruelty of a comic book villain. The logic is cold, simplistic, reducible to black-and-white binaries: the logic of a 12-year-old boy playing with his action figurines and constructing a highly ornate battle sequence in which the highest possible body count piles up. A bad man (in this case, a pampered young nobleman who happens to be son of the Shogun and is so ludicrously inhuman that he murders strangers on the slightest whim) is next in line to take over the Shogunate: he must be stopped at all costs, or he will break the country's longstanding peace-time with his desire to bring war for no other reason than to amuse his feckless boredom with life (or something like that). A good guy (played by Koji Yakusho, gamely evoking the weariness and sagacity of Takashi Shimura in Seven Samurai) rounds up 11 other skilled samurai warriors to rub out the heavily-protected bad guy; the 12 warriors are eventually joined by a 13th, a mysterious rustic they encounter in the forest (played by Yusuke Iseya, utterly failing -- and who can blame him? -- in his attempt to evoke Toshiro Mifune's character).

Reduced to its fundamental parts, that is the extent of the plot, and it is precisely the reason why this film works so well: it wastes no time to get to the action, of which the centerpiece is the 40+ minute final battle scene in which the 13 samurai take on an army of 130 soldiers. Part of the pleasure of the film is in discovering how the 13 manage to level their odds: where Seven Samurai quite famously developed engaging storylines by involving the village people in the operation of the makeshift battle fortress they construct with the samurai, Miike and his screenwriters, perhaps sensing their inability to recreate such a highly inimitable plot structure, choose to forgo too much exposition and dive right into the visual surprise of trick-shot battle tactics (but this is probably more due to the inherent design of Kaneo Ikegami's original screenplay). An adolescent boy's dream undoubtedly, but one whose execution puts to shame the current stock of action and superhero films that are being made with three times the budget in Hollywood now (that said, there is probably no better pure summer action film than this one out right now). What distinguishes this film from something like 300 is its commitment to an older style of filmmaking that relies less on computer effects and more on sheer numerousness of actors, intricate set design, and the kinetic force of unmolested human movement. The grotesque false action of 300 (slow motion scenes do not constitute "good" action in cinema: they are the weak and underdeveloped simulation of actual human movement) is replaced by the equally grotesque but brutally descriptive action of people moving, thrusting, slicing, running, jumping, crouching, hitting, sparring, and blocking in something that is not real-time but which tries its hardest to approximate. The editing and shot selection as well as the action choreography combine to produce an intense and constant display of kinetic art that can (apparently) only be achieved after making at least 70 films.

Though 13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name (which was itself yet another exercise in jidai-geki themes that were in circulation during the period), the ostensible model continues to be Seven SamuraiSeven Samurai, among the ten greatest films that have consistently affected me throughout my life, is in every respect an unsurpassable film -- simply recalling its passages, its flights of tenderness, its range of human emotion and heroism, is enough to bring me to tears. For me, Kurosawa's work stands as the Illiad of cinema. That said, it is incumbent on me to applaud Miike's ability to have made a classic film which never attempts to repeat the unrepeatable. His film stands separately, in homage to its obvious paternity, and its deference is shown, remarkably, in the outbursts of ultra-violence that so distinctly mark a Miike film. Miike, a born iconoclast, stays true to himself, and it is this attitude which paradoxically shows itself to be the deepest reverence for the rich heritage that precedes him. Whether the success of 13 Assassins is repeated in yet another Miike-helmed remake of an inimitable film, Kobayashi's Harakiri (both are derived from the novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi) is but another story.

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