Bastard samurai

Pub date May 17, 2011
SectionFilm Review

Takashi Miike is 50 years old, has only been active in film since 1991, and since then has directed approximately 80 features for TV, video, and theatres. Eight-zero. Even Rainer Werner Fassbinder on every puppy-upper in the world achieved nothing like that volume (and was dead at 37). It’s not like Miike’s films are cheap knockoffs assembled by a stock company à la the prolific Ulli Lommel or your average pornographer. Though they started off on the low end of the Japanese industry’s budgetary scale — and one suspects he’s still a producer’s wet dream of bang for buck — from early on his projects were busy, elaborate, even frantic with highly cinematic ideas. Not to mention frequently insane.

Miike’s trademark cinema is the gonzo genre mashup as first significantly noted abroad via cult hits like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Dead or Alive (1999) — movies so crazed with jaw-dropping, often hilarious splattersome outrageousness and relentless high energy that they could be both unforgettable and exhausting. (It is perhaps Miike’s only major fault that he often gives us too much of a good thing.) But the breadth of his imagination and stylistic adaptability is amazing. He’s made children’s fantasies, teen musicals, blackest domestic satire, a low-key rural whimsy (1998’s The Bird People in China), formulaic J-horror (2003’s One Missed Call), and one languorous all-boy lockup saga suffused with the homoerotic surrealism of Fassbinder’s 1982 Querelle (2006’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A).

Miike’s first significant hit here was another stylistic departure, 1999’s Audition — a May-December romance of Ozu-like restraint that only revealed its true agenda in a last few minutes of harrowing violence. Since then the odd Miike film has gotten modest U.S. theatrical release, like 2007’s gonzo mode Sukiyaki Western Django.

But the new 13 Assassins is clearly destined to be his greatest success yet outside Japan. (One just hopes success doesn’t do what it frequently does to hitherto fast, almost impulsive artists — i.e., slow down their future output because the decisions are now more commercially and prestigiously “important.”) It’s another departure, doubtless one of the most conventional movies he’s made in theme and execution. That’s key to its appeal — rigorously traditional, taking its sweet time getting to samurai action that is pointedly not heightened by wire work or CGI, it arrives at the kind of slam-dunk prolonged battle climax that only a measured buildup can let you properly appreciate.

That buildup is long, though, so ADD-addled mall rats should be forewarned. In the 1840s, samurai are in decline but feudalism is still hale. It’s a time of peace, though not for the unfortunates who live under regional tyrant Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a li’l Nippon Caligula who taxes and oppresses his people to the point of starvation. Alas, the current shogun is his sibling, and plans to make little bro his chief adviser — which could throw the entire nation into chaos.

Ergo a concerned Shogun official secretly hires veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the Lord at one of the rare times he’s vulnerable to attack, during his annual trip home from the capital court. Fully an hour is spent on our hero doing “assembling the team” stuff, recruiting other unemployed, retired, or wannabe samurai for a lean-mean total of 12 (eventually joined by Takayuki Yamada’s comedy-relief rube). This slow, sober initial progress is tweaked by glimpses of Naritsugu’s extreme cruelty, which encompasses rape, murder, and dismemberment just for the hell of it.

When the protagonists finally commence their mission, their target is already aware he’s being pursued. He’s surrounded by some 200 soldiers by the time Miike arrives at the film’s sustained, spectacular climax: a small village his retinue must pass through, and which Shinzaemon and co. have turned into a giant booby trap so that 13 men can divide and destroy an ogre guarding army.

A major reason why mainstream Hollywood fantasy and straight action movies have gotten so depressingly interchangeable is that digital FX and stunt work can (and does) visualize any stupid idea — heroes who get thrown 200 feet into walls by monsters then getting up to fight some more, etc. 13 Assassins is thrilling because its action, while sporting against-the-odds ingeniousness and sheer luck by our heroes as in any trad genre film, is still vividly, bloodily, credibly physical. 

13 ASSASSINS opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.