Sunday, July 10, 2011

"13 Assassins": the review

The above image shows what is, for me, the greatest moment in Miike Takashi's "13 Assassins." In the scene in question, the samurai Shimada Shinzaemon, played by Yakusho Koji, sees a horribly mutilated woman and laughs-- not because he's laughing at the woman's disfigurement, but because he sees, in the horror visited upon her, a reason for him to take up his sword and lay down his life for a noble cause.

It may sound strange, but "13 Assassins" has something in common with "Dragonslayer," a 1981 film by Matthew Robbins. Both of these movies are about the ending of an age: in "Dragonslayer," the arrival of Christianity on the shores of the British Isles marks the beginning of the end of a long-standing pagan tradition: the dragons and the wizards will ultimately destroy each other, leaving the meek to inherit the earth. In "13 Assassins," we stand at the cusp of the modern Meiji era; this is the twilight of the samurai, and those who follow the bushido code feel they have little purpose in life except as noble decorations. The chances for a samurai to achieve the highest glory-- proper death in proper battle-- are few. This historical moment is the emotional backdrop for Miike's film. It might even resonate with Western viewers, who can relate to the primal theme of one last chance to do something right.

As is true of Korean films, "13 Assassins" is talky. Most of the talk takes place at a noble register; the language is courtly, often hiding raw emotions that, for dignity's sake, cannot be directly expressed. The main characters speak in questions and metaphors; threats are veiled under evocations of old childhood rivalries. The above-pictured scene was one example of that understated power: Shinzaemon permits himself only a brief moment to indulge in his newfound zeal before he takes a breath, calms himself, and becomes all business. As with the best British movies, it's a pleasure for the viewer to watch a Japanese actor who has mastered the art of both betraying and concealing passion.

The movie is divided into three distinct phases: the call to mission; the gathering, training, and planning of the assassins; and the mission itself. "13 Assassins" begins with harakiri: a complaint by the samurai Mamiya against injustice perpetrated by Lord Naritsugu, the son of a shogun and heir to the noble Akashi clan. Naritsugu's ascendancy to the inner circle of the shogunate would spell disaster for the land: his lust for killing and defilement would plunge the people into chaos after years of peace. The nobles close to the current Shogun know they can't afford to speak out directly against Naritsugu; the commissioning of the assassins must be done in secret.

Twelve of the thirteen assassins are samurai, but the thirteenth person to join the company, Kiga, is met on the way to Ochiai Village, where the samurai are planning to ensnare Naritsugu and his retinue. When I first saw the actor who played Kiga, I suspected that he might be portraying some sort of supernatural being; this suspicion was confirmed when I read the Wikipedia entry on the film. To say more at this point would be to spoil the plot, however, so I'll leave the topic of Kiga at that.

The major fight scene is impressively rendered and, for the most part, very old-school. While the duels are intense and gritty, there is nothing approaching the cartoonish fountains, pools, and rivulets of blood seen in movies like "Kill Bill: Volume 1." Much of the worst violence is slightly off-camera, leaving the gore to our imagination-- imagination enhanced by excellent metal-on-bone-and-guts sound design. The choreography of the swordsmanship is superbly executed, and the special effects are generally good, except for one embarrassingly bad moment involving stampeding animals: the bargain-basement CGI of this sequence reminded me of that horrible Robin Williams movie, "Jumanji."

But what makes the movie great is the acting. Yakusho Koji, whom I know from films like "Tampopo" (where he played the libidinous, white-suited gangster) and "Shall We Dance?" (where he played the inspiration-seeking husband), is the right age to play Shinzaemon, a samurai who, to all appearances, was on his way to a pedestrian death before this noble cause came along. Inagaki Goro-- who apparently started out as a singer in a Japanese boy band called SMAP-- is fan-damn-tastic as the villainous Lord Naritsugu. Inagaki is convincingly evil; we have no trouble rooting for his demise. The other cast members all do yeoman's work in filling out the remaining roles. Especially impressive to me was Ihara Tsuyoshi as the towering ronin Hirayama, who gets one of the most memorable scenes in the final battle, making his stand in a narrow space filled with swords ready for his use.

Vicious Lord Naritsugu and Shinzaemon, the man out to kill him, are polar opposites. The movie is as much about the clash in their values as it is about the end of an era. Both men crave depth of experience, but only one of them is concerned with values like inner nobility, courage, and self-sacrifice. I couldn't help thinking that Miike, like other Japanese directors (Itami Juzo of "Tampopo" comes to mind), intended his story to be an oblique commentary on Japanese culture-- perhaps not a cri de coeur for a return to the good old days of feudalism, but a warning to modern Japan about what it has lost and what it has plunged into in its headlong rush to embrace modernity.

"13 Assassins" works on all levels, whether as a simple action piece, as a showcase for fine acting, or as sociocultural commentary. As I mentioned above, the film's sound design is impressive. If you have the chance, watch the movie with the sound turned way up, kick back, and enjoy the show.



Sperwer said...

"Are you asking me to do something?"

Kevin Kim said...

I loved that line. You're as sensitive to East Asian nuance as I am, so you understood how freighted with meaning that was.

Sperwer said...

This sounds like a mash-up of The Seven Samurai and the 47 Ronin packaged in the last iteration of the Beat Takeshi wrapper. I'll be watching it!

Kevin Kim said...

I think you'll enjoy the film, and I'll be curious to hear your opinion of it.

John from Daejeon said...

You might want to try "Source Code" once your studies are done.

I'm not a fan of Jake, but the director, aka son of Bowie, is really good. Also, certain elements within the story resonate "in" me.