August 2, 2011


You may have read one of my recent posts here, where I banged on about the audienceexperience a little bit and how it can add to the atmosphere of a cinema-going experience. At Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins I experienced (once again) the flip side of that: ignorant and rude audience members who have no respect for the other people around them. The rude prick sitting next to me for this viewing was obviously expecting some sort of Takashi Miike carnage-fest with an abundance of crazy violence. To be fair, this is along the lines of what I too was expecting. But I discovered 13 Assassins begins far from that, instead wanting to take time to set up this world and allow the audience to live in it awhile and the lush photography and compelling tale pulled me in. But not Mr. Rude Huffy Bored Asshole. He huffed and puffed and made snide comments the whole way through, obviously not enjoying what he was watching and determined to communicate that. I am someone who, when some jerk is talking throughout the movie, will tell them to shut it; to me it is incredibly rude and shows contempt for those fellow human-beings around you. If this man had been straight-up talking or using his phone throughout the film I would have had no qualms with demanding he shut up, but as he was not quite at that level of irritation I had to settle with having a word with him after the film.

Whooo. Ok. Sorry about that. It just really, really, really pisses. Me. Off.

The film itself was fantastic. Takashi Miike is the chameleon of Japanese cinema; he’s made Yakuza films, a radioactive zombie musical, horror films and a noodle Western. And those are only the films I’ve seen! The man, whatever your opinion of him may be, is a machine of cinema digesting and creating on his own terms. 13 Assassins, title aside, feels like the biggest departure from what you may consider a “Takashi Miike film” yet. He’s going for something epic but that still acknowledges its genre roots.

Told in a measured pace, the film is set in mid-19th Century Japan. It is the Age of Peace; the samurai are becoming obsolete but still hold an important function. The land is ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate but the adopted youngest step-brother of the Shogun is a ruthless, unrepentant and sadistic psychopath. In protest at his degenerate ways, one of the leading samurai commits hara-kiri (a brutal opening to the film) in front of his lord’s house. This sets off a chain of events that culminates with Sir Doi asking samurai Shimada Shinzaemon to assemble a group of assassins to kill this errant lord on his annual pilgrimage to his homeland, before he can amass too much power in Edo (Tokyo). This is all complex, palace-intrigue type stuff and it all looks like it’s been shot with the natural light available: late night plotting and debate sessions are held in beautiful flickering candlelight, people coming in and out of the shadows.

Shinzaemon assembles his hand-picked band of assassins, just like The Magnificent Seven, and they partake in what seems to be an inordinate amount of waiting around. But Miike is using this time to explore those themes of brotherhood, honour, justice and death that preoccupy the samurai. Once they are on this path there are only two outcomes: success and death. But it’s not all serious faced samurai pontificating as Miike brings moments of his humour into the film, lightening the mood in just right the places and allowing us to see these characters as people. Though there are 12 (plus a later addition) of the assassins, the degenerate lord and his master samurai Hanbei and more, they all have some definition, some moment to stand out. Hanbei, though the main obstacle standing in the way, is a sympathetic character; an honourable samurai disgusted by his dishonourable lord but duty-bound to die for him.

And there is a lot of death; these are all men wielding big sharp swords after all. And Miike takes more than a moment to acknowledge the reality of duels, of fighting for your very life. In the midst of a battle, the rules of the dojo no longer matter. The only winner is the one who vanquishes their opponent, even if they do not survive. And this is a small band of samurai against impossible odds: their opponents number in the hundreds, while they barely number in the teens. So they have to be smart about it, and the curiosity of how they’re going to pull it off adds to the already growing tension.

The final confrontation between the two forces in a fortified village is true carnage unleashed. Again, I have to mention the hour-long assault of Chicago in Transformers 3 as a comparison and contrast to this. Where Bay’s robo-smash had disconnected characters and action scenes that fell flat, Miike has crafted a huge sequence where every character is seen, with a clear motivation and where the whole has a clear structure and pace. The lack of visible CGI (aside from one incredibly obvious use) also lends everything a real weight: there are huge moving walls, arrows raining death from above, flaming bulls, exploding houses, alleyways lined with swords and good ol’ fashioned hack ‘n’ slash.

13 Assassins is a measured, often beautiful film that I would actually enjoy seeing again (and hopefully on the big screen). You may find the first section of the film a drag and may not enjoy the strange comedic touches, but that final action sequence is a huge release and worth the wait. So, if you’re not enjoying the film please shut the hell up or leave and let other people do so.

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