Wednesday, 15 June 2011

13 ASSASSINS: A SAMURAI EPIC WITH WESTERN APPEAL

In one sense, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is familiar; following in the footsteps of films you've seen (The Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificient Seven being the best-known) and films you haven't (Kudo Eiichi's Jusanin No Shikaku—a 1963 film on whose screenplay Miike's film is based, and serves as the Japanese title) and I haven't either. Takashi certainly lives up to the spectacle of Seven Samurai; this is a big action movie staged with great flair, an big-screen epic immensely satisfying on that level.

But Takashi rises above that in a number of impressive ways. The first third of the film needs to set the stage, and he begins brilliantly with a samurai committing seppuku. It is 1844, and Japan is living in the last days of Edo and the rule of the shoguns. The suicide, is shot with an almost abstract simplicity that recalled, for me, the extreme stylisation of Paul Schrader's Mishima, but more importantly focusses the audience on the ritual, the obligations, on the strict lines of demarcation of Japanese society, and on its concepts of honour. The death is a protest against the abuses of the Shogun's son, Lord Naritsugu, a psychopath and a sadist almost in the sense of DeSade's cod philosophy, but also a spoiled child who abuses the absolute power he has. Naritsugu is played brilliantly by Inagaki Goro, once a boy-band pop star, with a cruel insouciance and a sometimes child-like wonder; he carries almost every scene he's in.

There is nothing that can be done within the system to stop Naritsugu, so officials look beyond, to a seemingly retired samurai, Shinzaemon (Yakisho Koji), who, after being shown Naritsugu's worst atrocities, and understanding the dangers to the current age of peace his being placed on the ruling council would bring, undertakes his assassination, and assembles a team of 12,basically untraceable, samurai to accomplish that. The gathering of the team is familiar stuff, but the 13th assassin is not a samurai, but a hunter they meet as the travel to their objective—Koyata, half hunter, half forest spirit, who provides comic relief but turns out to be quite a fighter himself. Leading Naritsugu's guard is Hanbei, an old rival and colleague of Shinza's going back to their days in the samurai dojo.

The final third of the film is the battle—with an entire village turned into an exploding trap, the finale of a sort of game of go for Shinza and Hanbei, which Hanbei appears to have won when he shows up with some 200 samurai, not the 70 Shinza was expecting. It's a spectacularly well-staged battle, and the amazing thing is that we follow each of the 13 characters to their individual fates, understanding who they are—if you think back to The Magnificent Seven, that is exactly what gave the film its power.

If you also think back to The Magnificent Seven, and how Eli Wallach's bandit becomes such an entertaining foil, you will get an idea of Takashi's subtlety, because although Naritsugu is a monster, he is not the battle-foil, that is Hanbei, who is remaining true to the code of the samurai, and loyalty to his master. And this is what gives the film its true power.

Takashi wrings every ounce of drama from the ambiguity of the samurai code, and the epic, in another sense, breakdown of society's order that the assassination itself signifies.
At one point, as Naritsugu's pleasure in seeing the slaughter around him leads him to yearn for a return to the age of war, you almost think Hanbei will turn against this maniac, a Hitler-cum Genghis Kahn-cum Donald Rumsfeld. But his sense of samurai duty is too strong. And when Hanbei and Shinza stage their ultimate duel, Shinza reminds him they were always equals in the dojo, before 'cheating' his way to victory. What is the virtue in loyalty to the wrong cause? Of blind obedience? At one point Shinza points out that rulers have some responsibility to servants and Naritsugu, who has addressed almost everyone as 'servant', finds this notion somewhat strange and amusing.

In that sense, and in another way, Takashi seems drawn to another western model, The Wild Bunch. There is much looking back to the age of war, which some fondness, and there is a lot of living up to the true code of the samurai which reflects the debates about what a man has to live up to in Peckinpah's movie. In one sense you can see that film as Pike Bishop atoning for first abandoning Deke Thornton, who goes to prison as a result, and then abandoning Angel in a similar fashion. They are happy to engage in a massacre, knowing they are likely to die, for the simple pleasure of knowing they will be going out doing what they perceive of as the right thing. That it turns out to be futile for them is not the case in 13 Assassins, but the impulse is the same, and Takashi also undercuts that western ethos by having the 13th assassin, the forest-imp Koyata declares, in the end, samurai bore him when they aren't fighting one-on-one.

It's a wonderful combination of traditional samurai epic with modern ambiguity. You might expect the latter from Takashi, but there is little in his previous work to suggest either the scale or the control of this film. If the ball has been bouncing back and forth between samurai epics and epic westerns (with the odd spaghetti western thrown in), Takashi has put the ball firmly back in the western court.

1 comment :

Margaret Benbow said...

Thank you for your insightful post. I've read many reviews of 13 Assassins, and many analyses of the villain Lord Naritsugu, but in my opinion you understand him the best. The Koji Yakusho character is the noblest; but the villain, and the forest spirit/god who becomes the 13th samurai, and even Hirayama (the sword master) are perhaps more fascinating.