Miike Takashi seems almost to define what a cult director of genre pictures should be. In his extended review of 13 Assassins in Sight & Sound (June 2011), Christopher Huber tells us that Miike has directed 40 films in 20 years, that he is not the ‘Asia Extreme’ director that everyone believes him to be but a misunderstood auteur and a great humanist. Those are quite some claims and I’m not really in a position to evaluate them. I’m not sure that I’d ever seen a Miike film in its entirety before this one. Fate decided to save me from the second half of Audition when a projector failed at the Hyde Park in Leeds and we got our money back. Other than that I think I’ve only seen extracts screened by lecturer-fans.
Huber also describes 13 Assassins as ‘audience friendly’ and tells us that a longer ‘director’s cut’ is available in Japan. Hmm! I found several of the scenes almost too much to stomach (literally in the first hari-kiri scene) and I thought that the final long battle at 45 minutes was just too long. But perhaps if I knew more about chanbara (swordfight films) and had seen more Miike films I would be able to make a more informed commentary. All I can do really is to respond like the typical specialised cinema audience member I am to an ‘international production’ (Jeremy Thomas pops up as an executive producer and Hanway Films are on board with Toho).
Plot outline (no spoilers – but the narrative follows conventions meticulously)
Japan in 1844. The Tokugawa Shogun’s half brother Lord Naritsugu has been adopted by the Akashi clan and is set to become the Senior Advisor to the Shogun and therefore untouchable. He is arrogant and unstable and likely to wreak havoc in public life – having already murdered a young married couple on a whim. The ritual suicide of a samurai who has been shamed alerts the authorities and a senior civil servant selects another of the Shogun’s samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon, to assassinate the rogue half brother before he can do further damage. Shimada recruits a dozen more samurai and sets out to trap Lord Naritsugu and his army.
The first point to make is that this is a genre film – a remake of a 1963 chanbara by Kudo Eiichi. It’s very good as a 2010 re-working of the story and the visuals are excellent. I particularly like the mountain scenes as the samurai climb through thick forests. The ‘very long shots’ of tiny figures with large round hats climbing in single file up a hillside are reminiscent of Hiroshige woodblock prints.
In a Guardian interview Miike says that he was careful not to make a chanbara with insertions of ‘modern ideas’ such as romances. This seems a good point but I do like the jidaigeki of recent years by the veteran director Yamada Yoji (e.g. The Twilight Samurai) which feature more domestic scenes and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which Miike clearly admires) includes at least one sequence in which the youngest samurai has a tryst with a beautiful village girl – something which at one point Miike looks like repeating. The reference to Kurosawa is one of the ways into an analysis of 13 Assassins. In some ways, the plot is similar to Seven Samurai – the thirteen samurai here are the equivalent of the seven and several of them seem to be ‘doubles’. Miike has a peasant who wants to be a samurai, a young man in awe of his masters, a ‘super swordsman, a jolly samurai etc. – all of whom are characters in Kurosawa’s film. The fortification of a village is similar and the traps for samurai on horseback. Yet the actual situation and the time period refer more to Kurosawa’s later films about ronin (masterless samurai) such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro. It may be that we need to discuss Japanese history.
The setting of 13 Assassins is 23 years before the end of the Edo period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor. It is also just 9 years before US Commodore Perry’s appearance in Tokyo Bay – the historical moment marking Japan’s entry into the ‘modern’ (i.e. ‘Western’) world. Yet the long battle that ends 13 Assassins features less use of firearms than Kurosawa’s film set in the 17th century (even if it does feature several explosions). I think that I need to retreat to my history books. Japan was certainly ‘behind’ the West in 1844, but surely not as much as this film implies? Edo (Tokyo) had a population of over 1 million by the 18th century and by the 19th century there was both a thriving urban culture and a detailed pursuit of aspects of Western technological knowledge. Only in the representation of a gaming house does 13 Assassins attempt to portray this world. Once outside the Shogun’s domain in Edo, the narrative refers to nothing that would suggest that this is the 19th (rather than the 16th) century. In noting this I don’t mean to criticise the film. My point is simply that it is a genre convention that chanbara often take place in a highly stylised fictional world – just like the Hollywood Western. By contrast, Kurosawa researched his period dramas very carefully so that they matched historical descriptions. Miike seems to follow the Kurosawa of Seven Samurai in some ways (building his own village to destroy in a ‘real’ location) but not in others.
13 Assassins doesn’t seem to have done as well in the UK as I would have expected. I’m probably more squeamish than most action fans as I’ve indicated, but I can recognise when a director knows what he is doing. Considering that most of the actors had not previously appeared in chanbara they put up a very impressive display. The film is to my mind much more exciting than most Hollywood action fare. The CGI is very carefully integrated with the real swordplay and other action to produce a certain level of realism. On the other hand, I would have to watch the film again but there seems to be at least one ‘magical’ incident in which a character seemingly comes back from the dead. Either way, this is a story in which 13 men take on a much larger force of 200 and give more than they get. If action films are your bag, this is way better than most.
Here’s a flavour of the action in a subtitled trailer: