Wherein bon vivant Ben Livant and I (Dan Jardine) speak our minds about movies, mostly.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
13 Assassins (Japan, 2011, T. Miike)
The Seven Samurai meets Barry Lyndon plus six more samurai.
I reference the Kubrick picture because it seemed to me that the evening interiors at the start of 13 Assassins were naturally lit by flickering paper lanterns. Looked cool. Wiki tells me that I shouldn't reference the Kurosaw picture, however, because 13 Assassins is a remake of the 1963 b/w film of the same name by Eiichi Kudo.
Kudos to the makers of 13 Assassins, then, for carrying forward the Jidaigeki genre. It's an epic affair with all the right moves; the shocking depiction of the villian's perverse cruelty, the vestiges of honor adhering to the fantastically odds-against crew, the unrelenting carnage choreographed down to the cue to create the illusion of mayhem, and the ultimate sacrifices made on behalf of duty to the highest principles.
That the tale is based on some actual historical facts provides the suggestion that the large budget devoted to the authentic period set and costumes is itself for a worthy educational cause. Conversly, but towards the same end, the blessing of the mission by the participation of an initially silly but ultimately transcendent spirit is just enough metaphysical window-dressing to give the story a flavour of noble gravitas. Throw in a few morsals of democratic lip-service and the always politically correct plea for peace, 13 Assassins comes off as a thoughtful man's action movie.
But truly, all the style and whatever substance is just an excuse for violent hero worship, idolatry for the elite core of special forces, reverence for the myth of the aristocratic action figure. Cowboy crap. A footnote to Homer that just keeps on getting recycled in increasingly nihilistic Western culture that clearly has its own traditions on the Eastern side. Hummnn... guess it's ruling class ideology with universal application... Will we ever go beyond this cult of the killer to create a socialist society?
Meanwhile, I am compelled yet again to quote Spain Rodriguez, the underground cartoonist during the 60s who had previously run with a bike gang: "Ten guys can kick the shit outta anyone." Do the math. 200 can kick the shit outta 13.
Not only is Takashi Miike is a filmmaker of great productivity, pumping out between two and four feature films a year for the past decade plus, as well as helming a number of tv series in his native Japan, but of great range and diversity as well. Miike first showed up on my radar about ten years ago, with the twin cinematic killers of Audition (an unforgettably grisly horror film) and Dead or Alive (a wild and audacious crime thriller), and while I have not kept up with all his work (who could, with that sort of output?) it is clear that Miike's wildly divergent tastes have continue to inform his work. Who other than Miike would produce films as bizarre as Ichi the Killer, a horrific tale about a Joker-type serial killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris, a musical comedy that superficially resembles The Sound of Music, while featuring claymation puppets committing acts of violence on unsuspecting uvulae?
Coming on the heels of such wildly varied fare, I have to note that, technical prowess, impressive set design (not to mention set pieces) aside, 13 Assassins is a mild disappointment. Not because Miike shows any slippage skill-wise (see my aside above), but rather because he is apparently so reverent of the samurai genre that he decides to play the whole thing pretty much completely straight, right across the board. Don't get me wrong, I found the film wonderfully rousing, and, unlike so many contemporary action films, which rely more upon confusion than clarity to keep the audience off kilter and befuddled, 13 Assassins is lucidly storyboarded, composed and edited. Action directors on this side of the ocean could do worse than to study and imitate Miike's techniques.
However, what I wouldn't have given to see Miike shake himself loose of the conventions of the genre, in order to challenge himself and the audience with the same sort of daring and audacity as he showed in the films mentioned above. I wish he had considered, for example (as Ben does, by channelling Spain Rodriguez) the implausibility of victory given the ridiculous lop-sided scenario, or considered developing the story in such a way that we might have been able to see (and made unsettled or shaken by) contemporary political parallels. Instead, Miike plays it by the age-old rules, and the result, while undeniably entertaining, is unexpectedly tame, at least by Miike standards.
And here is the trailer for 13 Assassins: