Monday, April 25, 2011

Miike’s 13 Assassins

Times of tranquility make samurai weak and flabby. This is not the case for battle-hardened veterans the previous era. To preserve the peace, thirteen old school men-of-arms take on an army of two hundred soldiers. Pray for the two hundred. They are going to need it in Takashi Miike’s samurai spectacle 13 Assassins (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is a sadist, pure and simple. He is also the shogun’s illegitimate brother, who shall shortly be announced as his successor. After witnessing the suffering wrought by Matsudaira’s brutality, the wily old samurai Shinzaemon Shimada agrees to fix the problem permanently, fully understanding one way or another, it will be his battle. Naturally, he assembles his team in proper Dirty Dozen fashion, recruiting colorful ronin and disaffected samurai who are not particularly worried about the future. They might not make samurai like they used to, but Shimada will have a worthy opponent in his old colleague Hanbei. Though repulsed by his behavior, Hanbei believes he is honor-bound to defend Matsudaira to preserve the rule of law. And so it begins.

Aside from the shocking early scenes of Matsudaira’s handiwork, Assassins is not at all what one might expect from the director of Audition. Remaking Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same title, Miike is surprisingly traditional in his approach. However, he delivers the hack-and-slash goods in spades. Culminating in an awe-inspiring forty-five minute hand-to-hand battle sequence, Assassins generates a monster of a body count, without ever flagging or repeating itself. Steadily increasing the intensity, Assassins concludes with a moment of perfect Jadaigeki genre purity. Beyond fanboy fare, this is technically accomplished, bravura filmmaking, with some incredible sets designed (to be subsequently destroyed) by art director Yuji Hayashida.

Like an Edo-era Clint Eastwood, Koji Yakusho brings steely-eyed gravitas to the proceedings as the grizzled Shimada. Yet, he still has ample credibility swinging the samurai sword. Indeed, Yakusho makes Assassins work on a dramatic level every step of the way. Conversely, former J-popper Gorô Inagaki is about as unsettling and downright chill-inducing villain to slither across movie screens in decades.

13 Assassins will remind Japanese cinema aficionados of everything they ever loved about the great Jadaigeki costumed action epics. From the grit and grime of combat to the lofty macro themes of duty and sacrifice, Miike demonstrates a complete mastery of the Samurai movie package. Recommended far and wide, it opens this Friday (4/29) in New York at the IFC Center.

It is also worth noting Miike was scheduled to attend a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective in March, but was forced to cancel after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan. While the current mis-administration could only be bothered to respond to this crisis with a brief spot of nuclear fear-mongering before returning to more pressing matters (like the NCAA tournament), private citizens can support our Japanese friends and allies by contributing to the Red Cross here or the Japan Society’s relief fund here.