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Friday, 6 January 2012

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - 13 Assassins

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Produced by: Toshiaki Nakazawa
Jeremy Thomas
Takashi Hirajo

Screenplay by: Daisuke Tengan

Story by: Shoichiro Ikemiya

Based on: Jusan-nin no shikaku by Eiichi Kudo

Starring: Koji Yakusho
Takayuki Yamada
Yusuke Iseya
Goro Inagaki
Masachika Imamura
Mikijiro Hira

Music by: Koji Endo

Cinematography by: Nobuyasu Kita

Editing by: Kenji Yamashita

Studio(s): Sedic International
Recorded Picture Company
Toho Company

Distributed by: Toho Company (Japan)
Artificial Eye (United Kingdom)
Magnet Releasing (United States)

Release date(s): September 9, 2010 (Venice Film Festival)
September 25, 2010 (Japan)
April 29, 2011 (United States)
May 6, 2011 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 141 minutes (Japanese version)
126/120 minutes (International versions)

Country(s): Japan
United Kingdom

Language: Japanese

Production budget: $6 million

Box office revenue: $17, 555, 141

Okay folks, so this is my last review for the month of December 2011, and after I file in my Movie of the Month, I'll be moving swiftly onto January 2012. As mentioned in my previous review, I have seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but I promised you I would see some more films. As such, I have went out and managed to see Kill List, a British horror film that has got a great degree of acclaim and debuted at FrightFest in 2011. Also, having got myself into a better routine so I can review and do work for university at the same time, updates on the blog will be fairly regular, so keep your eyes posted!

Today's movie is one that I have been looking forward to seeing for some time. 13 Assassins is the new film from Takashi Miike, though of course when it comes to Miike I mean 'latest release in the UK,' as he has since made three films. Competing for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival alongside other notables such as Black Swan and winner Somewhere, 13 Assassins has been critically well-received, and certain in the Western world it has become Miike's most commercially successful and well-known film, being compared to Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai. I have been a fan of Miike for a number of years, for much of my own personal education in international cinema came from recent East Asian movies from Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Of these films, the film that arguably has had the most impact on me was Miike's Audition, a film that at once had me cowering behind a cushion in horror and fighting tears at its beautifully understated and poetic melodrama. For me, Audition is indisputably one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the rare perfect movies that comes along every four or five years. Along with Audition, Miike has proven adept at bouncing between many genres, as displayed by The Happiness Of The Katakuris, Visitor Q and Ichi The Killer, all made in the same year (how anyone could manage that task is beyond me)! So, needless to say I was looking forward to witnessing Miike's take on the samurai film genre. In 1840s Japan, the shogun era is reaching its end, and the sadistic Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) rapes and pillages for his own amusement, but is free to continue at his will due to his being the son of the previous shogun and the brother of the current shogun. Naritsugu being next in line is of great concern to Toshitsura Doi (Mikijiro Hira), a senior government official, who hires a group of assassins, heading up by Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho).

Starting off with what is good, I must say some kind words about director Miike. Once again, he adapts his very distinctive directorial style and puts his stamp on a film. Interestingly though, while there are recognisable trademarks, Miike displays much more modesty and control than in his previous films. 13 Assassins is very reminiscent in its quieter moments of the dialogue scenes of Kurosawa's work. Also, during the film's much talked about forty-five minute action sequence, Miike actually avoids the freneticism that often punctuates his work. It is a wise choice, given that his usual techniques wouldn't be appropriate here. At fifty, Miike is beginning to approach seniority as a filmmaker, so it is nice to see him showing us aspects of his directorial style that we have yet to witness. Other main elements of the film that deserve credit are the technical departments. Despite potential ludicrousness, we never at once don't buy the action onscreen. The village set that becomes the mousetrap for Naritsugu's is an extraordinary bit of production design, in that it is clearly a physical set that has been built, even if it has been built to bear witness to much wanton destruction. Also, the prop and costume designers have paid extraordinary attention to detail, in a job that deserves to be commend alongside The Lord Of The Rings film trilogy. Furthermore, the stunts and choreography in that battle sequence is nothing less than spectacular. Not only is it remarkable that they are able to keep this sequence of scenes going on for that long, but even more amazing is the fact that my interest was sustained throughout. I followed everything that was going on, knew who every character was and their place on the screen. Also, the film contains more outright 'Holy Shit!' moments than every other action film I have seen this year combined. In the landscape of mainstream American action cinema, the figurehead of which is Michael Bay (much to my chagrin: like it or not, he is the bar by which all contemporary action films are to be compared), 13 Assassins is a refreshing needle to the heart, giving hope for this often maligned genre and breathing life into this cynical bastard of a film critic. Finally, the film does contain three strong acting performances. Koji Yakusho's Shinzaemon is the film's anchor, and Yakusho delivers a fine performance. In playing the stock character of 'old gun brought out of retirement,' he elevates the character above the stock cliche. Also, good was Masachika Imamura, whose subdued head guard to Lord Naritsugu, Hanbei, is dogmatic in his devotion to his master. Despite never outright saying he disagrees with his Lord, or making so much as an emotional incline towards this train of thought, we still understand through his acting the character's internal conflict. The scenes with Yakusho and Imamura are comparable to De Niro and Pacino in Heat, two men on conflicting sides but with the same code of honour, and are the film's best 'acting' moments. However, the film's best performance belongs to Goro Inagaki as Lord Naritsugu. Instead of playing him up as the traditional film sadist, Inagaki plays Naritsugu as a bored child who attempts to gain pleasure from wanton destruction and extreme violence. Employing the 'less is more' acting technique, Inagaki's lack of expressiveness is an intimidating sight, and anytime he does show any semblance of emotion besides boredom, it speaks volumes. Finally (again), by the end of the film, this monster is revealed to be a three-dimensional creature, and as such Inagaki's Naritsugu is a memorable lead villain.

So, believe it or not, I did like 13 Assassins. It is a wonderful addition to Miike's already voluminous filmography. However, there are problems with it ensuring that it does not reach the peaks of true greatness. For instance, although the screenplay by Daisuke Tengan is not bad, it is seriously unbalanced. It is unfortunate that a number of the scenes stand out as filler before we get to the big action sequence. The primary problem is that there are too many characters: I hate to bring up the old dog, but lets compare this with Seven Samurai. 13 Assassins is 120 mins long, with forty-five devoted to an extended action sequence, so I make that roughly sixty to seventy-five minutes of character development with about twenty main characters. Seven Samurai is 207 minutes long, with about fifteen main characters at the most, and the final hour to the action scenes, so I make that the best part of two-and-a-half hours character development. I might be saying this in the most long-winded way possible, but the point is that while characters like Shinzaemon, Hanbei and Lord Naritsugu are well-wrote, virtually everyone else is wrote on the basis of 'this character has a spear, this character blows things up, this character is our Toshiro Mifune/Kikuchiyo type.' Also, structurally, it is a problem when your film is essentially like two different pictures, depending on what half of the film you are watching, and it is obvious that more care and attention has been put into the second half, so why should I care to watch the first to get there again?

Despite these scriptural problems that deny 13 Assassins from reaching the upper echelons, even of Miike's own catalogue, it is still a very good film. The mise-en-scene we are presented is nothing less than incredible, harking back to the tradition of action cinema that wasn't all CGI. Incidentally, the worst part of that sequence is the burning CGI buffalo, although obviously it would be animal cruelty to burn a buffalo, so the solution is get rid of the buffalo. Anyway, I though that this forty-five minute sequence was the best series of battle scenes I can remember seeing since The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Believe me, after watching cavalry do a 90-degree turn in two seconds (I counted) in Barbarossa: Siege Lord, this is a refreshing shot in the dark. Also, you have three pretty good acting performances, and director Takashi Miike adapting his often frenetic style rather modestly and doing his earnest to ensure that his audience to engage with the film and bathe in the blood of the fallen. It is not a great film, but it is still very good, and I am happy that people outside of Miike's cult fanbase are starting to view him as not just an agent provocateur, but a highly versatile filmmaker.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.9/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good (working towards my Best and Worst of the Year - still an open playing field!)

P.S. Take note that the version I have seen is the 120-minute Western release, so if you have seen the original 140-minute Japanese release, please take this into account. Also, if possible, fill me in on which of the two versions is better, if indeed you are one of the few out there who have seen both.

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