Miike’s “13 Assassins”
Published on April 29th, 2011 | by Joel Neville Anderson1
When Eiichi Kudo’s1963 “Thirteen Assassins“ was first released in Japan, it was widely criticized as a low grade reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” released nine years before. An early entry in a new brand of period films termed zankoku jidaigeki—or “cruel historicals”—coming at the start Toei’s transition from it’s previous focus on jidaigeki (“period films”) to yakuza eiga (contemporary or recent history pictures depicting the world of Japan’s indigenous gang culture), Kudo’s film differed from Kurosawa’s in that its story was relatively limited to the political sphere of the samurai class (military nobility). Kurosawa’s seven samurai were poor ronin, masterless samurai defending peasant farmers during the Warring States Period in which the country was plagued by nearly continuous war from the fifteenth to seventeenth century, prior to unification under the Tokugawa shogunate. Kudo’s characters however operated in the early nineteenth century, a time of relative peace in which the bakuhan—the nation’s feudal political system of which the samurai were an important component—had came into question. Although the film is often cited as incorporating many contemporaneous themes such as assassination plots and anti-establishment sentiments close to the 1960s student movements, it is also generally considered to be overshadowed by Kudo’s “The Great Killing” of the following year, which depicts lower class samurai closer to Kurosawa’s protagonists and goes as far layering audio from student demonstrations into a battle scene.
Takashi Miike though, is no stranger to decadence on film—and these warrior bureaucrats of the waning samurai era suit his varied themes of excess, revenge, self-mutilation and (somewhat) self critical misogyny just fine as he goes about remaking Kudo’s earlier film, here widely marketed as “13 Assassins” (2010). With an oeuvre constituting nothing less than a cinephile’s dream, Miike’s prodigious output, genre-mashing appetite for subversion and bold adoption of stale franchises and remakes (as well as timely contributions to a brand of recent East Asian films labeled “extreme cinema”) have afforded him a loyal international following. “13 Assassins” (2010) recently screened as part of “Shinjuku Outlaw: 13 from Takashi Miike”, a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center co-programmed by Marc Walkow and co-presented with Subway Cinema. “13 Assassins” opens in U.S. theaters today, April 29, and is currently available through video-on-demand streaming (something of a pre-theatrical release experiment; a harbinger of things to come in terms of distribution). Takashi Miike would have attended the recent retrospective if it were not for the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that struck the northeast of Japan on March 11, 2011 and panicked the nation and onlookers around the world. At the time of writing, the number of people dead or missing is nearly 28,000. I think it’s worth presenting the message Miike provided his New York audience in his absence before the essay delves into his film:
Japan was violently rocked, swallowed by the ocean as the lives of many disappeared amid the rubble. I had wanted to be here with you all. I had wanted to thank you all for coming from the bottom of my heart. But that wish was not granted. It is unfortunate and I am very sorry. Please accept my regrets. But, from this adversity—on our lives—we will all rise up without fail. As a start, I would be grateful if you could enjoy Japan from my films.
In fact, the natural disaster in Japan also delayed the completion of this article, as most of my energy has been devoted to fundraising activities at Japan Society for the past six weeks. This event has—for me—displayed the strong connection between New York City and Japan, the power of physically remote tragedies to eclipse your world and alienate you from your immediate surroundings and local culture, as well as the success of social media over traditional channels in delivering news—especially when it comes to verifying the safety of family and friends.
Aside from historical discrepancies outlined above, Miike’s “13 Assassins” holds much in common with Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” not least of all a great debt to the American Western genre. Koji Yakusho’s gentleman samurai is first seen idly fishing before he is called out on the covert assassination mission that propels the story forward; the old gunfighter called out of retirement. Turning his head as he stares at a woman his target had brutally maimed, the old samurai expresses delight at the opportunity to realize his destiny of dying in combat. Yakusho assembles his “Dirty Dozen plus one” in the fashion of Takashi Shimura in “Seven Samurai” or Anthony Wong in Johnnie To’s “The Mission” (1999). It’s a rag-tag group, including a Daisuke Kato look-alike, a giant ronin (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a teenage orphan (afforementioned ronin’s swordfighting pupil) and a few tarento pretty boys. The bullish Hiroshi Matsukata rounds out an already impressive cast and pairs well with Yakusho’s philosopher swordsman—except this gunfighter isn’t exactly a warrior. When his mission to execute a sadistic young nobleman above the law due to questionable familial relations to the shogun (Japan’s de facto military dictator within the bakufu) brings him in contact with a former sparring partner now serving as the sadist’s chief guard, their rivalry is that of old school buddies thrust from idealistic youth through a middle age of dry office work and into the glorious battle they’d always dreamed of, hurdling themselves onward to inevitable death. They soon realize their thirst for righteous combat as a reflection of the young sadist’s malformed desire to “bring back the time of war”, and while the stakes escalate from executing a perverted upstart with a chance at rising to the throne to thwarting a tyrant’s willful destruction of a nation that glory in death men worship on the training ground and fear on the battlefield is questioned.
The male sex/death drive is alternately encouraged and stunted by the onscreen presentation, actually creating a rather lonely yet fantastical depiction of the feudal warrior. In opposition to what one would expect from a testosterone-fueled action/adventure film, female characters are as unattractive as the battle sequences are outlandishly spectacular. Faces caked with shiny make-up and eyebrows shaven, the cosmetic ornaments of the day are not shown in a positive light. Masculine bravura and gory carnage are the primary eye candies here. The only female character presented as desirable is the forest nomad lover of the apparently invincible hunter/trapper character who joins the crew as the thirteenth assassin, modeled on Toshiro Mifune’s role in “Seven Samurai.”
The extended final battle sequence is of course a clear counterpoint to Kurosawa’s, set in a dry, dusty village rather than a rainy, muddy one (a key element missing from Miike’s film is the participation of the townsfolk, which would call for a more in-depth sociological inquiry). Though when Miike’s gates close on the invading army (again vastly outnumbering our band of samurai, here thirteen versus roughly two hundred), trapping them within the walls of the town-turned-fortress, the differences between the two films become far more pronounced. For one there is the focus on a specific antagonist, embodied by the royal sadist. Kurosawa’s violent bandit horde did not have such a figurehead. Kurosawa’s samurai also did not employ the use of CGI-aided flaming boars and anachronistic booby traps, though these are certainly welcome in Miike’s jidaigeki universe. The existence of Kudo’s original of course complicates the comparison, but an easy justification for the graduation from seven to thirteen samurai is of course the capability of dispensing of far more human life; more bloodshed. As endorphins eventually wear down and protagonists begin dwindling in numbers, the style of the film breaks down in a calculated manner, at points resembling documentary footage of sparring actors on a jidaigeki backlot with way too many extras and a maniacal make-up artist.
Primary criticism lies in those elements which at the same time pleasingly satisfy genre tropes: a weak critical perspective on gender inequality of a kind particular to films about men and violence, and a sometimes monotonous succession of set pieces all directed at creating the ultimate post-modern samurai battle sequence—luckily these scenes go quite far in that direction.
Aside from the astonishing telephoto shot of an exhausted Yakusho finally confronting the proud sadist—sole survivor of his slottered army—the images which stay with me most strongly are those from Tsuyoshi Ihara’s character’s death. The sight of the powerful ronin being struck down by a neverending parade of far weaker swordsmen is captured by the sideways letterbox POV of his young pupil—his nodding pants and loss of focus motivated as he himself gasps his last breaths. An encapsulation of Miike at his best, this depiction of the fallen hero’s generically inevitable demise exceeds genre expectations.