Sunday, 15 May 2011

13 Assassins

Assassin-8 plus 5

13 Assassins Japan/UK 2010
Directed by Takashi Miike
Playing at cinemas now.

Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is a very surprising film, primarily for two reasons.

One, it is a relatively bloodless outing for a typical entry into the traditional Japanese chambara... at least in comparison to a lot of these kinds of movies released internationally since Kurosawa filmed that first extended gout of over the top arterial spray at the end of his Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro (if he’d have know the trend he was inadvertently setting, even in terms of international influence reaching up through the generations to be parodied by the likes of Tarantino in Kill Bill, would he have gone ahead and shot that final stand off between Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai in the same way, one wonders). Even though the movie starts off with a grim and determined display of the traditional form of seppuku, incorporating both the horizontal cut and the second vertical cut which opens up a persons belly, the scene is shot in tight close up with only the actors expressions and the sounds indicating the actual honouring of this ritualistic form of suicide portrayed on screen. A birds eye view pretty much shows a very subdued aftermath with only a small puddle of unobstrusive blood spilled on the ground. And then that’s it for the blood content up until about half way through the final battle scene.

Now it’s not realy like me for being one to concentrate on the goriness or bloodshed quota of a movie but on this particular movie it almost made the film lose credibility with me. This is because we see a fair few people killed and hundreds in the final battle, but the majority of this is without showing any blood whatsoever and, franky, when you kill a person with a sharpened object such as a samurai sword it tends to make a mess (this is something I have come to believe due to common sense backed up with many years of watching various gentlemen slicing each other up on screen in a celebration of this traditional style of story). There is always some fair to middling blood flow and not really any such thing as a tidy death, especially when one is in the heat of battle. So all the way through the movie I was wondering just what the censors were playing at. I would have expected the full quota of, admittedly mind numbing on occasions, squirting fountains of arterial spray splashing against the camera lens at frequent intervals. This film, in some places, felt like watching an episode of The A Team in respect to its treatment of the expected Japanes penchant for the after effects of slicing and dicing. Also, I knew from previous experience of this prolific and often wonderfully sublime director that Miike’s usual modus operandi is to push the gore content beyond where any of his contemporaries are willing to go to, creating a more surreal artform with the realisation of the absurdity of situations such demonstrations of enthusiatic bloodshed often herald.

The other reason that this is a quite surprising film for a Miike movie is that this is such a traditionally put together form of chambara, including many genre cliches, most of them harkening back to either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or the kinds of chambara Toho and Daie were putting out through the sixties and seventies such as the Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub (Babycart) movies... some of the characters and situations could have almost walked straight out of these movies and into this one. This is a strange way of working for Miike, or at least it seems that way to me for a director who almost prides himself in assembling movies which are chaotic and genre-bending in their basic make-up at best. Mostly this movie follows a path from A to B, stays on course and within time period and genre with all the characters... and then finishes with a certain sense of resoution, none of which is by any means a given in a Takashi Miike movie. There is one little slight little tweak towards the end which I think might have been Miike’s little reminder to people watching out that he’s not “sold out and gone all Hollywood” so to speak... but I’ll leave that little bit to the end of this review.

The movie is surprisingly similar in structure to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, perhaps a little too close for comfort but then again, this kind of arrogance would be expected of someone like Miike so in some ways it’s almost a comfort that he’s daring to take on Kurosawa at his own game a little... at least in the basic direction this film takes. Starting off with a suicide and a background into the political turmoil Edo period Japan would find itself in if a very important official is not soon killed to prevent the crazy cruelty of his actions scandalising the Japanese people instead of the village raided by bandits which lies at the heart of Seven Samurai, the film then starts to follow that template very closesly in style as a widowed samurai puts together a team of samurai assassins to help him accomplish his deadly mission to rid Japan of this menace... giving number checks as people join, just like in Seven Samurai and its famous Western genre remake The Magnificent Seven. We then get the journey to, in this case, a village to which they reroute their enemy... a village which they buy out and then begin to fortify with defences (just like in Seven Samurai) and traps to help even the odds a little... after all, they believe the thirteen of them are going up against only about seventy people.

En route to the village they pick up a non-samurai, arrogant thief/farmer who is very much the Toshiro Mifune character in Seven Samurai in spirit and also rather blatantly even in posture. The "lovable rogue" is openly critical of samurai but he can cut heads and split bodies like a trooper with the rest of them... and so another genre cliché comes to pass.

The final battle when it comes is quite ferocious and, for the first part of it, almost entirely bloodless... although halfway through the sequence the blood begins to flow as it probably shoud. It doesn’t spray like a fountain from severed limbs or jump up and do violent sommersaults in the most surreal arterial-airbrush demonstrations ever... but it is at least present and therefore a sense of reality is somewhat restored to these scenes. It’s quite a long battle scene due to the fact that some miscalculations in strategy on the part of our unlucky heroes means there are actually over 200 soldiers accompanying their target but it never really drags down into tedium when it threatens that this could happen and is certainly reminiscent in some ways of the final denouements to be found in the aforementioned Lone Wolf and Cub movies, where our hero would single handedly take on (and win) against entire armies on his own (with the occasional little bit of help from his 4 or 5 year old son).

I’m not going to give anything away as to how many survivors are left at the end of this pseudo-blood bath, or even whether the 13 Assassins accomplish their mission or not... but what I will say is that it’s at this point where that “little gesture of Miike” comes to light...

Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen his Dead or Alive trilogy but the second and third films in this trilogy are absolutely amazing with some very entertaining touches and some perplexing moments such as the characters in the third film (who are played by two actors who play the male leads, but totally different characters in the previous two films) inhereiting from the actors who play them an almost shared race memory of the characters in the previous installments... admittedly before they merge and transform themselves into a giant mechanical penis which flys through the air to exact revenge on their enemy. The very first film in the series, however, is almost (and I stress the almost) just a dull and plodding cop versus yakuza movie which can’t maintain or live up to the absolutely frenetic pace of it’s first five minutes... but the punchline of the joke of the film lies within the last minute or so of that particular movie and, truth be told, if it didn’t have such a “what the f*ck just happened” kind of ending to it... then I would have never bothered with the second and third movies in the series and that would be a shame because the second one’s quite moving and the third one is... well let’s just say, if you like Blade Runner you’ll find Dead or Alive: Final an interesting movie at the very least.

At the end of the first Dead or Alive movie... something happens. I’m not saying what but it’s a real poke in the face and my best interpretation of it would be that it’s Takashi Miike saying, “You’re not really taking this yakuza stuff seriously like it’s anything to do with real life are you? Leave it out... cinema has moved on. Watch out or you’ll fall behind.”

Similarly, at the end of 13 Assassins, a character who you’ve already seen pretty much killed suddenly returns, none the worse for wear and muttering something along the lines of, “Pah! I’ve had worse wounds... that was just a scratch.” Now if you’ve not been paying close attention (which is easy to do when you’ve been watching leaping figures enthusiastically jumping around and slicing each other up in close quarters for over half an hour of screen time) then you may just believe him... but there’s that little part of me that’s a bit more familiar with Miike’s penchant for iconoclastically destroying genre preconceptions and it’s almost like this scene is a feint echo, in tone but not in content, to that earleir end sequence in Dead or Alive... it’s almost like Miike is saying, “You know this guy can’t get up and walk away again, let alone bound about and tell jokes like this... so come on, time to stop taking these old chambara movies seriously and move onto something new.” I can just imagine him wagging his finger at the camera now.

So there you have it. 13 Assassins is very much a genre throwback to the cliche ridden but absolutely crackling and watchable chambara of days gone by. A brilliant homage which very much keeps the genre alive, despite my interpretation of the ending... after all, intent is not result and at the end of the day, Miike has delivered a vastly entertaining take on a classic template deriving from Kurosawa and his ilk. If you like samurai movies then this one is definitely not one to miss!


  1. The comment about blood is false, there is a tremendous amount of blood all throughout the film. Perhaps you saw a censored cut?

  2. Well William... first of all, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

    Secondly... I didn't see much blood in this movie and certainly there was such a lack of it until the last 20 or 30 minutes that I thought it wholly impractical... enough so that I couldn't ignore commenting on it on my blog. So it's certainly NOT a false comment.

    As to whether I saw a different cut from you... yeah, it's possible. What country do you live in? I saw this one in a UK cinema. I don't know if it's been toned down any (it wasn't advertised as such) but that woudn't make too much sense as there was just enough blood n the last sequence to ensure a strong rating by our "charming" censors over here, so cuttting back on it in the rest of the movie makes no sense. Don't know. If I ever get around to seeing it again on DVD (not sure how likely that is) then I'll come back on here and comment again.

    Maybe I'm just used to seeing films with a lot more blood and viscera in them than you are used to William? Are you a regular watcher of these kinds of movies or are you more of a tea and crumpets, kitchen sink drama kind o' person. I can't comment directly on the way you experience the movie, you see, because I'm just not sure what you are bringing to it from your own perspective.

    So I'll say it once again... yeah, this was a pretty bloodless movie. So much so that I felt the need to comment on something like that in this review when it's not a factor in a films make-up that I would normally be that worried about. Only when the lack of it stretches credibility a little as it does in this movie.

    If the UK release print is a CENSORED cut though, I'd like to know about it. Actually, I can quite easily pick up a Japanese Region 2 version of this, I'm sure, so maybe I'll grab a DVD of it from their market and comment on it (or maybe I won't bother because I can't imagine it's been censored over here).

    If I remember I'll jump back on here in 6 to 8 months time and comment on the DVD release in this comments section. Ok?

  3. Thanks for reply. I made comment because the film seemed to depict violencein a very accurate light - with a lot of blood - I was honestly impresssed, though disgusted, with the level of blood, because as your review pointed out there would naturaly be a TON of blood with this kind of action. I saw the film in US, I just watched the cinematic preview and noticed that all the blood is turned black. I don't watch a lot of these films, but I am aware when violence is depicted in a realistic manner, most films depict violence with no repercussion, no blood etc.. but this film really showed the blood and gore associated with battle, thats why I think you must have seen a censored cut, because the high level of blood and the realistic depiction of violence is one of the things that really stood out with this film. Would be interesting to know if we saw a different release, or if we just have different level of expectation/reaction with the blood content.

  4. Hi again.

    Yeah, that is interesting. I didn't see any black stuff either but if it was toned down for this country then I want to know about it because a) I don't like any form of censorship for anyone past the age of consent which isn't self-censorship and b) it stretched the realms of credibility.

    If there's a different cut of this movie then it would be worth revisiting for me. Any good way of finding out?

    Have you seen Miike's Izo or an uncut version of Ichi the Killer (it's cut over here but I saw it uncut at a festival and then bought a Dutch DVD which was also uncut)... they have quite over the top blood letting... more akin to an old Lone Wolf and Cub movie from the seventies, and would be what I'm comparing 13 Assassins to.

    Again... I think we've got to be careful when we talk about "realistic" depictions of violence. I think a lot of these movies are a bit more over-the-top or, to be kinder, take a free hand when it comes to the "poetry of violence" than you would get in the harsh, brutal and unpleasant realities of life. Things I would tend to stay away from myself.

    I find it hard to watch most gangster movies, for example, because they remind me of high school too much.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Cheers.