Sunday, May 22, 2011

Takashi Miike's new film "13 Assassins" at Landmark Theatres: Apr 17 - Jun 30

Rather than just my usual 'informing' style post, this one's going to be in the form of a review, as not having written anything in advance of having seen the film, now that I've seen it, I feel it's noteworthy to the extent that it deserves a deeper investigation/presentation. Rare thing to want to call a film a 'masterpiece'. I almost never engage in that kind of nonsense, especially within genre-film. Well, we've got just about exactly that here. Takashi Miike reigns in most-all of his indulgent sensibilities and delivers a (largely) straight-up, stoic, refined period-drama set in the last couple decades before the beginning of the Meiji era, the twilight of the Shogunate and the end of feudal Japan. A tale of a widower in his later years, who after decades of peace has begun to yearn for death. Suddenly he is approached with the most audacious of missions; bring down a corrupt lord, half-brother to the Shogun, who has, in his sadistic misuse of power and stature, starved, tortured, enslaved and reduces hundreds to misery, loss of property, their families, their homes. This mission from within the Shogunate itself. Bushido preventing them form outwardly acting against the half-brother of the Shogun, yet knowing his power-mad sadism with reduce whole prefectures to desolation, those within the parliament of the Shogun know they need to prevent this corrupt Lord from joining their circle of policy-making influence.

This mission falls on ex-Vassal to the Shogun, now turned contemplatively domestic, the definition of 'Twilight Samurai' living on his stipend of Koku; Shimada Shinzaemon, in what he perceives as his own 'waning years', idling them away with reading and fishing, his own Dojo, now only attended by one pupil. Shinzaemon immediately knows this opportunity for what it is; to end his own life definitively, with with honor in the most righteous, justice-driven series of events he has ever known... as a 'walking through the eye of a needle' where the odds are against him and any that he may recruit to his cause. The corrupt Lord in question; Naritsugu is known and reviled by many for his deeds, so it's of little difficulty for Shimada to find those sympathetic within his kin for the mission, especially with a secret order issued from Lord Doi among the Shogunate, and the startling 'evidence' of Naritsugu's crimes that Doi presents to Shimada.

What ensues is both a prototypical Samurai revenge tale, (not unlike classics such as "47 Ronin"), wherein the cast of 'assassins' is hurriedly assembled for their suicide mission to oppose the bureaucratic disaster of a corrupt Lord's coming to power, while also being a film that only Miike himself could have made. A tour de force of the power of justice, the insanity of violence, the righteousness of retribution and the need to decisively act against those who themselves exploit the infrastructures of bureaucracy and power to mask their own personal desires to inflict suffering and war in a play of ego and arrogance. And then there's the closing confrontation between these forces. I've been told that the swordplay that closes the film is 40+ minutes long, yet the choreography, the pacing, the cinematography and the dramatic flow of events is so well assembled, that even after having seen the film, I'm skeptical. Which lends much credibility to what is one of the most powerful sword-on-sword action sequences dedicated to film. This is followed by a in-the-throes-of-death dialog and series of events that could only have been made effective by what proceeded it, all 40+ minutes. Beautifully shot (even some of just the damn light quality in this film is startling for it's precision), immaculately well acted (in-particular by Kôji Yakusho, who has had many great roles, but this may be his finest) and mostly evenly-handled in it's adherence to the traditions of the Jidaigeki Chambara (period drama swashbuckler) genre, this is Miike's first real grab at a larger cinema legitimacy since 1999's "Audition". And hopefully the beginning new more 'formal' period of stylistic/cinematic exploration by him.

Link to Landmark Theatres "13 Assassins" site

Link to Official "13 Assassins" Japanese site