SFF 2011: 13 ASSASSINS

Miike Takashi is often misunderstood by many western film writers. Despite his prolific nature (regularly making between 3 and 6 films a year), very few of his films travel outside of Japan and the ones that do inevitably paint him a very specific way. He is most well-know to us in the west as the "crazy Japanese mind" behind works of extreme perversity such as Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi The Killer, Gozu and several others. Those more familiar with his complete oeuvre though will also know him as a maker of brilliantly hyper children's films (The Great Yokai War, Zebraman, Yatterman and the upcoming Ninja Kids); tough, tight, yakuza dramas (his Black Triad trilogy being a particular highlight: Shanghai Triad Society, Rainy Dog & Ley Lines); surreal, existential meditations (God's Puzzle, Izo, Big Bang Love, City of Lost Souls) or even high school gang movies (Fudoh: The Next Generation and the two Crows Zero films).
 
Miike is, and always has been, a chameleon director - working multiple jobs at once from low-budget video pieces to blockbuster event films. 13 ASSASSINS is the first straight-up 'chambara' picture he has attempted and right off the bat he nails this film perfectly. Ostensibly the film is single-mindedly split into two parts, a set up for the big battle and the battle itself. There is no point beating about the bush, as you already most likely know that the film climaxes in an almost 50 minute epic set-piece. Rather than act as reductive knowledge though, this actually helps one maintain attention as the first 75 minutes offer a slow, spiky set-up.
 
Miike uses this first half to perfunctorily look at a historical point in time where the traditional code of a samurai was passing. He takes us through a few different perspectives on classic honour but really, this often seems tokenistic. You know the film itself just wants to get to the meat and potatoes. The version that played here in Sydney was the international cut that is almost 20 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. Apparently this cut segment consists mostly of one scene taking place in a brothel that the samurais visit the night before the big battle. The producers felt it dragged the pace down and cut it. I'm not sure how Miike feels about this decision but considering it is this cut version that is touring international film festivals I think he must approve.
 
Over the course of the first half we do get some nice customary Miike button-pushing moments. A very startling image of a mutilated limbless woman, a classically evil protagonist introduced with some truly obnoxious sequences and a sporadic shot of a woman doing something very strange between her legs in a stream. Much like The Dirty Dozen or The Seven Samurai (definitely both models for this film), 13 ASSASSINS suffers from slight repetition during its 'gather the group' together scenes. You do yearn for him to finally get to 13 so the film can move on to its next stage but again, having the knowledge of what is coming offers us a degree of patience.
 
For when it does come we are granted one of the best action sequences I have seen in years. The final act is basically a masterclass for any aspiring action filmmaker and is something I would hope most American directors study. Miike not only avoids the generic rapid-cutting/shaky-cam scenes we customarily receive in these films but he also paces and structures the entire final act so perfectly. Creating small micro-narratives that resolve themselves over the course of the sequence we never become bored with the bombardment of sound and fury, something that frequently happens with extended action pieces in Hollywood films.
 
The immediate visceral joy of watching such a well-staged climax unfold defied most of my critical capacities to be honest. Several times throughout this final act my brain simply said me to "This is fucking awesome". Not much analysis there but a purity of enjoyment in the power of straight up action cinema. This isn't my favourite Miike film, nor is it particularly his best film but it is one of his most sheerly enjoyable works. It is easy to see why this has been storming the festival circuit for the last 12 months. Don't hesitate if you get a chance to see this on the big screen. It's a great, crowd-pleasing, samurai epic designed for big cinemas.