Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Assassins'

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific working directors, but I'd only seen one of his films (1999's Audition) before watching the recent 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 martial-arts movie of the same name. Although he's taken on a wide range of genres, Miike is still best known in the U.S. for his use of brutal, graphic violence in movies like Audition, and while Assassins isn't horrific, it is very nasty and violent during its climactic 45-minute battle sequence. Miike is less interested in intricately choreographed fight scenes than he is in the visceral, ugly clashing of bodies and weapons that happens in battle, and nothing here would be mistaken for the balletic beauty of the majority of modern martial-arts movies that garner attention in the U.S.

The story here is split up into two parts, with the first half of the movie a mostly measured if grim drama about a group of 13 samurai coming together to take down a sadistic and power-hungry lord who is poised to ascend to a position of power. Since he's related to the reigning shogun, the only way to ensure he won't rise to prominence is to assassinate him, so these 13 determined men take on a suicide mission in the name of protecting their countrymen. The building of the team is portrayed methodically and a little slowly, and many of the samurai were a little tough for me to tell apart (they do all have basically the same haircut and wardrobe). A few characters stand out, though, and Miike gives the ringleader Shinzaemon as well as Shinzaemon's nephew distinctive personalities. Villain Naritsugu also makes a notable impression, proving himself every bit the amoral sadist that his enemies claim him to be.

Although there's one particularly nasty scene featuring a woman whose arms and legs have been cut off by Naritsugu, the first half of the movie is relatively calm. But once the group comes together and entrenches itself in a small roadside town to wait for Naritsugu and his retinue, Miike switches gears, delivering a nonstop bloody battle that's worthy of any big-budget war movie. The assassins rely as much on explosives, traps and falling debris as they do on their hand-to-hand combat skills, and Miike does an impressive job of staging the large-scale assault that this small group prepares to deal with an entire battalion. Despite the efforts of the movie's first half, most of the samurai remain interchangeable cannon fodder, but Miike manages to wring some emotion out of their inevitable deaths, and by the time the movie is down to just the characters we recognize and care about, there is a palpable sense of weariness. This is a movie about a group of righteous warriors taking down an evil man, but when the final survivor stumbles through the wreckage, it's hard to imagine any of it as a victory. So many martial-arts movies these days are concerned with colorful robes and graceful movements; in 13 Assassins, Miike brings it all back to blood and guts.

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