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Posts Tagged ‘samurai’

As regular readers may know, I like to be topical, and bearing this in mind let us talk a bit about assassination. I don’t know about you, but to me the word conjures up images of a swift dagger from the shadows, a single silenced shot from an invisible sniper – something skilful and elegant and clean and quick. (Although, while it feels like I’ve spent most of the week chasing Saudis around the undergrowth, I make no claims to be an expert on this subject.) For this reason, if no other, I might suggest that Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is one of those movies which has had its title very poorly translated, as the attempted killing the eponymous characters have their hearts set on occurs amidst astoundingly violent and protracted scenes of close-quarters carnage.

Miike’s film is set in 1844 Japan, during the dying days of the Shogunate. The political situation is not helped by the excesses of the Shogun’s half-brother, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who is – to put it mildly – a few conveyor belts short of a sushi train. Actually, Naritsugu is epically insane, wont to casually perform acts of horrible brutality, and his impending rise to even greater power is of grave concern to a cabal of senior noblemen. For the good of the nation they charge veteran warrior Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) with bringing about his death.

Shinzaemon sets about recruiting samurai to assist him, amongst their number a terrifyingly skilled swordsman, a cynical old mercenary, a keen young apprentice and a corrupted warrior looking for redemption, all the while aware that his target’s chief samurai is an old rival who knows what he’s attempting. A plan is drawn up to force Naritsugu to take a particular route as he travels to his clan territory, with an ambush being laid in a village which has been transformed into a giant deathtrap…

Well, as anyone remotely interested in Japanese cinema should realise with great rapidity, there’s never any doubt as to what kind of film this is. The plot, setting, and themes all recall – to some degree or other – Akira Kurosawa’s iconic historical samurai movies of the 50s and 60s (in Japan this whole genre is called jedi, tellingly enough), particularly the peerless and much-remade Seven Samurai. This isn’t quite another straight remake, but the fact that Yusuke Iseya is effectively doing an impression of Toshiro Mifune’s character – with the connivance of the script – is just one example of the way in which the film appears to flaunt its roots.

(Don’t Write In And Be Pedantic Department: I know this is a remake of a 1963 movie by Eiichi Kudo. Haven’t seen it, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if that turned out to be a Kurosawa knock-off as well.)

And I feel obliged to say that while this might make 13 Assassins sounds like karaoke cinema, playing with images from and nostalgia for certain classic movies, that doesn’t stop it being extremely accomplished and thoughtful in its own way. And it’s not afraid to be more obviously bleak and explicit than most of Kurosawa’s movies – it opens with a visceral hara-kiri suicide under a stormladen sky (there’s another later on), and doesn’t shy away from the grisly nature of Naritsuga’s excesses. This is before we even get to the action in earnest.

Most interestingly, it seems to be about the constraints and price of the honour system within which almost all the characters operate. Even Shinzaemon admits that it’s a tough vocation to be a samurai, and his rival seems to agree: their oaths of loyalty to their different masters have set them on a collision course only one of them will walk away from. Even more than this, the film suggests that the proud samurai are chafing under the demands of the system in what was a relatively peaceful period in Japanese history, and are all quietly itching to kick something off. Many of the characters bemoan the fact that most samurai don’t have much combat experience these days. Naritsuga – one of cinema’s more memorable nutters of recent years – is so impressed by the violence he witnesses that he instantly promises to start more wars as soon as he ascends to real power. ‘Your samurai brawls are fun,’ says Iseya’s character. Most telling of all is the reaction of Shinzaemon – presented as a wise and conscientious man – when being given his virtually suicidal mission. ‘How fortune shines on me,’ he says. You sense that everyone is secretly thrilled that this can only end in a huge fight.

And boy, does it ever. I’ve learnt to be wary of films which sell themselves on the length of their concluding action sequences – the ‘ten minute sword fight’ in Phantom Menace didn’t really materialise, nor did the ‘twenty minute’ one in Revenge of the Sith – and while 13 Assassins‘ climactic battle scene isn’t quite the ’45 minute’ spectacle the advertising promises, it comes damned close, as Shinzaemon and his followers take on the small army protecting Naritsugu in the village of death.

For sheer length and relentlessness this is something else – in the course of the battle the samurai on both sides go from refined, impassive warriors to blood-splattered maniacs scrabbling in the mud for weapons – but it is, to some extent, desensitising. It opens quite promisingly with the assassins coming up with a use for cows you may find a little surprising, but for most of its length there’s very little change in setting and style and no sense of an inner narrative to the battle, which is what you really need for a sequence like this to completely work. It’s also an issue that – given the size of the cast and the relatively brief running time – more than a few of the assassins are essentially ciphers and you don’t necessarily care what happens to them.

I get the impression from the patchwork quilt of companies responsible for financing 13 Assassins – Toho’s in there, inevitably, and somehow even the folk of the UK ‘makes you want to gouge your own eyes out’ Film Council have had a role in getting this movie released over here – that this is quite a prestige production, of some significance to the Japanese film industry. This may be why it is, inescapably, a film looking over its shoulder to past glories – a film that almost seems designed to be classic. It’s by no means a bad film: it’s tremendously exciting, well-performed and involving, and if you like samurai movies in general you’ll definitely enjoy this one. But it seems to me to be the equivalent of those rare westerns that still get made in America occasionally: a nostalgia piece.

At the close of the film one of the survivors, on his way out of the remains of the village (let us just say that property values may have been adversely affected by the events of the climax) tries to throw away his sword but finds his hands refuse to let it go. Cinema seems to have a similarly instinctive attachment to the samurai movies – but when the results of this are films as entertaining and accomplished as 13 Assassins, that’s no bad thing at all.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 15th 2004:

[Following a review of Shrek 2.] And so let’s move on to a much less ubiquitous movie from Japan, starring, written, and directed by near-legendary Japanese performer Takeshi Kitano. Kitano has something of a following over here, mainly due to his appearances in cult favourites like Sonatine, Battle Royale, and (ahem) Johnny Mnemonic. Asian cinema is, of course, quite popular just now, with the likes of Tarantino and Tom Cruise toying with Samurai chic recently with quite variable results.

Kitano shows these gaijin how it really should be done in Zatoichi, a Samurai movie for the new millenium. This is really just the latest in a series of films going back over forty years, all featuring a lead character who’s become something of a folk hero in Japan: Zatoichi, a blind swordsman who wanders 19th century Japan righting wrongs. Such is the popularity of the series that years ago there was even an attempt at an American remake, starring Rutger Hauer: you can probably guess how that one turned out.

Anyway, Kitano’s movie opens with Zatoichi roaming the countryside in the guise of an itinerant masseur, minding his own business and keeping an ear open for an honest game of dice (yes, his hearing is so good he can tell how the dice land just from the noise they make). However, he wanders into a town in the grip of a power struggle between two rival gangs of criminals. Also in town is a once-noble but still very lethal samurai (Tadanobu Asano) forced to become a mercenary in order to pay his wife’s medical bills, a gambling-crazed idiot (Gadarukanaru Taka), and two geishas who are not what they seem to be. All these characters are drawn together in a plot mixing thoughtfulness, large quantities of arterial splatter, and a surprising amount of tap dancing.

In many ways this is very much a homage to the classic Samurai films of the fifties and sixties. As you may have noticed, the plot bears a passing resemblance to that of Kurosawa’s hugely influential Yojimbo (the Italian remake of which launched Clint Eastwood’s movie career), and the production values and cinematography have a subtle but definite authenticity to them. There’s no attempt to play up the nobility of Japan’s warrior caste: mainly because they’re not a particularly noble lot. The story is a fairly simple one, but Kitano tells it in a relatively sophisticated way, opting to use long, slightly discursive flashbacks to fill in the histories of many key characters. This occasionally makes the film a little hard to follow but never for long.

Kitano himself is weirdly magnetic as Zatoichi, a hunched figure dressed in black with strikingly pale hair (possibly a homage to Rutger Hauer’s adverts for a well-known Irish tipple, but I doubt it). But all the performances are good: particularly Asano, and Taka, who gives a nicely-judged comic-relief turn.

However, this isn’t just a nostalgic throwback: it does new and very peculiar things with the genre. The fight sequences are on the face of it very traditional, extremely well choreographed and striking. But – and this is the first time I’ve noticed this done, certainly outside of a Hollywood blockbuster – Kitano makes liberal use of CGI effects in the fight scenes, so blades erupt through backs, blood sprays everywhere, and severed body parts spin towards the camera in a quite startling way. Unfortunately the effects aren’t that good, and the computer-generated elements are often glaringly obvious.

There’s a lot of quirky comedy going on here too, a lot of it quite broad and seemingly at odds with the general tone and theme of the film. (Having said that, how seriously can one take a film about a blind sword master?) This is matched by a striking, percussive soundtrack, which borders on the mesmeric in places and leads us quite neatly to the oddest part of the movie: the dancing.

Yes, given that this is a samurai flick, there is an awful lot of tap dancing in Zatoichi. To begin with it’s quite subtle: some peasants are tilling a field in the foreground, and the rise and fall of their picks matches the rhythm of the soundtrack. Later on, they’re back again, and now they really are just tap dancing, in a muddy field, while it rains. No reason is given for this, nor for why the climactic scenes where Zatoichi confronts the villains and metes out justice are intercut with a full-on dance routine involving the rest of the principal cast and about thirty other people. It’s bizarre. It isn’t explained in the context of the film. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing. But it doesn’t half make for a memorable movie. Zatoichi: very weird, slightly wonderful, and well worth a look.

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