Posts Tagged ‘Takashi Miike’

It’s the time of year when cinemas are usually packed to overflowing with happy crowds settling down to watch epic sword-swinging fantasy adventures with a distinctly Japanese influence. This sort of thing is a licence to print money, apparently, and so I was somewhat surprised to find myself entirely alone in a theatre watching Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal, which is surely the highest-profile film currently fitting that description.

(Well, not entirely alone, as I had taken along my Japanese cultural advisor, who is currently interning on this blog’s staff. Probably just as well she’s not actually on the payroll, as her contributions to the evening mainly consisted of shouting ‘This is ridiculous!’ at regular intervals and claiming that Ken Watanabe is in Blade of the Immortal when he is truth completely absent from proceedings. But I digress.)

Although it is actually based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal clearly owes rather a lot to the long tradition of Japanese samurai movies, rather in the same vein as Miike’s 2010 film Thirteen Assassins. And if I say that this is a vein which has most likely been recently slashed open and is currently spraying blood everywhere, you may get an inkling of the general tone and content of the new movie.

Hana Sugisaka plays Rin, the plucky daughter of Asano, a noted fencing teacher, in Shogunate-period Japan. However, her parents are killed by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), leader of the ruthlessly ambitious Ikko-ryu society. Being a dutiful daughter, she swears vengeance on Anotsu and his men, which is a fairly big thing to take on given they are all highly-trained killers and she is only a teenage girl. She encounters the ancient crone Yaobikuni, who advises her to hire a bodyguard, and recommends a man in the area who, she is told, will never die…

This turns out to be Manji (J-pop idol Takuya Kimura), once a noble samurai warrior, now an aimless drifter, thanks to having life-preserving ‘bloodworms’ implanted in him by Yaobikuni fifty years earlier. In addition to stopping him from ageing, the worms also give him the kind of regenerative powers only usually possessed by Hugh Jackman. Tired of his eternal existence and deeply cynical about the world, can Rin persuade Manji to help her in her quest for vengeance? And can even Manji’s supernatural combat prowess help them overcome the many enemies standing in their way?

Well, Blade of the Immortal may not be the biggest or most original movie of the year, but it’s in with a very good chance of being the most extravagantly violent. This is made very clear from the absolute start of the film – the very first sound you hear is that of a sword going through someone, and this is followed by a lengthy sequence in which Manji slaughters a vast mob of deserving opponents, getting royally carved up and losing an eye and an arm in the process (the subtitles helpfully provide ‘Ouch’ at this point).

As I say, it sets the tone, and much of the rest of the film consists of either intricately-choregraphed duels between Manji and the various elite swordsmen of the Ikko-ryu (conveniently, their code of honour means they refuse to all gang up on him), or equally intricately-choreographed massed battles in which Manji and one or two other characters take on literal armies single-handed (the enemy commander is a little slow off the mark, waiting for the first two or three hundred guys to be hacked down before bringing up the muskets). If you’re looking for a film which tension in the climactic duel partly comes from wondering whether anyone involved will be able to keep their footing in the lake of gore where it’s taking place, Blade of the Immortal is the one for you.

There is actually quite a clever and inventive script in the middle of all this, which does all sorts of interesting things – there are some musings as to the meaning of existence, a meditation on the futility of revenge, and the way in which the relationship between Manji and Rin is developed is also impeccable. The various references to classic Japanese action movies are also nicely done – it almost goes without saying that Kimura is giving us his take on the classic Toshiro Mifune ‘scruffy samurai’ character. However, I have to say that all this is just really very high quality dressing on a film which is primarily about people trying to chop each other up with swords, axes, pole-arms, knives on chains, and so on, and so on.

And I can’t help thinking that, as such, there’s a fundamental problem with the film: it’s established early on that Manji is almost literally invincible, due to his immortality, and the question is one of how you make the film interesting and dramatically viable when your main protagonist can only ever be inconvenienced, not actually threatened. The film has a decent go at tackling this, including various grotesque fighters with supernatural abilities of their own amongst the Ikko-ryu, and this makes things interesting for a bit – there’s a battle between Manji and another immortal which is more like an update on the sequence with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail than anything from Highlander – but I’m not sure they ever quite solve the problem.

In the end, I did enjoy Blade of the Immortal, even though it is much more thoroughly absurd and superficial than any of the Kurosawa movies which it clearly owes a debt to. But I enjoyed it much more as a spectacle, for its lavish and extravagant bizarreness and violence, than as an actual drama or action movie. It is well-made, well-directed, mostly well-acted and a lot of fun to watch – but, it would appear, just a little bit too way out there for the more refined audiences in my neck of the woods. Fair enough: this is one of those movies that will either be your cup of tea or it won’t, but if it is, you’re going to have a really good time with it.

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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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