13 Assassins (Magnet Releasing, R)

Miike is a great director and always had a firm bedrock of talent underneath the surface of exploitation.

 

 

Okay, so after films like 2000’s Audition and 2001’s Ichi the Killer, you’re a big Takashi Miike fan (as well you should be). He cranks out films at a pace rivaled perhaps only by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his heyday, and yet most of them are hard to see here in America, even on home video. But hey, his 13 Assassins is getting a theatrical release! By a prominent genre distributor! It’s about time.

So you go to the theatre anticipating typical Miike antics (graphic, strange, and awesome violence; deviant sex), and in the opening scene we see a samurai commit seppuku, a very unpleasant form of suicide. But… they don’t show it! What the hell? Since when does Miike focus on the face of someone dying, rather than the arterial spray?

What you might not have noticed is that as he has become more internationally renowned, by and large Miike has scaled back on the types of extremities that made him so popular in the first place. It’s kind of jarring at first, assuming you go in expecting depravity of some sort, but the fact is that Miike is a great director and always had a firm bedrock of talent underneath the surface of exploitation. In fact, his newest film Hara-Kiri just premiered in competition at Cannes, which in my opinion is about the highest praise a director (if not the film itself) can receive. (And “harakiri” is another word for seppuku, so maybe if we’re lucky we’ll get that graphic ritual disembowelment after all.)

All this is to say that 13 Assassins is a very good film, but perhaps not the type of film many might want it to be. It is very clearly influenced in style and structure by Akira Kurosawa’s touchstone Seven Samurai (1954); it begins with an atrocity, then a team is assembled to fight the recurrence of this atrocity, and then the final half or so of the movie is one long battle sequence. It’s amazing this formula doesn’t get stolen more often—with the forming of the team you get a lot of characterization, which makes you more emotionally invested in the people involved in the final battle than most action films allow for.

This leads me to the one big downer of 13 Assassins: the version we’re seeing in the theatres here is the “international version,” which has been trimmed of some 15 minutes of footage present in the original Japanese version. I have yet to see the uncut version (here’s hoping that’s the one they’re putting out on the film’s announced July 5th home video release date), but purportedly the scenes that were cut were all character development, which the international cut is conspicuously slim on. The only two characters we know much about or care for among the titular thirteen assassins are the leader Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) and the Kikuchiyo stand-in Koyata (Yusuke Iseya). Of course the villain, in this case Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), stands out as well, but only for being so evil. Most or all of the eleven non-Shinzaemon, non-Koyata assassins get lost in the shuffle, and you don’t care much what happens to them in the battle sequence.

It seems like that would be a crucial flaw, but let’s not forget that this level of characterization is basically a bonus in an action film like this—many great action films don’t bother to get you to really care for its characters, and because of this 13 Assassins winds up being quite a lot of fun despite your never being able to tell anyone apart. | Pete Timmermann

 

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