Monday, August 15, 2011

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011)

Takashi Miike's films are often an acquired taste. His portrayal of graphic violence and sexuality, combined with his love for unusual narratives driven by even more unusual characters has made him a cult favorite here in the States. Miike is a film maker who has made a reputation by holding nothing back and by approaching every taboo with the gleeful attitude of a rebellious teenager giving the finger to the high school principle. His skill behind the camera, and his prolific output are nothing short of amazing though, and those talents have earned him the kind of respect other film makers who approach the same subject matter and portray it as graphically are consistently denied. He has succeeded in taking what is often considered exploitation and turning into both what his audience craves and what critics still consider "art". It's no small accomplishment.

Still, he has so far been pigeon holed as a genre/exploitation director, especially here in the States where our faux cultural sensibilities tend to be offended by the celebratory tone Miike tends to embraced when presenting the most graphic material. 13 Assassins proves beyond the shadow of any doubt that Miike is more than a one trick pony and that he not only makes great films for an audience that appreciates his brand of balls to the wall, no holds barred cinema, but that he can hold his own with any film maker (living or dead) that is considered a more "serious" artist. To put it bluntly, 13 Assassins is a great fucking movie. Period. Full stop. It's not a great cult movie. It's not a great action movie. It's not a great drama. It's a great movie, all around, incorporating pieces of things Miike has shown he's capable of before, but this time putting them front and center.

13 Assassins has a place among the great samurai epics in film history, from Ran to Seven Samurai to Samurai Rebellion to Yojimbo and so on. It succeeds in telling a compelling story using interesting, intelligent characters and a visual style that is spectacular in it's simplicity. It suffers from neither the weepy, syrupy, over baked emotional manipulation often at play in even the more successful dramas, and also succeeds in that it avoids the pitfall of having a cavalcade of wooden, emotionless drones performing feats of action movie heroism which are devoid of anything but empty spectacle. It is earnest, straight forward, and impossible to take your eyes off of. The small, quiet dialog scenes are as mesmerizing as the action.

The film benefits from a cast that misses nothing, making every scene worth the seconds it takes to tick by, giving the audience believable, strong characters who feel more as if they are the result of a piece of non-fiction research than a fictional writers imagination. They simultaneously seem to have their own full histories while also being completely spontaneous in each moment. They don't all share the same amount of screen time or importance in the story, but none of them ever feel as if they've been tacked on to add some dimension that would otherwise be missing from the story or the other characters.

By the time the action begins, it's already been established that these are characters who have dedicated their entire lives to the discipline of the samurai code and have spent that time both in practice and studies. When the film's big action set piece takes off, there are no feats of superhuman strength or ability, no wire work or C.G.I flying. It's a group of men who have spent their lives preparing and planning for a moment like this one, and because that's been so well established, everything in the scene is believable and because we've spent the time we have with these actors portraying these characters so well, it has weight and meaning. It's not just a blood and guts spectacle. Miike doesn't spare us many of the gory details, because he's Takashi Miike and he never shy's away from the gory details, but again, it's not the kind of scene that highlights the effects or the gore. It's always about these men and this story, and because of that, it is spectacular.

Takashi Miike has made a full fledged samurai epic of the variety which hasn't been seen in decades. In many ways, it's a lean story. There's no love interest here. There's no modern sensibility to the characters attitudes or actions. There's no hidden subtext or allegory about the modern age. There's definitely a subtext about power and the ugliness it breeds in humanity, but it's a universal idea that could belong in any age. It's that quality, the utter indifference to traps and cliche's of modern storytelling that makes 13 Assassins a humming, churning steam engine of cinematic beauty. In 1954, Akira Kurosawa set the standard for samurai epics by making what is arguably one of the greatest films of all time, Seven Samurai. Miike hasn't made a film that is equal to that, but he's done what might have otherwise been considered impossible by getting in the ballpark.

I highly recommend this one. Get your hands on a copy, soon. It's available via Netflix Watch Instantly, but this is one I'd suggest watching on Blu-ray if you're internet speed isn't up to carrying full 1080p HD. It's shot with such a natural beauty that it's worth waiting a few days to see it in it's full glory. I'll leave links for purchasing the DVD and Blu-ray below. I'm going to pick this one up for my personal collection, immediately.

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