Thursday, June 2, 2011

13 Assassins

13 ASSASSINS                      B+                  
Japan  Great Britain  (141 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Takashi Miike

One of the most peculiar aspects in the history of human development is the evolution into specialized samurai swordsmen in Japan, where the gruesome idea of honor and nobility comes at the price of death by mutilation, either at one’s own hand in hari-kari or on the battlefield.  The history of China going back 2000 years B.C. includes the use of swords by soldiers in battle, but no one took it to the distinctive psychological extremes of the Japanese, where initially the samurai class was a warrior class that protected nobility, seen as servants following the orders of the ruling class.  In this manner, they were bred to fight protecting their Lords, and expected to commit hari-kari in disgrace, (see Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 wartime film 47 RONIN Pt’s 1 and 2), if they allowed their Lords to perish or suffer humiliation, an ominous symbolic message to be sending the public during a time of war.  This distinctive view of nobility and disgrace, either one or the other, is exclusively Japanese and part of their national identity, where the culture is obsessed with the manner of one’s death and the degree of honor (or disgrace) associated with the surviving family.  Similar to Christians viewing Jesus Christ’s absorption of earthly punishment and pain as their salvation and redemption, the Japanese likewise see honor in a samurai’s death as the ultimate sacrifice of a human life.  This philosophical view of human sacrifice is at the heart of Miike’s film, which is a fictionalized recreation of historical events, asking what is the role of a samurai when his Lord becomes a ruthless power mad killer?  Do they protect his tyranny, or do they revolt and rise up against him, despite the nobility of his parentage?

Set in the mid 19th century, the country was still ruled by Shoguns, hereditary military dictatorships that established the peace by threat of force, surrounding themselves with huge armies protecting the leaders that are so powerful that no one can stand up to them.  In this instance, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the brother of the Shogun, launches a wicked campaign of rape, torture and perverse violence against his own people as he rises to power, actually killing them for sport, where they are all his subjects and he can do with them as he sadistically pleases, suggesting that is the art of a true ruler.  While his brother Sir Doi is bound by blood not to interfere, he secretly turns to his head samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), requesting that he exact justice through assassination, assembling a highly trained team of the best samurai warriors for what amounts to a suicide mission to save the nation from the bloodlust of a crazed madman.  Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard is Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), a fellow classmate of Shinzaemon, both well versed in each other’s methods, now pitted on opposite sides.  Hanbei gets wind of the mission, but has to figure out how and where it will take place, beginning the chess match between the two warriors.  Miike intentionally uses a structure based on the original 1963 Eiichi Kudo film THE THIRTEEN ASSASSINS, which resembles a town under siege of Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), where initially he slowly gathers the forces who are introduced one by one until there are twelve.  Unlike Kurosawa, the character development is sketchy, where only a few warriors stand out.  Only after they begin their journey do they encounter a bizarre yet comic creature living in the forest, Koyata (Yûsuke Iseye), something of a lovestruck bandit who has eyes on a local beauty, apparently living outside all social customs, including the effrontery to think samurai’s are arrogant men, which of course endears him to Shinzaemon, eventually accepting him as the 13th samurai.     

Usually, when one thinks of assassination missions, stealth activities under cover of darkness come to mind, where fewer forces could swoop in and out targeting their single subject, which is the pattern of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  But not under the code of a samurai, where face to face combat is the only true act of heroism, where a few lone men stand up to hundreds, similar to Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone films or the Hong Kong model for Bruce Lee martial arts films.  Like both earlier films, Miike holds the action in reserve, saving the choreography of hand to hand combat for the last 45 minutes of the film, much of it covered in mud, a thrilling non-stop action sequence that rivals the endless bloody carnage depicted in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  While Peckinpah envisioned the last holdouts of freedom and individualism from the frontier era of the West in an especially bleak and futile light, Miike similarly paints with abject depravity the moral void of samurai warriors serving brutally corrupt feudal Lords, suggesting the lawlessness of the era of samurai protected Shoguns was coming to an end, replaced by the Meiji Period which anointed the country’s Emperor, elected a constitutional government, and established a national army, much of it stimulated by the threat to national security generated from American warships entering Tokyo Bay.   However, rather than offer any insight into a more enlightened or progressive future, Miike dwells in the bleak nightmarish hell of total annihilation, like a dragon setting its own tail ablaze, samurai descending upon samurai, wiping each other out to the point of mass oblivion.  Miike has graced the screen with apocalyptic visions of hopelessness before, where the actual universe was coming to an end in surrealist nuclear annihilation in DEAD OR ALIVE (1999), but nothing that matches the grandiosity of his set pieces here and his skilled direction of a cast of hundreds.  While seemingly repetitive at times with wave upon wave of action, the audience is literally under siege through a relentlessly bloody vision of moral collapse.  

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