Here’s where I admit to not being a connoisseur of Asian cinema. I know, it’s a big continent, but we speak confidently of European cinema, so let’s just run with it. I went to the Curzon to catch up with the much talked-about 13 Assassins at the weekend. I was pretty much blown away by the experience, but, as I say, this may have as much to do with the fact I rarely find myself sitting down to watch a Japanese Samurai film at the weekend, so the very novelty of the pursuit may be at play. (There’s an excellent dissemination of what Asian cinema means on Wikipedia, but to save you the bother: what I’m really talking about is East Asian cinema, which is to say, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.) I was a relative latecomer to world cinema in general, but the self-education I put myself through a decade ago was intensive, and it came at a time when I could afford DVDs, and my library stands testament to my enthusiasm for anything that wasn’t English-speaking. I devoured the works of Akira Kurosawa, as you might – Rashomon, Ran, Seven Samurai, my instant favourite The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo – and it is against these classic works that Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is being judged. High praise indeed.
Anyway, I’ve never seen a Miike film before, chiefly because I got wind that they were especially violent, and that doesn’t really appeal to me when I have so many other films to see – although I know he is incredibly prolific, and has dipped a toe into just about every genre. 13 Assassins seemed to me a good place to start, what with all the critical accolades. It’s his Samurai movie. His jidaigeki (in other words, a Japanese period film). Set in Feudal Japan in the mid-1800s, when peace is fragile, it’s a pretty straightforward set-up: evil ruler – in this case, the Shogun’s sadistic little brother Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) – must be vanquished by a secretly-hired ragtag band of Samurai warriors on behalf of the peasants he exploits, led by the ageing Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho). It’s a remake of a 1963 black-and-white original, but that doesn’t matter unless you’ve seen it. Thirteen is an unwieldy number, and to be honest, the individual members of this growing platoon of do-gooders are difficult to pick out as the story marches towards its protracted siege climax as there simply isn’t time to do more than sketch in their backstories, and of course they all have the same haircut, but the basic imbalance of 13 against 200 of the Shogun’s brother’s soldiers is clear enough. As is the thematic thrust of selfless honour in battle: these 13 are prepared to die for their cause. They are like good suicide bombers. (They do use dynamite, by the way, but mostly they use swords, and arrows, and rocks, and forethought, and cunning.)
It’s The Dirty Dozen meets Zatoichi, and it’s executed with style and supreme organisational confidence. The climactic battle lasts for about half of the film! It is relentless, but even with the surfeit of goodies to keep tabs on, Miike manages to keep you abreast of the finer points of the action as his protagonists scurry along passages and walkways in ones and twos, each pursued by countless royal guards, usually boxed in from the front and behind, swords swishing. It’s a 15 certificate, but most of the slashing is without squirting blood. Miike, with that reputation for nastiness, plays his disturbing cards early on, with the opening seppuku (self-disembowelling) and the heart-rending sight of an abused peasant girl whose tongue has been cut out by the villain and who uses a brush held between her teeth to write the words, TOTAL MASSACRE. After that, the film is less overtly bloody than an episode of Silent Witness. Even the disembowelling is heard, not seen. What restraint.
TOTAL MASSACRE is 13 Assassins’ unwieldy middle name. Its sheer relentlessness is its trump card. It makes a whole lot more sense if you forced-fed yourself Kurosawa in 2001.
Oh, and look at this fantastic Japanese poster!