Sunday, 27 March 2011

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客) Review

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客)

Director Takashi Miike is well know for his Japanese cult, horror/ thriller cinema. Films such as the brilliant Ichi the Killer and Audition have gained a controversial, and taboo breaking nature to his films. Released in 2010, 13 Assassins sees him try his hand at a period samurai piece (Jidaigeki / Chanbara) and take a much more ‘realistic’ approach to his directing. Gone is the craziness, over-the-top violence and the black comedy, for a much more cinematic and action packed picture. Miike delivers a fantastic film that is well acted, well directed and thoroughly entertaining. 
Set in the early nineteenth century, Japan is in a period of malaise and unrest. The story follows the assassination attempt on a tyrant, Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro) who is next in line to be Shogun. His recent acts of rape, murder and his dishonourable nature, have caused unease within the samurai establishment. With many failing to oppose the Lord,  fearing their positions and honor, it is up to Lord Shinzaemon (Yakusho Koji) to launch an attack on Naritsugu. 12 samurai and an forest dweller, join forces to accomplish this daunting and impossible feat. 13 vs 200, let the battle begin. The story is relatively simple in concept and is played out in a well structured and developed manner. The opening scenes contribute to a shocking and brutal impression of our villain, with scenes of rape, mutilation and the murder of the innocence. These play very close to Miike’s grotesque and disturbing directing nature. One shocking scene in particular has a familiarity to Audition ,involving a young women with no limbs and no tongue. From then on, the second act is much more relaxed and calming, giving much needed development to the 13 assassins, and preparing us for the final act, the epic battle. 
The cinematography is gorgeous and realistic. From the atmospheric scenes in the forests, to the 40 minute long battle scene, it is clear that much attention was given to the production values of the film. The final battle alone, has amazing choreography and well organised use of the practical effects. No slow motion and no CGI........YEAH!!! (except in one particular scene, but it’s understandable when you see it). It all leads to a furious and action packed final act that keeps the audiences attention throughout. Praise has to be given to the audio side of the production. From the slices, and movements of the samurai, to the explosive demolition of buildings, the sound is impressive. The opening scene of ‘seppuka’ is simply gut wrenching. The agony of the character as the blade enters into his stomach, slices and sprays, is all off screen, allowing for a much more violent and gory impression from the sound alone. It all contributes a real sense of immersion and atmosphere. 
The whole cast play their roles magnificently, with no actor leaving a bad impression. The main star is Yakusho Koji, playing Shinzaemon. His stern delivery and strong personality, form a very dramatic and well developed character. Inagaki Goro, who plays the tyrannical Lord Naritsugu, is another strong performance. He plays the character with a calm appearance yet a mentally unstable personality. He dreams of an 'era of war', stating that the sight of his men being sliced, decapitated and massacred is ‘stunning’. He has no mercy, and no sense of cruelty or wrong. One scene sees him practise archery on a family of children and women, with his reasoning for his actions being his ‘rank’. Another noteworthy performance is that of Takayuki Tamada. He plays Koyata the 13th assassin/ forest dweller and provides the comedic relief. He has a  ‘young Toshiro Mifune from Seven Samurai’ resonance to him with his excited personality and agile movement. Yet, he brings an atmosphere for mystery and obscurity to his character. Some actors are more memorable than others, particularly Tsuyoshi Ihara who plays the bad-ass Hirayama. But, while the sheer number of characters may be daunting to fully embrace and connect with, Miike gives enough time to satisfyingly develop each of them. 
From reviews I have read, many film critics have criticised the lack of Takashi Miike’s notorious style in the film. Ichi the Killer, Audition and the Dead or Alive series have gained him his cult status. His mixture of violence, comedy and taboo breaking subject matter have been staples of his directing. While, they are all toned down in 13 Assassins I still gained a sense that this was a ‘Miike’ film. His use of violence is constantly in practise in the film, to where it puzzles me how it only received a 15 rating in Britain. However, I find it insulting that critics have seen this as a problem, because it really isn’t a ‘problem’. A director has the freedom to produce any film he wants, in any style he wants. They don’t need to follow a strict pattern throughout their filmography, like Tarantino or Bay. I praise Miike’s bravery in changing his style and moving away from his ‘B-Movie’ compositions to a more mature and well rounded feature. Its a traditional samurai film but has the best traits of an amazing summer blockbuster. 
Overall, 13 Assassins is simply spectacular in every sense. The acting is memorable and natural, the cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen of recent, and the overall direction is brilliant. Many will criticise the length of the final battle scene. However though lasting more than 40 minutes, it still remained engrossing and dramatic. This is Takashi Miike’s most mature, well composed piece and it’s epic. 
UK Release Date: 9 May 2011
US Release Date: 26 March 2011 (Video on Demand) 
                                   29 April 2011
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