Thursday, June 16, 2011

13 Assassins (2011) – Review

Review: 13 Assassins is very violent, oddly infused with humor that actually works and fairly epic. The narrative structure that director Takashi Miike uses essentially breaks the film into two pieces – the setup and the battle. The first part builds slowly as it painstakingly reinforces just how evil the villain Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira is, elevating him from just another action movie bad guy to a truly insidious and despicable scoundrel, that the audience actively hates. This pays off quite a bit however as the enthusiastic loathing of the character draws the audience in and emotional involves them in the outcome (we would be heartbroken to see him survive). It also works well in explaining why these men would embark on such a dangerous mission. Many of the characters are underdeveloped (as there is just not enough time for so many characters), but the good guys come across as likable and honorable and the bad guys conflicted or just straight-up heinous. Thus the viewer does not need too much character or backstory to know who to route for and care about, when it comes to secondary characters. Miike does do a wonderful job with a few of the characters though (Lord Naritsugu included). While there is certainly a clear enough line between good and bad (I think especially for western audiences that are not as concerned with social/cultural status, honor and obligations), the principal characters each have a nice dichotomy to them – an internal conflict, which make them relatable and more human – and Miike brilliantly addresses these inner conflicts through the formation of the 13 Assassins and ultimately the battle at the occupies most of the second half of the film. Surprisingly, the audience gets to see and understand more of each character during the battle than in its setup. The drama of the battle heightens both the audience’s connection to the narrative and characters while also illuminating each character’s true self (or true integrity, if you will). The first part of the film could probably be tightened up, but its slow building and repeated themes of honor only benefit the battle and make it more meaningful. Speaking of the battle – Miike’s direction of the forty-plus minute battle scene is nothing short of excellent. It is completely engaging throughout, with its own story, ebbs and flows. (Like I said above) the characters really come to life as it rages on. While 13 Assassins may not quite be on the same level as classic samurai films like Seven Samurai (to only name one of Akira Kurosawa’s films, the master of the genre), Harakiri or Ugetsu, it is a modern classic entry into the samurai genre.

Technical & acting achievements: Takashi Miike is a very good Japanese director, excelling in multiple genres. He has made a number of well received films in recent years (like Ichi the Killer and a segment of Three… Extremes, both known in the States), but this is his best work to date. What he does so well is take a classic Japanese genre (containing many of their cinema’s most famous and loved films) and shoots his take in it that both preserves the classic tone and production aesthetic, but also has a very modern and impactful style. The score by composer Koji Endo works very well, as it also references the past while feeling current. It does a good job of furthering the drama as well. The production design of Yuki Hayashida and cinematography of Nobuyasu Kita are both fantastic. Hayashida’s sets have a vintage genre feel to them, while Kita’s camera is ferocious and personal inviting the audience to experience and feel the shock/brunt of battle and the drama. The performances are also very good. Koji Yakusho carries the film well as its emotional center. Takayuki Yamada and Masachika Ichimura contribute good supporting work, but it is Goro Inagaki’s villainous portrayal of Lord Naritsugu that steals the film. He is so carefree, not to be bothered by the trifles of those below him, and bored with his cushy life – playing this character and demeanor with a sinister overtone. His revelation at his own mortality is amazing well done.

Summary & score: While samurai films are not as common in popular cinema as they once were (much like westerns), 13 Assassins is good enough to rejuvenate the genre. 8/10

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