Monday, August 22, 2011

Destination: 19th-Century Feudal Japan

Director of over 80 films and video productions, Takashi Miike is known for depicting over-the-top violence, disturbing images, and sexual perversions. Watch Audition or Ichi the Killer and you’ll see what I mean.  I’ve seen fewer than ten of his films, but it’s clear that he has developed a unique style, one that is fast-paced and in your face. Miike takes things in a very different direction with 13 Assassins, a 2010 remake of a 1963 black-and-white samurai film. 13 Assassins is austere, stately, and deliberate (at least in comparison with his other work). It’s a return to a traditional but sophisticated mode of storytelling; it feels like watching Kurosawa or Mizoguchi. I acknowledge that Miike still throws in some of his trademark violence—there’s plenty of blood and a couple of beheadings—and there’s a pretty disturbing image of woman whose tongue and limbs have been cut off, but these images are fairly restrained and serve to enhance the story rather than simply shock the audience.

Set in 19th century feudal Japan, 13 Assassins tells the story of a cruel, brutal (even heartless) lord named Naritsugu. Lord Naritsugu takes whatever woman pleases him, kills whoever annoys him, and finds pleasure in war and violence. (Naritsugu was the one who cut off the tongue and limbs of the woman). He is on the rise politically and must be stopped. And a samurai master is recruited to assassinate him. The epic film quickly builds, with echoes of Seven Samurai, to an amazing 50-minute battle scene with the 13 assassins taking on Naritsugu’s men.
The acting and swordsmanship are excellent. The cinematography is beautiful. But, more importantly, it’s a great story where we care about these characters, men who are fighting to make the world a better place.
This will easily be one of the best movies of the year, and it’s deserving of that oddly oxymoronic phrase instant classic. I can’t wait to see Miike’s latest, another classic remake that premiered at Cannes. It’s called Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. And this one is in 3D.


  1. I watched this film just after taking a course at UW all about martial arts film. I absolutely loved it. My brother eventually resorted to punching me in the shoulder every time I tried to compare the poor beggar character to Seven Samurai's Kikuchiyo. Having watched other Miike films (most notably Audition) I was definitely glad that there were no wriggling burlap sacks.

    1. Glad you found my blog, John. I couldn't help but compare him to Kikuchiyo either. It's clearly an homage. Yeah, Miike is craaaazy violent. I started but never did finish watching Ichi the Killer, which is insane.