If you could kill Caligula before he took power and started terrorizing his subjects, and you knew you’d be preventing a nightmare of horror from overtaking the good citizens of the kingdom, would you do it? What value system would you stake your life on to effect this action?
The Samurai film that questions the code of the Samurai is not a new genre, and in some ways it is a genre that belongs to another era, the more radically subversive and questioning latter half of the last century. Yet Director Takashi Miike has pulled this argument out of the past and hurled it lustily into the present, and it is a triumph.
I saw 13 Assassins at the Fantasia Film Festival and I had tears in my eyes from start to finish. I adore films about the nobility of fighting for a good cause, the brotherhood of men united in the fight, and the tragic losses and hard-won victories that ensue. One could argue that the best of such material is treated in Japanese film.
Certainly in terms of portraying stoic men doing dark deeds and sacrificing themselves for a greater good, 13 Assassins is hard to beat. It has the rousing feel of a Dirty Dozen flick, with the serious argument of a solid historical think piece, and some incredible kick-ass action. Concerns of state intersect, often violently, with the lives of the citizens, and serious questions are raised. This is Miike’s bid to evoke the power of films such as Kobayashi’s Hara Kiri and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Miike pulls it off, and raises the bar. Here we find a medieval Japan that feels a bit more human, more coarse, and more humorous. As with other Miike films, brutality is seen head on, yet not to inappropriate levels of excess. Blood is scarce and meant to upset and sadden, and it does. The Fantasia crowd loves to cheer gory moments, but it was not so easy with this film and its somber undertones.
That said, it was exciting as hell. The action builds slowly and steadily, engaging the viewer. There is much to discuss in a good Japanese historical drama: issues of state, the struggle for power, and which course of action one must take. When the true battle starts it’s near the end, a hard-core sword fight between thirteen samurai and two hundred warriors. It is a gloriously executed brawl that overtakes a rural town, and everything around the fighters becomes part of the weaponry.
I haven’t seen such a thrilling battle as this in a long while. It’s long, almost an hour, and intensely exciting. You settle into this one, and it never lags; rather, it gets more meaningful as the stakes get higher. The cinematography is breathtaking and the actors perform with great depth and vigor. Make no mistake, this is a beautiful-looking piece of cinema, and I urge all fans of Samurai cinema to see this on the big-screen, for the thunderous crash of hundreds of swords, the flesh-crunching battle, and the stunning soundtrack. Overall, it’s a wonderful evocation of the classic style, and a noble success. A masterwork? Possibly. A great bloody movie? You bet!
The final screening of 13 Assassins will take place on Sunday, August 7th, at 5pm in the Hall Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the Fantasia website: http://www.festivalfantasia.com/2011/en/