Japan has since at least the days of Akira Kurosawa's great run of motion pictures in the 50's and 60's specialized in gruesome, grueling combat, often performed by mud-covered, extremely weary-looking actors. From Inagaki's "Miyamoto Musashi pictures through Sword of Doom and on into more recent fare like Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus, Japanese action scenes have almost always been enacted by performers seemingly on the edge of panic and utter collapse.
Even Sonny Chiba looks pretty tired at the end of Karate Bearfighter, but (and I don't think this is too big a spoiler) he did just fight a BEAR.
Takashi Miike is hardly a typical anything, not even a typical Japanese film director (a notoriously iconoclastic breed). His films have ranged from completely insane to mostly insane, to pretty cool but with some completely insane parts. Sukiyaki Western Django was lots of fun but not very satisfying -- which is how I would characterize most of his work that I've seen. Fascinating stuff here and there, but at the end of the film I was kind of left feeling like it hadn't all come together as well as it could. Which, given that he makes four or five films A YEAR, is perhaps not very surprising. But still.
But when I first heard about 13 Assassins, his latest movie, something told me that this time, Miike was going to pull it all together.
I'm here to tell you: he did.
13 Assassins is magnificent. Bloody, gruesome, grueling, and wallowing in muck, the titular samurai take their declarations of honour with them into certain death and defeat. It's a hell of an achievement to have 13 main characters and keep them all distinct in your audience's mind, but Miike pulls it off. Each character serves a purpose in the story; each delivers a different beat, a different tenor to the impact of the film.
Maybe Miike needed to stop trying to be different -- this is as classically Japanese a film as can be imagined. In many ways, it's a remake of Seven Samurai (technically, it's a remake of an older film called 13 Assassins, but bear with me). There's the pulling together of the team, the preparation for the battle, and then the final overwhelming sequences of nightmarish brutality. But where Kurosawa's film takes great pains to situate the story and the characters in the larger world, Miike pushes all that aside. The villagers are represented in a mere cartoon of a headman, and have nothing to do with the story at all, and rather than outline for us very carefully the layout of the village where the final confrontation will take place, Miike hurls us headlong into a bewildering maze of narrow streets, collapsing buildings and transforming gates. The unfamiliar town traps all who enter it.
As Miike's characters are trapped by honour. Kurosawa's samurai agree to their adventure with eager hearts, and their mission is ultimately a positive one: to protect a peaceful village (well, relatively peaceful). Miike's samurai have their backs to the wall. Some desire revenge, others are motivated by a need to stamp out evil, but none of them are going on an adventure, and none of them have any way out. Koji Yakusho's Shinzaemon, the leader of the band, only perks up at the promise of death. It is that promise that excites him, bored as he is with a life of peace. A valiant death in a lost cause is exactly what he seeks.
Takashi Shimura's Kanbei accepts the likelihood of death, but his embrace of the villagers cause is an honest one: he believes all the way through that victory is possible. Shinzaemon doesn't care -- he only wants to stand in battle and test himself.
And at the end of each film, the lesson is different: the survivors of Seven Samurai accept that they have done what was needed, and they must move on. They can take pride in their accomplishment, but they expect no reward. They will not change and they do not complain at their situation. Whereas the final conversation in 13 Assassins is a loud repudiation of courage and honour -- the catastrophe that has just taken place has drained our characters of moral strength.
Miike's films have always walked an uneasy path through morality, always flirting with nihilism but never quite giving up. It's the same here -- despite the rant against the difficult and thankless path of honour, it's not clear that the sacrifices made in this film are to be viewed as pointless. But at the same time, it's not clear that they are selfless: as I mentioned, Shinzaemon is actively seeking his own death -- his motive for all this is purely selfish, only cloaked under a mantle of honour. He wants a great death; and while there are a vast number of deaths in this film, I'm not sure any of them can be called great.
But they are certainly gruesome and grueling, in that manner that so many great Japanese action films have been. It just has to be said: nobody can flail around in the mud like a Japanese actor.
See 13 Assassins. It is masterful, loads of fun, and subtle, despite the tremendous amount of bloodshed.