13 Assassins (2010, directed by Takashi Miike)
It has always been vaguely disappointing to be a Takashi Miike fan. No matter how many films he cranked out and how many different genres he tackled (or maybe because he cranked so many out and changed gears so often) the very best of his work seemed to just miss being truly great, and leave behind a feeling of an opportunity missed. Even Audition, the Miike movie considered to be the closest to perfection, has an ending that just seems deflating after the madness that precedes it. But Sukiyaki Western Django, Ichi the Killer, Happiness of the Katikuris, Dead Or Alive, One Missed Call, Great Yokai War... crazy fun as they are, each has some misstep or flaw that while certainly not fatal keep them from being a true masterpiece. Kind of like Megan Fox's thumbs.
Which brings us to 13 Assassins, Miike's kick at the historical samurai epic can and a remake of a 1963 film. It's a natural fit for Miike's style, prone as he is to violent excess, but still... as the lights went down I couldn't quite shake that tiny voice in the back of my head, wondering where and how this one would go slightly awry.
And when they came back up, you couldn't have wiped the smile from my face with Ichi's razor-heeled sneakers. Miike, that glorious son-of-a-bitch, had finally made a masterpiece.
In the 1800s, towards the end of the Tokugawa era, the power of the samurai class is waning. The age of constant battles between daimyos is long over, and for the most part the samurai are warriors in name only. Naritsugu, the Shogun's younger brother, isn't satisfied with that peaceful state of affairs though. Twisted by the absolute privilege afforded him by his family name and station, he rapes and murders on a whim, and considers using his growing influence at court to plunge Japan back into chaos and war, so that the samurai can (in his mind) reclaim their former glory.
Horrified by the lord's sadism and plans for country-wide bloodshed, a senior magistrate turns to the legendary Shinzaemon Shimada for help. Realizing that the only way to stop the young madman is to kill him, Shimada quietly assembles a team of 11 other samurai - all, in one way or another, unproven on the field of battle - to ambush the lord and his army of followers as he travels to the capitol to assume his place at his brother's right hand.
To me, what sets 13 Assassins apart from every other film Miike has ever made (at least, the ones I've seen... watching every single Miike film would be a full-time job) is the pacing. For its first hour-plus, 13 Assassins is deliberate but not dull, mixing Shimada's planning and recruitment with scenes of Nagitsugu's utter depravity (plus a ritual seppuku or two from those who can't deal with the conflict between their honor and their morals) to create a textbook example of a slow build. Miike's quiet, almost stage-y interiors and lighting serve him very well here, giving things an ominous, conspiratorial tone. And this being Miike, those scenes of depravity are truly sick, and give Shimada's suicide mission an urgent, desperate tension. Naritsugu's use of a family of commoners (even the wee ones) for archery practice is vile, but it's the reveal of the lone survivor of a group that tried to thwart Naritsugu's will that marks the true high/low water mark of 13 Assassins' opening section. Emaciated, naked, all four limbs reduced to stumps and tongue torn out, the pitiful freak answers the question of what happened to her clan by writing the words 'TOTAL MASSACRE' with a brush clenched between her teeth while everyone else in the room (and, frankly, out in the audience too) trembles in shock and impotent rage. And when Shimada holds that same scrawled 'TOTAL MASSACRE' message aloft at the beginning of his battle against Naritsugu's forces, you'd have to be a sociopath not to want to jump up and shout "That's right, you sick fuck! Time to fucking DIE!" at the screen.
Oh right, the battle. The 45 minute long, non-stop, insanely intense, heroes fighting against impossible odds, katana and bow and flaming bull (yes, you read that right, there are flaming bulls)-filled orgy of blood and death and mayhem that caps the film. Sweet Mother of God. When I say "45 minutes" and "non-stop" I'm not exaggerating. About the only recent film I can think of to compare 13 Assassins' epic battle to is the little-seen Thai bit of genius Bang Rajan, which is basically nothing but battle scenes with bits of character development thrown in the middle, but while Bang Rajan is a low-budget effort that gets by on tons of heart and creativity, 13 Assassins is as polished a film as Miike has ever made, with the same tons of heart and creativity (again, there are FLAMING BULLS). The battle is just an outstanding, exhausting, exhilarating thing of gory beauty, which is made all the more sublime by the slow build that precedes it, and the investment you have in the characters and the outcome.
I have been waiting... man, when was Fudoh: The New Generation at TIFF, '96? '97?... almost 15 years for this movie, for Miike to finally put it all together and deliver the masterpiece he kept hinting that he was capable of. And now it's finally here, and it's made me just a little bit giddy. To say it's the best thing Miike's ever done almost misses the point. It would be the best thing all but the greatest of directors have ever done. It's just an insanely wonderful, kick-ass piece of cinema.
And as samurai films go, 13 Assassins deserves a spot in the canon, right alongside the best work that Kurosawa and Mifune ever created. It's that damn good.