Edited because sometimes I can be a lame white critic who doesn’t know as much about Japanese culture as I should.
With 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike, long-renowned for his excessively violent explorations into grisly, highly presentational Jackson Pollock blood splattering by way of horror, approximates growing up. But he isn’t above a little gleeful violence while he’s at it. To this extent, he absolutely has his cake and devours it too, combining two filmmaking styles into one, sometimes uneasily, but knowingly so: the stately, moody, quiet feeling of mid-century Japanese samurai-Shakespeare and the modern stylistic kitsch of kinetic energy-above-logic action pictures. That we will not expect the two together, Miike bets his top dollar. In fact, he intentionally distances the two styles, all-but formally announcing the film as a work of two parts, one subdued and one that hits with the force of a tornado. It’s an exercise in formal style and genre more than it is a narrative, but when a film is this well made sometimes a pesky narrative getting in the way is just one more obstacle to be avoided.
To this extent, the film almost insists upon its disjointedness. The first half, encompassing roughly 70 minutes of the film, is all about process and quiet energy in the slow-moving propulsion of gathering men and planning defense. It gives us thirteen warriors, but the film’s center is the deliciously self-loving Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) whose happy, free-form villainy extends right up to the stratosphere. He serves little purpose for Edo period Japan, but he inadvertently stumbles upon one when a band of righteous warriors are tasked with his downfall. Led by the quietly passionate Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), these stoic soldiers exist less as individuals with well-drawn personalities than as impressions of malaise seeking one last hope at a death worth living – if anything, Naritsugu can given them something to stand for in their collective striving to stand no more.
All of this is elegiac and mournful, yet it elsewhere seems to intentionally bat away emotion. It lays it all out during its opening scene – a man, boxed-off in the center of the frame, sits without the benefit of voice. His sword tells all. And while the blood will soon flow, Miike chooses to center on the most piercing thing of all: the man’s face, almost expression-less and rendered part of the geometry of the background he now wants to return to. It’s a haunt of a scene, but it derives its affect from a composed rigidity threatening to strangle. The scene takes it time, but it knows no real freedom of comfort. It lingers, but it can never truly breath. The film spends the next 70 minutes holding it in.
If this opening was one man’s self-coerced life end, the film’s titular characters trade in their own swords for a barbarous warlord’s in their own collective quest for a comfortable end. The film keeps us at a distance throughout for the characters themselves are at a distance from the world, lost in it and waiting to pass on. They’re noble spirits, ghostly impressions of life where living breathing people once stood. The film is set in the mid 1800s, at the very tail end of the samurai era as it was pushed right smack up against modern bureaucracy till they bled together. The causalities of the shift were multitudinous, all of whom died but not all of whom took their bodies with them. The samurai, more than anything, want to fight Naritsugu to reclaim something lost in the transition, less a sense of life than an honorable death; they’re non-characters because, left in the wake of bureaucracy, they have no character left.
Yet, if the films strains suffocating on itself by remaining silent and still for over an hour, it has no choice but to let loose with one of the most dizzying, self-destructive blasts of pop-kineticism one can find. One extended action scene that pits the thirteen against a near-two-hundred strong torrential wind, the film’s last third is a blast of pure energy tempered only by its very self-conscious mournfulness – the only fun to be found is in the cathartic release of life from this world to the afterlife. And we know everyone, our protagonists included, will make the journey. The earlier portions of the film sacrifice narrative flow for process and the day-to-day mess of these characters’ lives, giving us less cohesion than the torn and tattered bits of remaining life found among men for whom life no longer has meaning. But the film’s finale, even as it is boisterous and buoyant to the end, underscores the mess that is these characters’ lives now – it hurtles forth on sheer energy yet nonetheless takes forever, and the tension between the two give us a sense of people who no longer have the privilege of linear time
The sheer cartoony verve of the last third of the film also begs another question, implied more than stated: it is so unfitting to the rest of the film that it almost seems like the shared dream of these men rather than the actual event. While the majority of the film is resolutely classical, the climax is astoundingly modern in sensibility. It’s almost as if Miike is turning the camera back on himself and thinking about how to use his penchant for the perturbed in subversive, rather than superficial, ways. He’s a director famous for his extreme, constant gushers of blinding red, a maker of hectic, some would say poetic, ballets of blood. Yet here he intentionally delays all of this until the second half, giving us what we assume is a more “serious” film and then showing us the underbelly of rampant violence underscoring this very seriousness. It’s as if he’s saying to his characters: “you want honorable violence, well open wide!” Because this is Miike, he then proceeds to positively reign it upon them in the punchiest, least “professional” way possible, shoving it down their throats until they choke on it and rendering the very desire to live a life of honorable violence a cartoonish dream that can never exist in reality. In the self-conscious way it segments off its violent fantasy from its regal, mundane everyday existence, it presents these people as loners searching for the myth of an honorably violent life in lieu of a more real kind of living.
In contrast to the samurai, one character, a forest spirit of sorts, is a being of peace, one so obvious it’s impossible to miss – he isn’t stoic, but playful and zany, the intrusion of a wonderfully fake fable into the film’ regal theater. It’s no coincidence that his arrival signals the shift in the film’s tone, where the characters enter an uncharted and forbidden forest that dovetails into the wailing final fight. And it’s no coincidence it’s the forest spirit who survives at the end, not the samurai who stake their life on violence and honor derived from it. When they enter the forest, the film not only shifts tone but shifts styles and becomes, in itself, a lie.
It all almost plays like a radical critique of Seven Samurai and the whole samurai theater genre of films long popular in Japan, but Miike isn’t ready to go there. He’s far too in love with the look and feel of those films. In a sense, it’s more a reflection of how many of those films, Seven Samurai, included, lightly subverted the notion of respectable male violence to begin with (the mournful ending of Kurosawa’s film really leaves no doubt). Even the film’s name piles on the complication, being a simultaneous ode to Kurosawa’s film and, in using the dirtier, slithering, and more pointedly snarky “assassins” in lieu of “samurai”, a self-conscious continuation of its lightly critical attitude toward the “samurai” ideal. Miike is here merely to push Seven Samurai beyond itself, using his rock ‘n’ roll filmmaking panache to render the intersection of honor and violence not only a confused ideal but a bald-faced lie. To this extent, if the assassins entered the forest in a reality, only their dreams came out. And if Miike is ready to question those dreams, he’s certainly not above having a little fun with them first.