I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

13 Assassins

tn_13assassins13 ASSASSINS is a pretty straightforward and thoroughly badass samurai picture from director Takashi Miike. I know that guy’s known for making 2 or 3 crazy fucked up movies a year. I think the only one I’ve seen before is AUDITION, which I thought was a pretty good romantic comedy but not quite up to the hype as the most fucked in the head movie you ever saw. Pretty well done though. Anyway, this is different.

Because it’s about a team of samurais on a mission people have been comparing it to SEVEN SAMURAI, but leave it to me to point out that there’s also a dash of OUT FOR JUSTICE in there. ‘Cause it’s about a crazy maniac who has gone too far and the heroes are gonna go find him and put him down like a rabid dog. The only difference is 1) the crazy guy is related to the shogun and about to move to a higher political position, so a part of the government is secretly conspiring to take him out for the good of the people and 2) nobody wears a beret.

Actually it’s also like STAND BY ME because there’s a part where they get leeches on them and get grossed out. And they’re on a trip to see a dead body. It’s just not dead quite yet.

mp_13assassinsBIf there’s a part of the movie that fits with Miike’s reputation it’s the beginning “just how evil is this guy?” portion to establish why this guy Lord Naritsugu is dangerous. We learn about the time he raped a houseguest and then chopped up her husband. If that wasn’t enough, we see him joyfully shooting some little kids full of arrows. Then (most fucked up by far) we meet the mute quadruple amputee he had as his sex slave until he got tired of her. This is not a good guy. I would not vote for this guy.

Samurai movies are so interesting to me because they always have to deal with these codes of honor. Alot of it makes sense to us and alot of it seems completely insane. For example if you want to avenge a murder and rape what you do is you kill yourself in protest. That’ll show ‘im! Things are pretty different in our time period and culture. We only kill ourselves because we’re depressed and fed up with life. They had rules about it. I don’t know which one is worse.

Samurai movies definitely have alot in common with westerns, that’s why those samurai-to-western conversions have worked so well for Leone and others. It’s a time when the government had less control but could be more brutal, when parts of the land were lawless, when small towns could be terrorized by people with the right weapons or skills, when it made sense for a drifter to travel around and get into fights. But the strong emphasis on ethics and codes is unique to the samurais and makes it even more interesting than westerns sometimes. Two men who like and respect each other can fight to the death over differing interpretations of ethics.

There’s some of that going on here, but the genius of the movie is its simple structure. There’s plenty of plot but it’s within this basic idea of a mission to kill a dude. It pretty much breaks down into two sections:

Section 1: “We’ve Gotta Kill This Motherfucker”

They make their case of what’s wrong with the guy and why it must end, this guy Shinzaemon is hired to assassinate him so he recruits his team and they figure out where to do the deed. It’s exposition but also tension and building excitement and anticipation.

Section 2:  “Killing This Motherfucker”

They trap him and use their superior strategy and skills to pick apart his seemingly superior army, Ewok style. (They even have bridges and a guy swings on a rope at one point. No hanggliders, though.)

mp_13assassinsAfter one viewing I couldn’t tell you the personalities of each of the 13. I mean, look at all those guys over there, how can I remember all of them? Don’t say it’s racial, I can’t keep track of who all those people are in the Harry Potter movies either, it’s just alot of information for my brain to take in. I gotta remember PIN numbers and email passwords, who directed each of the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels, shit like that. There’s only so much space there.

The 13 ASSASSINS are not as distinct as the DIRTY DOZEN I don’t think. But they do introduce them in section 1 as the team is being Ocean’s Elevened, and there are several that are memorable to me. There’s the stoic old ronin, the eager young rookie, the crazy hill person who always complains that he hates samurai (wikipedia claims that he might be a demon, but luckily I didn’t pick up on that). And they have character arcs within the battle. They learn things, some of them. They come to conclusions. They build relationships. See, you can have a movie that’s mostly one long action scene and still have, like, characters and shit in it. It can be done. It should be done.

The action is right up my alley. Lots of swords, lots of bows and arrows. Our 13 strategically confine their prey by walling them in and maintaining the higher ground, standing above them on walls and bridges. It’s almost literally shooting fish in a barrel, if the soldiers were literally fish and if the walled-in area was literally a barrel. Our boys have some special treats waiting for Naritsugu’s men too, including explosives and a thing I won’t give away that took me a little out of the timelessness of the movie because it’s a digital effect but still, pretty good idea, assassins. Hats off.

There are more classic Badass Moments than usually fit into one movie. Miike takes the time to make them look awesome. There are some great shots of them standing above, in control, shrouded in the smoke from the bombs they set off.

I like when the old guy stands with the rookie behind him, facing an overwhelming horde. It kinda looks like they’re done for, but he knows better. He tells his young apprentice to kill anyone that gets past him. That’s confidence.

Or what about how that poor quadruple amputee uses her mouth to write down what the guy did to her family, and then later they use that as a war banner? Tragedy turned to vengeful boast.

Naritsugu has his head samurai guy, an old friend of our team’s head samurai, they try to talk it out and convince each other of their point of view. I feel more like he’s a guy that I’m mad at than a guy that I hate. The enemy troops have personality too. They look nervous sometimes. They hesitate. They’re not stupid. They’re trying to do their job.

But they’re not as dedicated to their job as our 13 are. That’s the key. If you’re in the big ass army and you’re fighting these few guys you’re more likely to think “fuck it, let me stand at the back, I’m not getting my arm chopped off for this one.” During the recruiting and training phase (the Gene-Hackman-prisoner-rescue-runthrough-in-UNCOMMON-VALOR section) Shinzaemon explains the mission statement: if you don’t have a sword, use a stick. If you don’t have a stick, use a rock. If you don’t have a rock, use your fists. And later they kind of go through that. They do use sticks and rocks. I don’t think they actually get to fists, though. That’s too bad. I like fists.

I don’t think all of Naritsugu’s soldiers are willing to fight with rocks and sticks if it comes to that. They don’t have that kind of work ethic. Therefore, as his army’s getting slaughtered you’d think Naritsugu would get scared and want to run home to mommy. But you’d be wrong. Actually he really enjoys the whole experience and it makes him realize he wants to bring back the good old days of The Age of War. So now if they fail to kill him it’s gonna be a major fuckup, giving the bastard ideas, making things way worse.

But, you know. WELL-ENDOWED SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON. Ladies and gentlemen, we got ‘im. Of course they’re not gonna just kill him with a lucky arrow or something. This is gonna be personal. It has to all be leading to a one-on-one duel between head assassin Shinzaemon and murderous nutbag Naritsugu. Our guy makes it very professional. He actually lists all the people he’s avenging, which I’d like to see more often in revenge movies, makes it more formal. In the fight Narigitsu is finally dirtied – his usually pristine white robe gets covered in mud, the beginning of the end. But he’s still having a great time! He thanks Shinzaemon for the most exciting day of his life.

“You’re welcome,” Shinzaemon says, and lobs the fucker’s head off. It’s a great badass moment, makes you applaud or laugh. I mean, it would be hard to create a villain more worthy of death. When you see the glee on his face as he shoots arrows into little kids you are pretty sure he’s not gonna be rehabilitated, and you’re eager to sign on with the assassination mission. He’s as sadistic as they come, he does not deserve a glorious death. He deserves for his death to be the exclamation point on the end of a perfectly delivered punchline.

But then you think about all those codes, and the bonding between warriors. The way this mission sort of brought meaning to an old man’s life, and an understanding to pass on to the next generation. In retrospect you think hmm, maybe that wasn’t a Schwarzenegger type one-liner. Maybe Shinzaemon meant “you’re welcome” sincerely. Cutting off the head can be a sign of respect I believe. I’ll have to check the code. Maybe in the end he does kind of feel sorry for this crazy fuck, and doesn’t mind that he had this little fun game with him. Not like he’s gonna let him go, he still has to knock the king over on the board, but there’s alot to read into what’s going on here on top of or beneath the obvious part, the part where he chopped off the guy’s head and it was awesome.

What I’m trying to say is that 13 ASSASSINS delivers fully as a badass action movie, and then it leaves you a few other things to ponder if you want. That’s my definition of a great movie.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, July 16th, 2011 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

57 Responses to “13 Assassins”

  1. Thanks for the review, Vern! This review has convinced me to watch this tonight as long as it’s still on On Demand (or should that be “it’s still On Demand”? I don’t know.).

  2. This DVD just arrived at my place today. Haven’t gotten to watch it yet, but I obviously need to make it a priority. Yours is a major vote of confidence.

  3. I saw this a few months back at the Florida Film Fest, and I remember the banner unfurling being a particular bad ass moment. The audience definitely ate it up.

    Good review, too. You might want to check out Miike’s Dead Or Alive, it’s fucking crazy, but in a good way.

  4. I loved how unabashedly evil the villian was- there were no shades of grey. They just kept escalating how bad he was the whole way through. My favourite part was where, in the middle of the battle, he goes “is this what the age of war was like?” and you think maybe he’s having second thoughts about his evil ways but then he says “we should totally bring it back!”

  5. Seeing the “total massacre” at ActionFest is indeed my 2nd* favorite badass cinema moment of 2011 so far.

    13 ASSASSINS has limitations & flaws, so it didn’t quite *feel* like a great movie while I watched it, but it definitely left me a few things to ponder, things that I can’t get them out of my head 3 months later, so I have to agree with Vern that this movie is great. The establishment & resurrection of the “crazy hill person” (Demon, wikipedia? Whatever.) is the most subtly daring piece of symbolic narrative cinema I’ve seen since Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.

    Miike’s on that next shit.

    *1st favorite is every MJW line and MJW versus the cops in NEVER BACK DOWN 2: THE BEATDOWN.

  6. Fantastic, glad you liked it, Vern. I’ve been waiting for this so I can consult the great minds of this board: what’s your interpretation of the swamp rat guy?

    **SPOILERS I THINK**

    Is he tied to some Japanese mythology? I did see him get cut down, then show up just fine a few minutes later, right?

    Also, watching it a second time made each guy stand out alot more, face-wise.

  7. 13 ASSASSINS is an incredible piece of bad-ass cinema, and it’s great to see it getting much love here, like I knew it would.

    After viewing it there were indeed moments that stuck with me: the look on the main samurai’s face when he beholds the woman who has been utterly destroyed; the unfurling of the banner – truly, a FUCK Yeah moment; the final beheading and the last words between the main man and his nephew.

    Like all great samurai films, there’s a real “working class” ethic at play: the heroes are poor, made redundant and the “bad guys” are the ruling class, trampling under foot every fucker – as a union man, I can dig it.

    I think Naritsugu was very well played: he’s a man-made monster, a giant, untouchable baby, a Caligula figure and at the very end that final line showed just how fucked up he was.

    Interestingly, the full Japanese version has an additional 17 minutes or so and Miike himself said this was essentially one big scene, set in a brothel, that was removed as it slowed the film down too much for Western audiences.

    I was surprised to finally read that this was not the case – see here:

    http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=212290

    Normally, I’d be all for getting nothing but the full version of a film but for once, after reading this, I’m perfectly happy with the international cut. I was initially impressed with Miike for making a straight-up samurai film but this shows he couldn’t rein all his excesses in and I do think, in this case, it’s a shame.

  8. Okay, until I actually see this film, this is going to annoy the fuck out of me, so could someone just tell me what that guy’s wearing on his head at the bottom of that poster? Because I keep thinking it’s a baseball cap with a policeman’s badge on it, or to a lesser extent a coal miner’s helmet.

  9. I can’t say that I am a fan of Miike’s. Every time I have watched one of his films (other than AUDITION) I left wondering what it is that I am missing because I just can’t get into them. I can appreciate his work ethic, and he is a skilled director, but I find watching his films to be more of a chore then something I enjoy. Are there any Miike fans here that can make a case for what I am missing? However, I am really looking forward to this film (hopefully it will be showing up in the mail early next week).

  10. Stu, that’s obviously the 19th century Japanese version of http://i53.tinypic.com/w0o0gw.jpg

  11. Thank you Vern.

    Miike has to be the hardest working man in film, ever.

    He does 13 Assassins, then he does this:

    http://subwaycinema.com/ninja-kids-japan-2011/

    The guy is out there.

  12. ENDING SPOILERS

    anthony4545 – When they first meet the forest guy they jokingly call him a tanuki (raccoon demon in the subtitles). I don’t know that much about Japanese mythology but I know that the tanuki (a real animal) are part of traditional Japanese folklore and sometimes have shapeshifting powers. Also giant testicles, which that dude clearly had to fight like he did. I assumed when he survived the mortal wound at the end this was a suggestion that they were right with their first impressions and he was a tanuki. Of course, it could just be Miike being Miike since he has more than once had his characters surviving horrific injuries well past the point of logic.

    Mouth – Why do you think the demon interpretation is so incorrect?

  13. has anyone ever seen Takashi Miike’s episode of Masters of Horror Imprint? now THAT is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen, even worse than Audition

    dead fetuses floating down rivers, brutal torture of a woman and overall misanthropic “everyone and everything is worthless shit” theme

  14. BR Baraka – I am now laughing my ass off at the fact that the same guy that did Imprint is now doing a kid’s movie

  15. He also did ZEBRAMAN!

  16. I believe he’s done some other kid’s movies. I think YATTERMAN and THE GREAT YOKAI WAR were considered family films – at least for Japanese audiences. Kinda like how Stephen Chow’s CJ7 film had some questionable moments…

  17. To be honest I had kind of fallen out of love with movies for a little while there, but seeing this and CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS in the same week kicked all the cobwebs off and next thing I know I’m watching BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE KILLER, and everything is swell. So thanks Mr. Miike and Mr. Herzog.

    Since I got 13 ASSASSINS on DVD this week I decided that Sunday was Takashi Miike day and plowed through GOZU, ICHI THE KILLER, DEAD OR ALIVE, AUDITION, and IZO before the main event. Despite the amount of bugfuck (even by Japanese standards) crazy shit happening the man clearly knows what he is doing. A lot of things in IZO especially seem to be a dry run for the finished product of 13 ASSASSINS.
    There is an interview on the DVD where the host mentions something to the effect of “Boy the deaths of all the Samurai sure were cool looking!” and he gives her this “wtf?” kind of look and calmly explains that there is nothing cool about it, and these are all nice people just trying to do what they are told but ultimately it is just sad that it had to play out that way. The idea that so much carnage comes from one bad apple pops up a lot as well. The idea that if people just didn’t cower to these creepy assholes in the first place all these problems would be avoided yet somehow they run the world seems to mean quite a bit. Of course these things are always balanced with some form of the question that maybe we’re all just a bunch of assholes. This is never a statement though, just a question. It’s a damn good one if you really think about why he keeps asking.
    That’s why I love the man, I can’t get a bead on what he’s all about exactly becuase the only thing he is all about is questions. Even when he classes up the joint or makes a kids movie it’s still 100% Miike. I have to respect that.

    If you’ve made it this far shit is probably spoiled, but hey, I warned you anyways. The crazy hill person was the best character, and also a demon. The lady he references as his gal is a demonic folklore character, and, uhhh, he gets a sword put through his throat but walks it off. He’s either magic or a Chuck Norris joke. I prefer magic.

  18. Haven’t seen it, gotta see it, gottaseeit, GOTTASEEIT!!

  19. Griff, anthony4545:

    I actually saw this flick:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZYaIsyGARg

    “the great yokai war”

    as a kid’s flick, it’s passable. we forget that traditional kid’s stories, like the brother’s grimm stuff is pretty… grim. i mean c’mon: hansel and gretel has elements that would fit in with a modern day torture porn “horror” movie. parents abandoning their kids to starve in their forest, and they get taken in by a crazy cannibal lady. that’s a traditional kid’s story. in such a world, a miike children’s movie is not that crazy a concept

    you could see miike trying hard to relate to kids in “the great yokai war”. it’s also a passionate homage to traditional yokai spirits in traditional japanese culture

    but, the most overriding theme of the movie is: miike is OUT there. i don’t know where that guy’s brain resides. he doesn’t relate to kids, he doesn’t relate to adults. miike is beyond such silly questions as genre of movie and appropriate age

  20. On the characters of the 13 dudes not being fleshed out more character wise, apparently the Japanese version runs a fair bit longer and goes into those, but what we get is pretty much “here is this guy and here is one sentence relating to who he is” for most of them. I still enjoyed the fuck out of it though, more so for it being probably the only time old school samurai shit is liable to appear in cinemas over here any time soon.

  21. Correction: “I would not vote for this guy,” to “I would not vote for this guy in my opinion.”

  22. INTERNATIONAL CUT SPOILERS!

    Man, I’m glad they cut out the stuff they did. Having Koyata be a demon is pretty unnecessary in itself but you can’t honestly think it was worth it to have a scene of him raping an old man. Anyway, the only thing besides his survival at the end which seems to actually seriously suggest something supernatural is the scene with his wife (possibly) eating her unborn fetus, which they left in the film! Japan, you crazy.

  23. Yeah, Jake, marlow, I’m not denying dude’s demonhood. That’s probably what Kiga is. But I like my first interpretation of Kiga better.

    Since he survives, or is resurrected, or can not be killed, I like to think that, as he stands among the many dead at the end of 13 ASSASSINS, Kiga (like Maréchal & Rosenthal at the end of Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece LA GRANDE ILLUSION) represents the advancement of society away from the old feudal or samurai ways, away from even the remnants of the Age of War, the age of aristocratic privilege, the age when marriages were unnaturally arranged and honored only in hypocritical words as supposedly holy monogamous pairings.

    Interestingly, this “advancement” on which I choose to fixate is also paradoxically aligned with a regression to a lifestyle which relies more on the natural world. He is a wild woodsman, after all.

    Kiga’s survival or resurrection or invincibility marks the eternal righteousness of — if I may use the new Malickian terminology — the effort to harmonize the Way of Grace and the Way of Nature. Yet he is in no way graceful or noble, though he joins the just & dangerous cause of the assassin clique. He has base desires, and he chooses to ignore what most would call good manners in his pursuit to fulfill these desires, but he is lovable rather than brutish. I find his behavior refreshingly human compared to every other character; I don’t picture him ever robotically committing seppuku. His earthy values would never so misguide him. Perhaps he is so down to earth that in fact his home is below earth, in the demon realm, but that’s the realm I’d rather inhabit if I may be like him. His approach to life, and his presumption of personal privilege or entitlement, is similar to that of Naritsugu, but the demon’s nature is not evil, not twisted like that of Naritsugu.

    I think also of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Kiga may not quite be Nathaniel/Hawkeye to Naritsugu’s Magua, but, in comparing the 2 men, it’s clear which is more of a demon.

  24. Ok, I didn’t know about any old man rape. That kind of behavior might make a man demonic by any society’s standards in my opinion.

  25. marlow – I agree with your theory on Izo and 13 Assassins. After I was done watching 13 Assassins I was going to put in Izo for a sweet double feature but it was getting close to 2:00a.m. and I needed my beauty sleep.

  26. Miike has done at least one other kids movie, The Great Yokai War. I guess that was more of a family film (it got a PG-13 rating, but other countries hasn’t the same sensibility as the US, in the 70/80’s kids film where a lot more mature), so this might be more for just kids.

  27. IZO makes me giggle, especially when the surprise vampires show up. And the guy that periodically sings to you.

  28. Jake – see POM POKO for full-on shapeshifting racoon, supernatural testicle action.

  29. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    July 17th, 2011 at 2:26 am

    I’ve really not liked any of his films before (I’ve not seen them all). I always found them to be to vulgar. However, I do love sword fights and big battles. I’ll check it out, but the chick that has been chopped up sounds gross.

  30. oh yeah, POM POKO rocks

  31. I just read that Takashi Miike is doing a live action movie based on PHOENIX WRIGHT!

    does this man know no bounds?

  32. I was kinda underwhelmed by this one, but I would really like to see the directors cut. It makes total sense to me that the only happy survivor is the demon who molests the elder of the town.

    – Charles

    I`ve been a big fan of Miike since Audition, one of my all-time favorite movies, and written several times about him and Audition in various threads. I think the best thing about Miike is he keeps experimenting. Even in his worst movies, there`s always a glimpse of brilliance. And his best movies are (imo) profound, taboobreaking, mindfucking masterpieces. There isn`t a genre he hasn´t done yet, horror, love, social-realism, fantasy, gangster, comic adaptions, porn, sci-fi, action, comedy, musical, etc, but no matter what he gets involved with, he always puts his personal stamp on the movie. He is one of the few directors who keep pushing his own boundaries, trying out new styles and turning whatever script he gets handed into something personal (he allegedly never says no to a script). If I should compare him to another director, it would be Goddard.

    I think he made his best movies in the nineties, and also his most personal one. If you look at his output from `95-99, they`re mostly a commentary on alianation in japanese society. Miike himself is half chinese, and his best movies are about outcasts (racial, criminal or sexuel), who tries to find happiness in the society that excludes them (Shinjuko Triad Society, Fudoh, Ley Lines, Dead or Alive, Hazard City, Bird People Of China etc). He`s also a big fan of deconstructing genre and myths, especially yakuza and action-film cliches (Dead or Alive 1-3, Graveyard of Honor, Gozu, Django). So, not only do you get very funny and often action-packed entertainment, but also innovative style and a personal expression, that few other directors can match. I think he represents the best of arthouse and exploitation-cinema, and often in the same film.

    He has also made a lot of very bad films, btw, but his best movies are (imo):
    Shinjuko Triad Society, Fudoh, Bird People Of China, Ley Lines, Dead or Alive, Audition, DOA 2, Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, Gozu and Graveyard of Honor.

  33. I was waiting for your take on this. Easily my favorite Miike movie since Bird People of China.

  34. I’ve seen the original cut and the old man is not really raped. Instead when he sees Koyata’s member he looks at it longingly. Then Koyata seems to think “ok dude, fine with me” after which they have sex. So it’s not rape, it’s just a really weird scene and one of only two that let me know I was watching a Miike movie (the other being the amputee lady). I would have liked more weird stuff as to me it mostly feels like a standard samurai flick instead of a Miike samurai flick, which is what I had hoped for.

  35. dna, I also appreciate the fact that Miike challenges himself and has a very diverse body of work. I am not denying his talent, but for what ever reason his work just has never registered for me the way it has for you and many other Miike fans. I have seen DEAD OR ALIVE, AUDITION, ICHI THE KILLER, IZO, and anther one that I think was a made for TV movie that I can’t remember the name of. It was a about some guy who becomes a cyborg. I don’t remember much about it other than that it had pretty low production value, a very bizarre dark sense of humor, and a disturbing rape scene (I know that probably describes a number of Miike movies). I will admit that it has been years since I watched those films and my tastes have evolved over time since then. I have been meaning to revisit a few of them and see if I respond differently to them now, but it is hard for me to find the time to sit down and watch a film that I can’t watch with my nephews and/or that my wife does not want to watch. Miike was also the assistant director on BLACK RAIN, and I am a big BLACK RAIN fan so that may be my favorite Miike film.

  36. Very few of Miike’s films totally work for me, either, Charles. Overall, beginning to end, they are usually unsatisfying or underwhelming, though for me personally I think the academic challenge of trying to comprehend the Japanese (I know some.) distracts me from the narrative weaknesses and makes things more interesting than the movies would be for someone with similar tastes who knows no Japanese.

    However, there is in almost every Miike movie at least one scene, one great moment of bizarre & awesome, that makes the experience worthwhile and occasionally transcendent. For DEAD OR ALIVE, it’s the opening:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM65MPPn4PA (I can’t recommend the unedited version enough.)
    and the ending:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTlbulbVo8c (the most memorably absurd mix of fantasy & badass cinema I can recall)
    It’s wrong to suggest watching movies this way, but, honestly, the middle hour+ of DEAD OR ALIVE does nothing for me.

    13 ASSASSINS is a very good film in its totality, start to finish, which is rare for Miike.

  37. Mouth, I feel the same way about DEAD OR ALIVE. The ending blew my mind. I watched it with my brother and a friend of ours and we were all speechless. We couldn’t believe what we just witnessed. I remember that my brother and our friend were upset by it. I think they felt cheated like they had invested time in watching the film and expected a more traditional climax to the narrative, and then Miike pulled the rug out from underneath them in the end. I didn’t like the film but the crazy WTF over the top nature of the climax impressed me.

  38. Mouth, I do wonder how much of Miike’s work is lost in translation. Not literally, but in the sense that Miike’s work seems to be heavy on a thick Japanese cultural subtext that I am not familiar with. Maybe if I had a better understanding of Japanese culture I could better appreciate and understand the symbolism and ideas Miike seems to be deconstructing. I am fascinated by Japanese culture and would really love to visit Japan someday. Due to the isolation of it’s geography Japan more so then any other country seems to have a very unique culture that is very much their own. America has it’s own culture as well but we are a melting pot, a culture forged from the merging of numerous other cultures. The Japanese have been influenced by other cultures, but their culture seems to remain distinctly their own.

  39. Of all the awful shit I have seen in Miike movies that girl in the kiddie pool in DEAD OR ALIVE fucked with my head the most. It’s just so casually vicious and horrifying that I had to stop the movie for ten minutes and go outside for a smoke.

    Has anyone else seen AUDITION in a theater? If so, how much of the audience fled during the last 15 minutes?

  40. marlowe

    I watched Audition in a packed theater and nobody left.

    I agree that the middle of DOA is slow, but it doesn`t bother me. I love how Miike shifts between dynamic sequences, long complicated dollyshots and sometime totals that plays for minutes without cuts (and DOA have several of those.. ). One of my favorite sequences from a Miike film, is the long sequence in Rainy Dog, where the assassin is about to shoot his target when it suddenly starts to rain, and instead decides to go to a brothel, where he spends a couple of days getting stoned while listening to the rain. Maybe his extreme bits wouldn`t have the same impact without the long slow passages?

  41. I would highly, highly recommend no one watch the ending of DEAD OR ALIVE out-of-context. It gets much of its effect from being seen in the context of the more “normal” yakuza stuff in the rest of the film. Of course, just knowing that the ending is a little different probably robs it of some of the effect as well. If at all possible I recommend seeing it without reading any of these comments including this one you are reading now.

    Jam – Yeah, like any reasonably intelligent person interested in film I plan on seeing all of the Ghibli films eventually, but I still haven’t gotten around to POM POKO yet. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

    marlow – Is it possible to tear your eyes off the screen long enough to notice people leaving? I know I wasn’t able to. Though one of my friends was certainly none too happy that we stayed.

  42. Jake, I agree that the best way to see DEAD OR ALIVE is going into it blind, but I don’t know if it is a film I would recommend to someone. The climax of the film does loose something if you see it out of context, but I don’t know if the film is worth watching just to experience the climax in it’s proper context.

  43. Mouth — you touch on a subtext for this film I haven’t heard many people talk about, which is that it seems to me that the film is implicitly critical of the honor-bound feudal society where no one can criticize the system without fearing it will completely devolve into chaos and they will lose their only cultural capital, their honor. The film seems very much about how everyone is enslaved by a concept of honor which deliberately favors the upper classes. Most obvious is Hanbei, who is stuck in this situation where honor demands he defends this guy who he obviously loathes even more than Shinzaemon does. Everyone else gets to commit suicide for a good cause — he has no choice but to commit suicide for a bad one.

    Miike doesn’t explicitly say anything, but just by presenting the facts as he does I feel he makes a statement. Hundreds have to die in order for this one unspeakable asshole to finally get his, all so everyone can claim that the system works even though it obviously doesn’t. So in a way its a deconstruction of a Samurai film after all, since it lets you juxtapose Kiga’s earthy good humor and contempt for boring, violent, humorless samurai with the Samurai’s grim dedication to murder for honor’s sake. Even Shinrokuro seems pretty much done with that crap, having given it a try and seen how it turned out.

    I’d like to even go so far as to speculate that the film may be commenting on Japanese Fascism, too. The end titles point out that th Shogunate system ended soon after — they don’t point out that those feelings would eventually twist themselves into facism, but everyone watching knows that.

    Or, do I not understand Japanese culture well enough to correctly pull subtext out of this thing?

  44. Jake – aye, I used to work in a DVD shoo where I’d try and push it on parents, but I’d always end up describing the bit where the militant shapeshifting racoons take on the authorities by flying into battle using their magic testicles as hang-gliders. Then the parents would sort of back out of the shop, trying to grab their kids while not taking their eyes off the pervert shop assistant who might try something fruity.

    Fuck ’em, it’s great film.

  45. Anyone seen the original 13 ASSASSINS actually?

  46. Hey Marlow,
    same here, i’ve seen a lot of cruelty at the Movies over the years, but that girl in the kiddie pool scene in DEAD OR ALIVE had a real shocking “Caligula Vibe”.
    There is a pretty weird scene in The Long Goodbye by Altman, were a Mobster smashes a coke bottel on the face of his girlfriend just to prove a point, that scene hit me also pretty hard, because it came out of nowhere.

  47. Since you brought up Caligula now I can’t help but wonder what a Miike remake of Caligula would be like. My guess is that I wouldn’t be able to handle it and have to either turn it off ten minutes in or throw up thoughout the whole movie.

    As fucked up as Caligula is you know he’d make the original look like a Disney movie.

  48. That’s seems spot on, Mr. Subtlety. I mean, for those of us trained to look for parallel meanings between a narrative and historical reality and such, it’s barely even subtext. Once you catch a hint there might be a subtext, it’s easy to let it fall into place and develop & mold it to your interpretation. Suicide = irrational perversion of the application of honor, end of an unsustainably feudal era. . . Teaming up to kill a crazy asshole powermonger = evolution from feudalism to human rights, with sacrifices & messy implications about the lingering irrationality of codes of honor. . . Defending the wrong side = suicide. . .

    Some stories do blunt subtext very well, like the last scene in CITY LIGHTS, which is uplifting and then utterly heartbreaking, and some stories do blunt subtext poorly, like the last couple of pages of THE FOUNTAINHEAD, which is too on the nose & celebratory.
    Some symbol-heavy stories that don’t even try to be subtle work brilliantly, like John Ford’s THE INFORMER, and some fail miserably, like any number of hackneyed romances that end either with a birth or with a melodramatic death.
    Some stories do subtext as a philosophy, a guiding principle that you don’t even quite realize exists within the narrative until after Seagal has killed Forsythe, er, after the assassins have killed the crazy asshole. It’s so subtle I’m not even sure it’s there, but I’ll be thinking about it for years to come.

  49. Charles – But I already know for a fact that it is worth watching in its entirety. Because I have seen it in its entirety and it was one of the best movie going experiences I have ever had. Obviously this is not going to be true for everybody but I’m suggesting that anyone with an inclination for watching yakuza films should see it with no foreknowledge. Anyone without an inclination for watching yakuza films I would suggest you take a long hard look at the choices you have made with your life that have led you to such a sorry state.

    Mr. Subtlety – Your question about cultural knowledge reminds me of Zhang Yimou’s complaint that Westerners too often look at Chinese films as having only a political reading, either pro or anti government. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_One_Less#Cannes_withdrawal) I tend to agree with him and have seen similar readings of Japanese films, though not quite as often.

  50. nobody needs to ask me what i think of miike (icon—>)

  51. Caoimhin – I’d love to see the original. It sounds like the story is pretty close, so it should be at least decent. But I guess the only DVD that exists doesn’t have English subtitles. A friend told me he has one with fan-made subtitles, so I might try to borrow that.

  52. Swedish television showed a lot of samurai movies 25-30 years ago and I think I saw the original then. But I’m not 100% sure, I might confuse it with Seven Samurai.

  53. You can download decent English subtitles for the 1963 version here: http://nwww.shooter.cn/xml/sub/164/164526.xml

  54. I don’t have much to add regarding how awesome “13 Assassins” is, but I will say that the uniformly excellent acting from the cast doesn’t get enough credit, and I was astonished by the fact that the actor who plays Kuranaga, the old samurai friend of Shinzaemon, is in his late 60’s. He was one of the most impressive actors to watch during the big battle scene.

    I think “Dead or Alive” is well worth watching all the way through. My favorite moments from that movie aren’t even from the famous opening and ending sequences, although those are indeed great. Both of the main characters’ plights are quite poignant and well-handled by Miike in a way that overshadows the more cliched aspects of the story. The shot of the makeshift graves where the gang leader’s mother is buried is also one of the most haunting and beautiful images I’ve seen in recent film.

  55. Ok, I largely agree with Vern on this one. It’s not as good as “Seven Samurai”, and the central themes of the two films are very different even if their stories are not. But it’s still damn good.

    Subtextually (is that even a word?) I think that this is the film that “Hero” should have been. While I think “Hero” tried, and failed, to make the point about men honour-bound by social convention by using gaudy flourishes and exaggeration (the scene that comes to mind is the one where the people practicing calligraphy are struck down by arrows as they write. I mean, seriously?) “13 Assassins” goes for a much more realistic approach. It’s all about social restraint – and while Naritsugu is very, very sadistic, it doesn’t come across as cartoonish because the contrast between this man and the samurai is so effective.

    The film paints a depressingly bleak picture of a world where those who practice restraint are slaves, whereas those who do not (in particular the lord Naritsugu) are helplessly corrupt. So rigid are the rules that these people live by – and not just the samurai – that the only ones who can disobey them are those who voluntarily leave society (the hill-man), or those in positions of power. In this way the social “codes” that dictate people’s actions become the chains that keep them enslaved to their unworthy masters. The Shogun doesn’t care about the people he rules; he cares only of his own family, and of keeping the power structure in place.

    So it’s depressing, but it’s also spectacular. The battle scene was jaw-droppingly great, to me. What I kinda disagree with Vern about is the characters. To me, this was the edge that “Seven Samurai” had over “13 Assassins”. (Well, that and theme – I’ve seen a lot of “period” films that deal with the idea of social control and convention, but “Seven Samurai” was much more uncompromising in its portrayal of poverty and its effects.) The three main “assassins” were very good, but the rest were pretty indistinguishable for the majority of the movie. Then again, I can’t mark the movie down too much because in the end this is a movie about a perfect team of professionals, and it’s more about their collective story than it is about them as individuals.

    Oh, and while I love that (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!) the hill-man survived, he’s not as great a character as the drunken samurai from “Seven Samurai”, who filled the same basic role as he does. Sorry.

    But I still thought this was an excellent film. Won’t be for everyone, but those who are “into” this kind of thing will have a great time.

  56. WOW! I had fun reading your review. All those cursing added quite a touch of excitement! You pretty much covered everything except for Kiga Koyata, nevertheless, this is an awesome review! Keep it up! :D

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