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August 26, 2011

Evenings Out

For the love of film, Takashi Miike remakes a samurai classic

Takashi Miike is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most transgressive director operating in Japan. He segues seamlessly from straight-to-video popcorn fare to television shows, from astoundingly grotesque horror films to charming family flicks.

The queerest of the queer, to steal a line from a Garbage song, Miike directed a gangster film in which two pairs of Yakuza hit men chased each other across Japan. Each pair were lovers, the type of thing that could get a director killed if the Yakuza were in a bad mood at the time.

A couple of years ago he released Big Bang Love: Juvenile A, a love story between two young men set in a dystopian juvenile detention facility, a film he called his labor of love, the film he always wanted to make.

Now, however, his loving eye is turned in another direction: the samurai films upon which three generations of Japanese people were weaned.

His latest film, 13 Assassins, is a remake of an older film, much like his earlier Graveyard of Honor. Released on DVD by genre giant Magnet Pictures, it presents as striking a maturation as when Gregg Araki put out his adaptation of the Scott Heim novel Mysterious Skin. It is almost the director’s way of standing quietly, arms folded, giving a wise nod as if to say, I am where I have always wanted to be.

The film follows Shinzaemon Shimada, a former shogun’s samurai, who is living in retirement until Sir Doi, a top official in the shogunate, goes to him and begs him to lead a group to assassinate the ruler’s half-brother, a pampered sadist who longs for the return of the wars that marked the previous era. Doi knows that if Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira becomes part of his brother’s executive council, the country will be torn apart, having barely healed from the earlier battles that ravaged it.

Naritsugu is truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a monster beyond belief. Despite having dozens of women at his disposal, he rapes his host’s daughter-in-law, then kills her husband. In another town, he kills the entire family of the local lord, except for one woman, who he maims brutally, to the point where she can only communicate by painting words on rice paper with the brush held between her teeth. Her message to Shinzaemon regarding the young lord’s visit was a simple one: “Total massacre.”

Shinzaemon accepts the commission, which puts him on a collision course with his former classmate, Hanbei Kitou. Hanbei holds the position Shinzaemon held in the previous administration. He ascended, in fact, when Shinzaemon retired.

Gathering eleven other samurai, old and young, veteran and novice, he heads out to end the terror of Naritsugu’s passage through the countryside, arranging for the lord’s path to be blocked at one town, forcing him to travel through another that Shinzaemon has bought out and turned into a labyrinthine death trap.

On their way to meet the young lord’s forces, they run across a hunter in the woods, a descendant of samurai, bringing their number to 13. That would be more than enough to handle the 70 guards that should be traveling with Naritsugu. Unfortunately, when he turns up with 200 guards, the fight looks to become even more desperate than originally anticipated.

Miike has directed over 80 films since the early 1990s, working on television, direct-to-video and theatrical releases. Sometimes he does them to make money, sometimes he does it for the love of film. This definitely falls into the latter category.

Certainly, many of his hallmarks are present in the film--mutilation, violence, love between men and strict personal codes of honor. However, when remaking what is considered a classic in Japan, he didn’t “Miike” it up.

“The most important thing about remaking a classic movie is how much you respect the original movie,” Miike said. “I didn’t worry about putting my own mark on the remake since I respected the original film. I have never sought to impose my personality on a film. My philosophy as a director has always been to set aside my ego and just enjoy making the film.”

On making an historical film, this one set in the 1830s, he noted, “I always seek universal themes when making a Jidaigeki [samurai] film. Love begets Revenge and Justice begets Violence.”

“Sword-fighting scenes are about love. Without . . . love, we could not shoot such violent sword-fighting scenes,” he continued. “Of course, I worked with the fight choreographer, scene by scene. That is also love.”

It might be hyperbole to say that Miike’s 13 Assassins is one of the finest Jidaigeki films since Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but it stands to be said anyway. Miike has mastered the Yakuza film, he has mastered horror films, and with this, he has mastered samurai films. And, one can be certain, the romantic connection between teacher and student in feudal Japan is present throughout the film. As he said, sword-fighting is about love.




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