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13 Assassins

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just watched the new Takashi Miike film, 13 Assassins. As the reviews suggest, it is clearly very influenced by Seven Samurai, although the influences may be indirect, via the 1963 original film. There are a whole series of narrative nods to Seven Samurai, including the basic set-up of a group of warriors being recruited for a big, seemingly hopeless job (this element is a bit perfunctory in the film), a Kikuchiyo type character who seems to exist to inject some class criticism, the use of a map to show military strategy, and the confinement of the fight to a village.

    In this interview, Miike namechecks Kurosawa and indicates he was consciously trying to recreate the Chanbara of the 1960’s. The film is deliberately more serious than the later B-movie cartoonish type samurai films and the more recent trend towards introducing romantic sub-plots, contemporary resonances and anachronistic values.

    I think he succeeds really well in doing this. With the exception of a few comments by the Kikuchiyo character (a hunter picked up by the samurai on the way to the battle) it is suitably humourless, largely ignores female characters, and keeps the characters motivations reasonably historically accurate, although the ‘bad guy’ is very much a cartoon like psychopath. The film moves along at a brisk pace – maybe a bit too brisk as we never really get to know the main characters. And the final battle scene is both very long, and very well orchestrated, although it lacks the muscularity and rhythm that one of the really great directors of fight scenes like Kurosawa or Kobayashi would have brought to it.

    It seems Miike is working on at least one other chanbara, another remake, this time of a Kobayashi classic. This time in 3D! I think it’ll be great.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – You knew I wouldn’t let this one go by without commenting, didn’t you?

    What’s interesting (among other things; I happen to like a good chanbara) is that some of what you list with a certain level of implied dismissal as recent trends (or am I reading seomthing into it that isn’t there?) are in fact present in Seven Samurai: romantic sub-plot (Shino and Katsushiro) and anachronistic values (the other samurai, Heihachi in particular, trying to get Rikichi to open up about whatever’s bothering him). Arguably, it also had contemporary resonance as well: the film’s message of hope mixed with resignation and of the power of collective action was probably still relevant nine years after the end of the war and two years after the end of the occupation. So by your terms, Seven Samurai itself wasn’t a tradtional chanbara, it seems.

    A largely positive review of a movie that states that it “largely ignores female characters” is likely to stop me in my tracks and make me wince. Does that mean there are few female characters or that the female characters are irrelevant or sketched in? Considering that you’ve mentioned that we don’t get to know the main characters, all of whom are presumably male, the sketchiness of minor female characters is neither surprising nor particularly bothersome. Something like “doesn’t focus on female characters” would be less likely to raise my hackles. As noted in the thread about why film schools don’t want screenwriters to write women with agency, there are certain genres in which it would be weird and ahistorical to focus on female characters, and chanbara is one of them.

    Nitpicks aside, it sounds like an interesting movie. Thanks for the summary and capsule review.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    What’s interesting (among other things; I happen to like a good chanbara) is that some of what you list with a certain level of implied dismissal as recent trends (or am I reading seomthing into it that isn’t there?) are in fact present in Seven Samurai: romantic sub-plot (Shino and Katsushiro) and anachronistic values (the other samurai, Heihachi in particular, trying to get Rikichi to open up about whatever’s bothering him). Arguably, it also had contemporary resonance as well: the film’s message of hope mixed with resignation and of the power of collective action was probably still relevant nine years after the end of the war and two years after the end of the occupation. So by your terms, Seven Samurai itself wasn’t a tradtional chanbara, it seems.

    It is something I was going to mention but didn’t – my surprise that Miike in that article implies that Seven Samurai was a chanbura – I’ve always thought of it as a Jidai Geki (historic drama). I think Richie, etc., considers it as such. I suppose its a subjective issue, but I’ve always thought of chanbara as following a very distinct genre formula, one which was effectively blasted to pieces by Kurosawa himself with Yojimbo (as Yoshimoto outlines in detail in his book). But then again, I think many of the more successful modern samurai films, like Twilight Samurai and When the Last Sword is Drawn could be described as jidai geki, not chanbura. I think that when we say ‘Samurai movie’, we are really talking about what Japanese would consider two quite distinct genres. Perhaps this is why Miike chose to remake a fairly obscure film rather than one of the better known ones – he wanted to get back to the original genre, or to be specific, the way the genre turned post Yojimbo.

    A largely positive review of a movie that states that it “largely ignores female characters” is likely to stop me in my tracks and make me wince. Does that mean there are few female characters or that the female characters are irrelevant or sketched in?

    There are few female characters in it, the only romantic subplot concerns one character who was fleeing from his employer after seducing his wife, and we only see her briefly. Another character leaves his wife to carry out a virtual suicide mission, and noticeably this doesn’t seem to bother him too much (although it is implied that he feels that as he is a bad husband, he is doing her a favour). The most striking female character is girl who was horribly mutilated by the aristocrat Shinrouko, the target of the assassins. She is introduced by a senior government member to persuade a senior samurai to lead the assassination. The scene actually reminded me of the mediums testimony in Rashomon. In fact, as I think about it, I think its directly taken from Rashomon. This girl is treated quite curiously by the film. While the Samurai is suitably enraged by what happened to her, and vows vengeance on her behalf (and noticeably she is low born, so it is not from some sense of duty), she is only tangentially referred to later in the film.

    The reason I ‘approve’ in a way, is that I like the purity of an action movie that doesn’t try to introduce romantic subplots in an anacronistic or gratuitous way. For example, I loved Twilight Samurai, which, while a little anacronistic, still built the main characters family life into a great story. But When the Last Sword is Drawn, for me descended into silliness near the end with all sorts of heartrending scenes which, along with most of the audience when I saw it, I found tiresome and unintentionally funny. So, judging from Miikes comments in the interview, I think he was deliberately trying to avoid anything that smacked too much of attaching modern sensibilities onto the film, which I think is admirable in a way, although of course I’d hate it if every Samurai movie followed that pattern.

    Miike has form, by the way, in having an ambiguous attitude to his female characters (I suspect its quite deliberate, i think he likes provoking people to having strong reactions to his films). I’ve seen Audition described as both a strongly feminist revenge drama and also as borderline misogynistic.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – Thank you for the clarification. I figured it was something like that. I agree that he seems to be conflating jidai geki, or period movie, usually about samurai, with chanbara, which I understand to be an action movie featuring samurai battling, usually with swords. (I suppose ninjas instead of or in addition to samurai would qualify as well.) I guess I see chanbara as a more limited subset of jidai geki whose ambitions are to concentrate more on action and less on character, plot, and setting — the pre-modern Japanese equivalent to today’s martial arts flicks, only with weapons.

    I can appreciate the appeal of an old school action movie that doesn’t try to be anything else.

    I’m not familiar with his work, and specifically Audition, but your description reminds me of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which I haven’t seen but would like to. I’ve seen it described as a strongly feminist revenge drama — it passes the Bechdel test like woah — but people who condemn revenge and think seeking it makes the main character seem bloodthirsty, evil, and petty could also construe it as borderline misogynistic.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: It is something I was going to mention but didn’t – my surprise that Miike in that article implies that Seven Samurai was a chanbura – I’ve always thought of it as a Jidai Geki (historic drama).

    Isn’t chanbara more or less a sub-genre of jidaigeki, therefore allowing a film to be both? I think that Seven Samurai played with the conventions of both genres, while not necessarily fully subscribing to the laws of either.

    13 Assassins continues getting excellent reviews. It’s currently at 93% at Rotten Tomatoes, and 87 at Metacritic. North American home video release is set for July 5. I may have to order it, even if I’m not a fan of the genre.

    By the way, in somewhat related news, Quentin Tarantino’s next project is apparently Django Unchained, which is yet another remake/reinterpretation of Django, which in turn was quite clearly influenced by Yojimbo.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless – I just realised that in my first comment when I said that the film ‘largely ignores female characters’, I might have given the idea that the film ‘ignores’ its female characters – what I meant is that the film ignored the possibilities of introducing major female characters. In fact, the brief scenes involving female characters are quite strong, and seem intended to allow the audience to imagine a back-story. For example, one character is asked by a senior samurai ‘how his girl is’, and he ruefully says ‘well, lets just say she hasn’t kicked me out yet’. When later he goes to his wife (or possibly mistress, its not clear), there is a strong scene where he announces that he is leaving on a mission and hints that he is not likely to return. The expression on both of their faces makes it clear to the audience what their relationship was and is, and how difficult (and inevitable) this parting is. But in terms of the overall film, there is no attempt to introduce major female characters outside of these little cameos.

    This is, incidentally, a film where I got the impression of excessively vigorous editing. There are quite a few hints that there was more character development intended, just that at some stage in the films development this all got cut out in favor of a much leaner action film.

    Vili

    Isn’t chanbara more or less a sub-genre of jidaigeki, therefore allowing a film to be both? I think that Seven Samurai played with the conventions of both genres, while not necessarily fully subscribing to the laws of either.

    I presume the genres are quite loosely defined. I’m pretty sure Kurosawa stated more than once that Seven Samurai was intended as his reinvention of the jidaigeki, while he was quite specific that The Hidden Fortress was his ‘take’ on the chanbara. I’m not sure where Yojimbo fits in the scheme of things, but Yoshimoto described it I think as a deliberate attempt to both subvert and go beyond the chanbara genre.

    Insofar as I’ve thought this through, I always thought of jidaigeki as a ‘type’ of film (essentially the equivelent of ‘costume drama’), while chanbara was a specific genre with pretty standard character types and narrative structures.

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    Vili Maunula

    I just remembered that in his chapter on Seven Samurai, Yoshimoto offers a fairly long examination of what jidaigeki is and what it is not, and scanning through it now he seems to label Kurosawa’s film first and foremost a jidaigeki. Yet, towards the end of the lengthy chapter, he writes the following: “Kurosawa’s attempt to create a new type of jidaigeki film is a further extension of what Itami and Yamanaka accomplished in the 1930s, with a new twist. Unlike his two predecessors, Kurosawa does not reject chanbara.” (238)

    I think that you are right in that Kurosawa was not conceptualising Seven Samurai as a pure chanbara film, as he did later with Yojimbo.

    We can perhaps see this also in the development of the film, with the original idea having been to tell the story of “a day in the life of a samurai”, which would have ended in the protagonist committing seppuku. Based on what I have read, this would not have been a chanbara film. (Interestingly, I think that this script draft stayed with one of the co-writers, Shinobu Hashimoto, who later turned it into Harakiri for Masaki Kobayashi.) The second version was a film based on episodes from the lives of famous samurai, and based on what I have read about the script, it was quite action packed, in fact so much so that Kurosawa rejected it for that reason. It sounds like this one would have been a pure chanbara film. The third and final script that ultimately became Seven Samurai seems to have taken something of both of the earlier ideas, mixing historical realism with chanbara.

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    Vili Maunula

    During a flight last night, I had the chance to finally watch 13 Assassins. And no, it wasn’t part of the (non-existent) in-flight entertainment, I had to bring it myself — perhaps to the horror of the woman who was sitting in the row behind me with her young kids. Well, I suppose you are never too young to be freaked out about the sight of a naked young girl whose limbs and tongue have been cut off… Teaches you not to peak into other people’s films! (To be honest, I have no idea if they really saw anything. All I know is that one of the kids did push his/her/its head through at some point, but when on a plane, I usually keep my laptop screen quite dark, which makes it difficult for anyone else but me see what’s going on.)

    Anyway, as Ugetsu said, there definitely is a Seven Samurai connection there, although how consciously Miike worked it in, I don’t know. But there are characters (Kikuchiyo/Kiga), plot elements (planning a battle in a town) and overall themes (the fading away of the way of the samurai) that the two films share.

    I agree that the almost total lack of any important females in this film was a good thing. This film was about male bonding/bondage, and the dying samurai tradition, and admirably stuck to that focus. However, although they are not taking any screen space to speak of, women do feature heavily at the background: one of the samurai is fighting because the bad guy raped his daughter-in-law, one fights because of the bad guy mutilated a young girl, one of the samurai spent his advance reward for the battle to build a tomb stone for his dead wife, one left his young wife to join the fight (I got the feeling he was happy to be off), and then there is the Kikuchiyo character, who ends up in the battle because of his lack of success with a romantic endeavour.

    Speaking of the mountain man, I suppose he wasn’t a man at all, but a spirit of some sorts. Wikipedia seems to think the same.

    It is interesting that you found the film humourless, Ugetsu. I thought that it was actually quite funny. Not in the “ha-ha” sense, but rather in how serious it was — I constantly had the feeling that the film was winking at me, and overdoing the seriousness on purpose.

    You also mentioned that “the ‘bad guy’ is very much a cartoon like psychopath”, which he of course is, but I think that there is a very good reason for that. His ridiculous acts of violence provide a suitable comparison to what the samurai are doing, and what they all want from their lives. In the end, there is very little difference between the samurai and the villain. They all live according to an outdated code, while yearning for the more violent past, where a man could prove himself in a battlefield. In the end, they are all quite pathetic, and the film does well to get rid of most of them in the final one-hour-long battle scene. (Yes, approximately half of the film consists of the final battle.)

    Now, battle scenes bore me, so much of 13 Assassins bored me as well. It’s one of those films that I’m happy to have seen and which will certainly stay with me for a long time, but it’s not something that I would watch again, or that I would recommend to anyone else than the most die-hard fan of battle scenes.

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    cocoskyavitch

    …more recent trend towards introducing romantic sub-plots, contemporary resonances and anachronistic values.

    I think romantic sub-plots don’t fall into the same categorty as anachronistic values-and that we’ve had romantic sub-plots since the 50’s…

    My evidence is the subplot of two-women-fighting-for-one-man (Mifune) in Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1950’s, color). There are abundant examples of “romantic” moments sprinkled throughout the film-some of them quite “Hollywood 1950’s” era-like.

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