Some People Should Die: 13 Assassins (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 8, 2011 10:05pm | Post a Comment

We want to glorify war -- the only cure for the world -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
-- Filippo T. Marinetti, from The Futurist Manifesto

Takashi Miike
's 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kodo's 1963 jidaigeki of the same name, and bears the same relation to real people and events that The Exorcist does. I haven't seen the earlier version, but in addition to Miike's style, the previous work of scenarist Daisuke Tengan (e.g., Audition for Miike and Dr. Akagi for Shôhei Imamura, the writer's father) suggests that the film probably has its own unique qualities to offer. The story is simple, perfectly rendered and universal. At the tail end of the Edo period, when peace more or less prevailed and the samurai didn't have much to do, Lord Naritsugu, the despotic younger brother of the Shogun, is about to be promoted to a higher position that sets a path to his eventual rule. Not wishing to undermine the shogunate and bring chaos to the land by openly challenging the selection of Naritsugu, Sir Doi brings examples of the Lord's malevolent nature to the samurai Shinzaemon to convince him of the necessity of assassination.

Depicting evil as erotic brutality is where Miike really shines: An emaciated woman, missing all of her limbs after being kept as Naritsugu's play thing, explains what happened to her family by writing with a pen in her mouth -- for he removed her tongue, too. Miike shows her writhing and humming in pain while she cries blood and mucus just to get two words down, "total massacre." The other example is told in flashback by a man who's lost his son and daughter-in-law due to the Lord beheading the former in front of the latter just after he's raped her, which results in her slitting her own throat in anguish. Shinzaemon is convinced, trembling with the possibility of facing a noble death that he thought would be denied him. With eleven other cohorts (the titular thirteenth will join them on the road), he plans their suicide mission to stop Naritsugu from returning home to assume his new position.

Unlike most current swordfighting films, Miike uses the classic roughhousing style of the samurai genre where sword play is just part of a general mêlée that also includes clumsily falling over obstacles and through walls, throwing dirt in another's face and picking up the nearest blunt object to bash in his head when the blade isn't available. In what's surely the most memorable scene, the director turns his camera sideways to horizontally fill the widescreen with a samurai making his last kill by bludgeoning an opponent with a rock. There's also clever use of livestock that I won't ruin for you.

Standing in Shinzaemon's way is his old sparring partner and friend, Hanbei, who's sworn to protect Lord Naritsugu, no matter his tyranny, thereby upholding the samurai code (the samurai's purpose is to serve his lord, Hanbei keeps repeating). Naritsugu is something like the embodiment of futurism as a villain. He sees cruelty and violence as aesthetic, performs them for their own sake, which, as Walter Benjamin once argued, is the core of fascism ("'let art flourish -- and the world pass away' says fascism [...] such is the aestheticizing of politics [...]" in the second version of his "The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility"). In a similar manner to how this violent aesthetic gave ideological support to the Italian fascists, Naritsugu promises to provide the samurai with purpose by beginning a new era of bloodshed. Thus, Shinzaemon is willingly bringing an end to his way of life with the assassination, which is possible only after he strikes down Hanbei, the defender of the samurai tradition. This should be an easily recognizable theme to any fan of the Western, which often deals with the ironic necessity of violence to repress violence in order to establish a new era of civilization (cf., most notably, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). 

Samurai Valentines: falling in love with Kudo Kankuro's Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims

Posted by Kells, February 14, 2009 01:39pm | Post a Comment

Perhaps the only thing better than seeing a highly anticipated movie you suspect you'll love is seeing a random, unexpected movie you never knew you needed until after you've seen it. A few days ago some friends and I sat down to watch a movie, like you do, without any prior knowledge of the film, only to find ourselves physically exhausted by the time the film had ended. No joke, we had to pause the movie several times to take breaks for the fits of laughter we were driven to. I cannot ever remember any film causing such violent cries of laughter to escape from my face the way viewing Kudo Kankuro's Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims did. I'm fighting back the giggles even now.

This film leaps into oblivion from the very beginning when Kita admits to Yaji, his lover, "I can't make heads or tails of reality." The film could easily be summed up with this single line alone, but it falls short of capturing some of the, let's say, more memorable moments in the film (hello! the bath scene!). A short synopsis of the film might go a little something like this: A gay samurai couple, Yaji and Kita, leave Edo (old Tokyo) on a quest to rid Kita of his heroin addiction. A song that could be called "Born to be Gay" gets the whole town singing and dancing in synch as they send our boys off on their merry way. A motorcycle appears and they hit the road. Hilarity ensues at every stop along the way and there are many, many points of departure and arrival in every sense (making no sense at all in most cases). The couple cuts a 7" single love song; like it or not, it is as popular as the Bearded Courtesan's single. The audience is treated to an impromptu karaoke sing-along featuring the Bearded Courtesan herself. King Arthur's sword is drawn from the stone and the two are separated by the river Styx and everyone looks like the same guy in the after life.... Well, I don't want to spoil it for you.
By comparison one could say this movie is an orgy involving the sucker-punch gauntlet of a plot Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and to a lesser extent Spike Jones's Being John Malkovich -- especially in the "afterlife" sequences), the modern meets Japonisme of Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation, or, better yet, the colorful, comedic retelling of Takeshi Kitano's Yojimbo. Add to that the Broadway medley insanity of Takashi Miike's Happiness of the Katakuris, the psudo-lezzie, unconditional BFF love found in Tetsuya Nakashima's Kamikaze Girls and, just for good measure, the drug-induced porno-bowling musical montage from the Cohen Brother's The Big Lebowski. The list could go on and on, but that's the best I can do at the moment to try and capture just how lethally laughable and uniquely enjoyable this carnival on acid of a love-buddies-on-the-road flick this is. I've tried a few times to find the right words, heck, barely adequate words to give this movie life in the mind of those who haven't seen it; I know it's cliche to say "seeing is believing" when attempting to summarize the glory and afterglow of Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims. By my standards I declare it to be one of the great new additions in contemporary Japanese cinema with a cast comprised of many of Japan's finest and famous comedy stalwarts and standard bearers to prove it. Nope, this one's not to be missed, but like Levar Burton says, "don't take my word for it, find out for yourself."

Here's an excellent fan-made music video set to Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In" (which incidently was the song used in the above mentioned porno-bowling montage from The Big Lebowski) that features many of Yaji & Kita's finer moments. Well done!

Sukiyaki Western Django

Posted by Kells, November 14, 2008 11:25am | Post a Comment
Japanese director Takashi Miike is a freak. Based on ongoing discussions I've held with friends and co-workers I'd say his films seem very either/or; anyone who has seen even one of his films has undoubtedly come to the conclusion that they've either seen one Miike film too many or that they've become Miike movie addicts. I've seen only a few films of his that could be categorized as middling (my favorite is one of these: the wonderful musical-comedy-horror farce Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)), and plenty of others I had trouble watching or couldn't finish due to the shocking visual content his stories are often soaked in. Being highly prolific (he has directed over seventy theatrical, video and television productions since 1991 and is credited with directing fifteen productions from 2001 to 2002 alone) and internationally famous for making movies capable of churning stomachs and blowing minds with such outrageous depictions of extreme violence and bizarre sexual perversions in underworld or otherworldy settings that often involve gangsters, outsiders and general sickos, it is no surprise Miike's films caught Quentin Tarantino's eye. It is a surprise, however, to see Tarantino himself all gunslingin' and gussied up in the opening sequence of Miike's latest creation, made available this Tuesday on DVD, Sukiyaki Western Django. I was so not expecting his performance or much of what followed, but I can say that I had a good night of movie magic enjoyment.

The overall flavor of this film, and I'm not just saying this 'cause I've got Thanksgiving on my mind, is reminiscent of that fabled holiday concoction, the turducken. This movie may be made of way too many ingredients, but fans of Miike (and Tarantino), Westerns (especially Spaghetti Westerns), and cinematic sensory overindulgence will eat this movie up and continue to savor the flavor long after it's done. The cinematography and production design are just fantastic! For one thing this movie is inspired by the both the original samurai movies that inspired so many Spaghetti Westerns and the Spaghetti Westerns themselves, so the blending of both Eastern and Western influences and their delicious juxtaposition really make this movie worth viewing. In particular, I love the way pairings like an old west outpost set against an image like to one of those old woodblock print views of Mt. Fuji by Hokusai (instead of the tired and done desert sunset) really create a sense of two visual worlds crashing together. Especially the depiction of a traditional torii gate in use as both an entrance marker and a gallows -- genius! If only that were the cover image for the DVD. Oh well. But the costumes are colorful and crazy, the camera work is exciting (and very, very Spaghetti Western feeling), an arsenal of weapons large enough to fill several barns is employed, and the music is a delightful mix of Morricone meets Kabuki including a Rock'n'Roll meets Enka style theme song, "Django - Sasurai," that is also enjoyable as a music video. There is even an erotic dance/flashback sequence that makes for a stunning piece of work in itself -- my favorite part of the movie would be a dance montage, of course.

All in all, Sukiyaki Western Django has an escapist entertainment vibe the likes of which home theaters were invented to celebrate in that this movie made from movies made from movies quite nearly has it all, turducken style. That said, I think the only thing that stands to turn folks off when watching this movie is the phonetic English dialogue spoken by all of the Japanese actors for the duration of the film. While it is interesting to keep tabs on which of the actors are better at delivering lines in English with a wild west accent tagged on for good measure (some of them are nearly close to bilingual, while others struggle with their lines like they've got constipation of the mouth or maybe something worse), most viewers will likely have to turn on those subtitles just to keep up with what all's being said. It gets a bit messy in places, word-wise, but the action is mainly where the real talking is done in this film. After all, the movies this one draws from definitely have their memorable lines, but the script itself is only a small part of the big picture. And as far as Miike is concerned, words are not necessary when exploring whether or not the sword is mightier than the gun. Check the trailer and see for yourself:

And if you're not buying that preposterous slice of action where a Japanese sword cuts a flying bullet down, check out this badass excerpt from the Japanese show トリビアの泉 (Fountain of Trivia):

California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Alhambra, the Gateway to the San Gabriel Valley

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 5, 2007 05:00pm | Post a Comment

I had to go to
Alhambra to see a man about a horse at the bidding of the original San Gabriel Valley Girl, the always radiant Ngoc Nguyen. To vote for another Los Angeles neighborhood, vote here. To vote for a Los Angeles County Community, vote here. To vote for more Orange County communites, click here