For those of you who find the contemporary samurai films of Yoji Yamada a bit dull, have I got the film for you! I'm not normally a fan of remakes, but I've got to hand it to Takahsi Miike -- once the enfant terrible of Japanese indie cinema, our boy is all grown up now, making modern samurai films that attempt to capture the horrendous realities of living and dying by the sword. In 13 Assassins (2010), he more than succeeds.
Whether intentional or not, the film begins as something of a mindfuck. The early scenes are virtually a shot-for-shot recreation of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 original. I was thinking, "Oh great, another Gus Van Sant Psycho affair." However, things become distinctly Miikean around ten minutes in, with a graphic beheading followed by the image of an emaciated, limbless, naked woman bleeding from her eyeballs. Miike is clearly upping the stakes here, but he manages to do so while remaining loyal to the story, as well as the spirit, of the original film.
Playing the central role of Shinzaemon Shimada is Koji Yakusho, one of the few remaining Japanese actors in the same league as the samurai stars of old. A protege of the great Tatsuya Nakadai, Yakusho made his film debut alongside his teacher in Hideo Gosha's most excellent Hunter in the Dark (1979). Us folks in the West became aware of him as the foodie gangster in white in Tampopo (1985). He's since appeared in scads of great Japanese films including Kon Ichikawa's Dora-heita, Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Shinji Aoyama's Eureka and a whole slew of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films. Needless to say, he's great in 13 Assassins. His character is much more engaged in the action than his predecessor (who only entered the fray of the final fight right at the end).
While I still have reservations about Miike's upcoming reworking of Masaki Kobayashi's immortal Hara-Kiri, I will anticipate it with somewhat less trepidation having seen 13 Assassins. Miike's definitely maturing as a filmmaker, and while he'll never stand up to the likes of Kobayashi, he just might do justice to the legacy of that great auteur. (Boy, did that sound pompous. Oh well, fuck it, that's what I think.)
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