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Will Kill to Work: Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins"

A question for you: how do you deal with contradictions in a director's filmography?  The question becomes more complicated when talking about  "workman" filmmakers like Japanese maverick Takashi Miike or Johnnie To (or, going back, of course, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, and the lesser known)—with such prodigious output, how do audiences, critics, and the artist-workers themselves understand the instances of one film project contradicting another?

How, in the case of To, do we talk about Election and Triad Election (a.k.a. Triad Election)—critical indictments of violent genre cinema—when those films are followed up by Exiled, which proceeds to indulge those very same conventions?  Or, in the case of the director of the subject of this piece, how does one look at 2004's withering time traveling anti-violence treatise Izo, and then see, several films later, 13 Assassins—as classical or old fashioned a samurai film as there ever was?

13 Assassins, which opens this Friday in the U.S., in fact embodies the contradictions apparent in a filmmaker who has in the past made works that satirize such a conventional venture—you know the kind, where a secret group of samurai must quietly assassinate the Shogun’s misanthropic half-brother to prevent more bloodshed, a civil war, etc., and do it against overwhelming odds. The quietly bipolar nature of the film is apparent from the start, where the plot goes through the motions while Miike zeros in on aesthetic atmosphere through the velvety look of his digital photography, shooting conspiratorial meetings all lit by soft, natural candlelight, and, later, an excursion through a naturally lit forest catching the kind of detail, flatness of composition, and unusual look to the light mostly absent from the film’s boring daytime pallor of smeary grey-brown muck.  But meanwhile, surrounding these revelations, the plot has to be churned through in exhaustive exposition about duty and where to kill the lord and how to set up defenses and which samurai to hire, all tiresomely and thoroughly filmed.

So we have a conventional track the film must follow, inside of which Miike finds a catalog of side observations to be made within this trite genre structure: a scene of the assassination squad bathing in the forest, the use of the same actress to portray one assassin’s faithful wife and a jungle savage’s lost love, and dozens more similarly evocative asides located within the 45 minute (!) final action sequence.  Of course the film builds to the assassination, but the epic sequence involves less of the precision that term implies than a self-annihilating bloodbath of extreme duration.  Yet this duration does not equate to action-film-euphoria: despite its length and detail, Miike chooses to shoot his finale with long lenses (and digitally of course), so all sense of choreography or thrill is evacuated and we are left with a numbing, repetitive collage of swinging swords and falling bodies.

Suddenly the dull color of the day scenes make sense, when, in motion amongst dozens of active swordsmen, the camera flattens everything into a fragmented, tapestry-like blur of death.  And inside this whirlwind are indeed moving Miike moments of modestly totemic genre beauty: the image of a naked boy pissing in the street (falsely) tells the lord’s retainer that the ambush location is safe to travel through; an apprentice is mortally wounded, falls upside down, and watches his master fight and die from this position in a moving, unexpected reference to Rebel without a Cause; and the mindless, tenacious slashing of swordsmen over-exhausted, over-fought, and bleeding to death, heaving themselves at fighters they no longer can see.

As this finale makes clear, Miike is well aware of the conventionality of 13 Assassins and clearly is comfortable following and continuing its form.  But he seems to do so if only he is allowed to either play with the established aesthetic, breaking free for a moment of gleeful winking (the evil lord, instead of avoiding trouble, decides to take the road that will undoubtedly lead to danger and explains by looking at the camera and saying “the foolish path is more fun.”), or, more often and with the best results, step aside within the conventions to observe something strange, moving, true, or human that exists there, just to the side of what a normal genre entry would choose to reveal.  It is Miike’s obstinate preference to still reveal things inside the most conventional of projects, structures, or details that marks him as one of the most continually fresh and exciting of directors, and 13 Assassins bares all the scars of such a beautiful approach.

But does this resolve the issues that rise at the revelation that the filmmaker follows Izo with a film like this?  Perhaps the greater issue is the validity of the implicit view that a filmmaker continually gets better: their films get better, they have a greater understanding of their films and their craft, a greater coherence to their filmmaking, an evolution of their thought and form.  Is this necessarily true?  Even if it's not, is it an expectation audiences have?

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This review is a modified version of original coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010.

The question about contradictions in a director’s filmography is a good one Daniel, and I don’t think there is just one answer to it. In some ways I think it points out the flaws in a too strict auteurist way of thinking as a director needn’t bend all films to some personal thematic vision to be an important artist, that they can examine each story they present on its own merits and try to uncover something of value held within it. At the same time, I would suggest that what is sometimes taken as the “meaning” of a film and then applied to the director can be mistaken as the director’s interests may not be represented by the most direct ideas or themes present in any given work, but on some underlying conceptual understanding instead. Walsh, for example, seems to be more interested in the way his characters live than in making their world view fit some ideal. His films seem to celebrate the messy diversity of life in a way that someone like Ford doesn’t do because he does have a more personal vision of the world that he seeks to impart. That isn’t, of course, to say that Walsh doesn’t have beliefs or that Ford’s characters aren’t a diverse group, but that Ford and Walsh look at both the world and at how films should capture it from different angles.
In To’s case, perhaps one could think of him as being more interested in structural issues than moral ones. Not only in the way his films are put together, although that is surely significant, but in the way people attach themselves to each other or to ideals and form partnerships, groups or choose sides. He always seems to maintain a sort of bemused distance from the more moral concerns in his films, even when they are of great importance to his characters.
That’s a good anti-auteurist point, greg. So can we hate a film by a director because it’s gratuitously, exploitatively violent, but then love another film by the same director because it’s so intelligently, cleverly anti-violent?
Hating and liking aren’t really the point I would think, I’m suggesting that thematic consistency is often over-valued or not necessarily looked for in the right areas. In the case of someone like Wyler, who wasn’t/isn’t particularly highly valued by many in more auteurist interested circles, one can see a director who took on a wide range of films and handled them each in a way that benefited the story being told without necessarily developing an overall “theme” that he returned to again and again like people seem to enjoy pointing out in the works of directors like Ford and Hawks. It isn’t to say that makes Ford somehow an inferior director, nor is it to say that Wyler didn’t have a point of view of his own, it’s just that the seeming need for some grand theme or easily identifiable moral strand that runs through the directors body of work has been far too overemphasized for my liking. It has led to the a skewed system of evaluation that places much greater weight on consistency through a body of work than on what is being done in the films individually. It also seems to undervalue directors who allow the moral worlds of their characters to speak for themselves rather than imposing their own on those worlds, a way of showing characters interacting without judgment. Walsh was particularly good at that, his films showed a real sympathy for the human condition, but didn’t prescribe a set of behaviors as being “right”, he simply seemed to like to show things as they were, beautiful and ugly in equal measures and allow us to interpret them as we want. This sympathy is a connecting idea or overarching presence in much of his work, but it doesn’t quite fit the idea of a auteurist theme. Something similar could be said of Wyler, he made some amazing films, and even his worst films were in no way “bad”, and in them one can discern a general point of view, but that point of view never rises to a repetitive theme, it’s simply a way of looking at the world and the people in it with compassion and some general principles that are drawn out when the films allow for them to be, not simply becuase he’s got a cause. I suggested a way To’s films could be looked at that might provide something of a consistent approach to films that seem widely dissimilar, I haven’t spent much time thinking through how that might apply to each of his films, so I won’t fight for that interpretation too hard. It was meant as an example of a way that a body of work could have a director’s “signature” without it being in the same manner as we see in works of directors with a more concentrated set of concerns. I certainly can’t tell anyone when they should or shouldn’t be offended by something, so individual moral concerns aren’t really my issue. I just don’t think that is necessarily the best method of evaluation to rely on as it is so personal and often vague when put to interpretive use, and it certainly isn’t the only way to approach the films, so I my suggestion was more intended to possibly shift the focus to other ways of looking to see if that can bring out aspects of the movies otherwise overlooked.
I’ve wanted to see this for some time. I don’t think of To’s and Miike’s films in the same vein. They may cross paths in the crime genre, but To’s films have always been, for me, style without much weight. Miike seems to want to stare more deeply into the void of violence. Occasionally, Miike seems to make entertainment for its own sake, but I do have to think that he is constantly thinking about it, like everyone who watches a violent film. This is not to dismiss To, because he has made some amazing looking films, but they are much more part of a whole.
I was going to see this at a festival, but decided to wait a week to see it in a better theater with superior sound, based on the reviews….
Actually, the film was shot on 35mm, not digitally.
i think it is sometimes a simple answer like what is needed where. look at Takeshi Kitano, for example; though not one to shy away from violence when making a film, he definitely uses it differently from film to film, often being more gratuitous with it in some situations than others. take Hana-Bi and Sonatine, for example: in both movies the main characters meet similar ends, though it isn’t appropriate to depict it the same way in both movies, and he is aware of that. without trying to give too much of a spoiler for either movie, one could only say that similar fates should be represented when one is an act of love, than perhaps resignation. or maybe they are the same and i don’t know what i’m talking about. in To’s case, i believe his choices merely to be based on this as well, while i see Miike’s reasons often being purely based on the amount of work he puts out, and not all of it being as polished as it could be if he focused on a smaller body of work.

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