A great swordsman defeats an entire army of thugs who murdered his sister, then is made immortal by an old woman, and this entire backstory only takes up the first twelve minutes of the movie. Miike wasting no damn time with this one, supposedly his hundredth film, though I’d like to see what list they used to calculate this, since IMDB considers Pandoora a movie, and counts MPD Psycho as three movies.

Anyway… fifty years later, the “itto-ryu” is a supervillain samurai clan killing all the dojo heads in the Tokyo, including the parents of this girl Rin, who reminds our man of his sister, so he agrees to take on the gang. Rest of the movie is a series of high-energy fights, one-on-one and one-on-hundreds, against badasses with a variety of weapons. I found Sukiyaki Western Django too tiresomely goofy, 13 Assassins too classy and Hara-Kiri too faithful – this one’s just right.

Our heroes:

Clan leader Sôta Fukushi:

Our immortal hero is Takuya Kimura (Faye Wong’s bf in 2046, voice of Howl, star of two separate movies called Hero), Rin is the voice of Mary, and the fey cult leader starred in As The Gods Will. That leaves all the specialty assassins:

Kuroi Sabato (Kazuki Kitamura of Miike’s video game movie Like a Dragon) wears Shredder headgear, goes down first. Magatsu (Shinnosuke Mitsushima of the next Kore-eda movie) has long spiky hair and a sweet facemask. Shizuma Eiku (Ebizô Ichikawa, main dude in Miike’s Hara-Kiri) is a white-haired immortal who knows how they can be killed (bloodworm poison!). Makie (Erika Toda of the Death Note series) wields a double-edged spear and changes sides, and Shina (Hayato Ichihara, bullied boy of All About Lily Chou-Chou) is a blonde dude who focuses on killing the girl even when the army is attacking. Chiaki Kuriyama (Gogo in Kill Bill) is a government spy with long blonde hair, and Tsutomu Yamazaki (Goro in Tampopo) leads the government army, which needless to say in a Miike film is no better than the murderous cult. With no main-cast crossovers between this and 13 Assassins, it looks like Miike is trying to turn every actor in Japan into a badass killer.

Maatsu:

Makie:

Willow Maclay on her blog:

Miike doesn’t pull any punches as things reach a climax (with a few bloated, unnecessary side plots here and there) frequently zeroing in on Manji’s immortal body as it falls apart, but impossibly perseveres. When Manji finally confronts the man who wronged Rin … he’s barely a man anymore, more zombie than alive, and there is no elegant duel between sword wielding warriors. It is merely an act of execution, a job being completed, and a loss of life. It is with blunt honesty that Miike displays this final dance not as something worthwhile or justifiable, but another violent act in a long string of violent acts that Manji has committed during his lifetime, and some day Rin will die because of his actions.

My main thought after watching this and Sokurov’s The Sun, more than any thoughts about the films themselves and their content, is that SD video is dingy and blurry and should be abolished. I know I don’t have the persistence to actually do this, but I should just limit myself to HD from now on, since (a) there are already more movies available in HD than I have time to watch and (b) if I’ve seen something in SD and it comes out in HD I always tell myself I have to see it again anyway.

Another fun Matsumoto movie, but unlike R100 and Symbol, which start out weird then go in crazy new directions, this one has a clear structure. Swordless samurai Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi, per Hollywood Reporter “a near-toothless, goblin-like sixtysomething with zero acting experience”) is caught and sentenced to death, but he’ll be pardoned if he can make the young prince, in a funk since his mother died, laugh. Nomi’s not very funny, so every night he and his daughter Tae and his two sympathetic guards try to come up with something more ridiculous than yesterday in order to amuse the sullen prince, eventually involving stunts and giant props. Ultimately he’s forced to commit seppuku, but the prince starts to lighten up around Tae – they bond over the deaths of their mothers (and now her father) and become friends. Hardly a masterpiece, but cute enough, and builds very effectively towards its unexpected ending.

In the early days, his daughter’s pained expressions are funnier than Nomi’s attempts at humor:

L-R below: Would-be assassins Pakyun (Rolly, death cult leader of Suicide Circle), Oryu (Ryô of Tsukamoto’s Gemini) and Gori Gori (Fukkin Zen-Nosuke of the Kamen Rider saga), who end up rooting for Nomi once the palace starts selling tickets to watch his daily gags.

Thanks to J. Mobarak at The Film Stage – no other site wanted to translate this movie’s credits. Nomi’s guards are the more serious Itsuji Itao (evil cyborg leader of Tokyo Gore Police) and Tokio Emoto (in Outrage and Norwegian Wood the same year), who I found unaccountably hilarious with his mouth always hanging open. The lord was played by the prolific Jun Kunimura (Takeshi’s boss in Outrage), and the guy who yells “I sentence you to commit seppuku!” after each failed attempt is Masato Ibu (of Shield of Straw and Turtles Swim Faster Than Expected).

Matsumoto in Cinema Scope:

I wanted to make a film that in the beginning is not at all like a film, not filmic. Only towards the end it becomes more and more like a movie. This was one of my central intentions.

C. Huber:

As for the samurai, he breaks free of the ritual cycle when he finally rejects protocol and, pointedly, refuses to read his arduously prepared “death note.” Instead he proves that, like all of Matsumoto’s protagonists, he is, curiously, a man of action.

Cannes Month continues. This played there in 2011 – in 3D! The 3D would’ve added some novelty to a remake which seems to have none at all, unless we’re counting that it’s filmed in color. Scene-for-scene redo of the original, well-acted and shot (but the original was well-acted and shot), kinda languid in the flashback-heavy middle, and with a less biting ending.

Motome (Eita of Memories of Matsuko) had a desperately sick wife (Hikari Mitsushima of Love Exposure) and baby and needed doctor money, so he did a dishonorable thing, telling the local samurai house that he wanted to commit seppuku at their house so they’d pay him to go away. But they’d decided to make an example out of the next sap who tried this, and since Motome had done another dishonorable thing – selling his sword for food and secretly substituting a wooden one – he’s forced to die an agonizing, splintery death while his family succumbs to illness at home.

So the dead wife’s dad Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa, later in Miike’s Over Your Dead Body) visits the house a couple months later with the same seppuku story in order to get an audience and shame them for what they’ve done. Per an IMDB comment (I know!) the film argues “that honour is ultimately irrelevant in the face of social suffering.” It’s a compelling story, but during hard times, the house (led by Doppelganger & 13 Assassins star Koji Yakusho) has built its fortune on the traditional ideas of honor and can’t afford to let Hanshiro’s humanist ideas take hold.

C. Huber in Cinema Scope:

Hara-Kiri [demonstrates] a classical craftsmanship few contemporary directors could ever hope to match, but at the cost of personal expression. Miike’s single-minded take on a straightforward samurai tragedy follows the original’s outlines, yet replaces its smart, suspenseful time-shifts with big blocks of flashback melodrama … the marvellous, mostly brownish palette of the interiors tended to sink in the murky fog of light reduction, making Cannes’ first 3-D competition entry a good argument against the process.

A brilliant flashback drama full of slow-boil tension leading to an explosive action scene and devastating business-as-usual finale. Tatsuya Nakadai (star of Kill! and of the snow-lady second segment of Kwaidan) asks a local clan for permission to commit ritual suicide in their courtyard, and the stooge in charge (Rentaro Mikuni, star of the first Kwaidan segment and the chained son in Profound Desire of the Gods, seeming older here, perhaps because of his baldy-samurai hair) tells of the last guy who tried that, how he was forced to go through with the suicide rather than being given some money to go away. But Nadakai knows this already, since the last guy was his son-in-law (Akira Ishihama of some Kinoshita films) whose death led his young wife Shima Iwashita (the daughter in An Autumn Afternoon) to her own. Nadakai’s plan is to demand an apology, and when the clan attacks he takes down as many men as he can (having killed some key guys earlier, as the flashback structure very gradually reveals). Rather than admit any blame, the clan leader orders a total cover-up, saying the others died of illness. A cynical movie, but thrilling in execution (with tastefully-deployed pre-’70s shock-zooms), the movie Kobayashi made before Kwaidan.

J. Mellen for Criterion:

In the film’s condemnation of the Iyi clan, Kobayashi rejects the notion of individual submission to the group. He condemns, simultaneously, the hierarchical structures that pervaded Japanese political and social life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the zaibatsus, the giant corporations that recapitulated feudalism.

Random samurai movie watched on Criterion’s Hulu channel when it was free for a week – thought I’d pick something unlikely to come out on DVD anytime soon, since I’d never heard of the movie or director. It was surprisingly excellent, with assured, quality filmmaking and an exciting, complicated story – handily better than the Samurai trilogy.

1836: Bull, rough-looking with short black beard, is an ex-samurai so poor he lets people beat him up for money. He, drunken pimp Gennai and slightly more respectable Horo end up drinking together after a fight had seemed inevitable, turns out they’re all in love with one of the bar girls Oshin. Now, it gets a bit hard to follow because the main girls in the film are named Oshin, Osen, Obun, Otoku and Oyo – I tried to remember Osen as the “o-girl” for about ten minutes before realizing my mistake.

A dead woman is discovered:

Anyway, everyone is poor, struggling to survive in general, but now a group of rich moralists are killing girls every night. Bull acts as the women’s caretaker, is teaching them to read, and takes the murders very personally. And all the men would like to join the local clan, because then they’d get a salary. Local birdseller Doi’s sister Obun goes to the clan bosses to interfere in her brother’s behalf, essentially joins the prostitutes. Gennai starts dallying with rich clan woman Oyo, and Bull gets a job as a “dog”, servant to one of the seven asshole clansmen who turn out to be the murderers, eventually kills Oyo for his master. The clansmen decide to rip Oshin apart with bulls attached to ropes, and somehow the other two guys find out in time, come over and kill about fifty guys in the big climactic battle. Bull isn’t gonna get an easy out after slaying that woman, stabs through himself to kill his master. Postscript: Oshin leaves town with Gennai, Obun takes over the bar, and all surviving clan samurai are asked to commit harakiri for disgracing the shogun.

Oshin, about to be rescued:

Bull killing his master:

Director Kuroki died in 2006, made Evil Spirits of Japan in 1970. From the screenwriter of the Yakuza Papers series, based on a novel previously adapted in the 1920’s as a whole series of films. Nominated for a pile of Japanese academy awards, mostly beaten by Shinoda’s Childhood Days and Kohei Oguri’s The Sting of Death (though they also nominated Die Hard 2 for best foreign film, so it’s not clear they can be trusted).

Shintaro Katsu (Bull)’s final film – he was Zatoichi, Hanzo the Razor, and star of Man Without a Map. Gennai was Yoshio Harada, also of Manji and Farewell to the Ark. Young Oshin was Kanako Higuchi, the young painter’s mom in Achilles and the Tortoise, Obun was Kaoru Sugita, Sho Aikawa’s wife in Dead or Alive and Otoku was Moeko Ezawa of Kitano’s Getting Any?

An epic trilogy, obviously conceived as a single story – it would be foolish to watch just one. It might, in fact, be foolish to watch all three. A weighty, picturesque drama with restrained emotions, occasional action, and side characters I kept losing track of, adding up to a decent story about a great fighter learning to be a great person.

1600 AD: Toshiro Mifune (in his follow-up to Seven Samurai) is violent, spontaneous Takezo, whose weak-willed friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni, lead of the first segment in Kwaidan, son in chains of Profound Desire of the Gods) joins him in going to war, leaving behind Matahachi’s mom and his fiancee Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa, who starred in Madame Butterfly between sequels). Their side is wiped out, and the two misfit warriors wash up with a mother and daughter, where they recover from battle wounds amidst sexual tension cued by rape attempts.

wide-eyed Matahachi and grim Takezo at war:

Takezo up a tree:

Mother and daughter survive by stripping dead samurai and selling their equipment – just like in Onibaba. Takezo flees after defeating the bandit that torments the women, then shrugging off the mom when she throws herself at him. She changes the story: “He attempted to assault me. He’s a savage.” Matahachi marries the mom, while his ex, Otsu, joins the search for Takezo, who is repeatedly captured by a smiling priest, who finally locks T. up in an attic full of books. T. emerges years later, calmer and wiser, renamed Musashi Miyamoto, tells Otsu to wait, and wanders off.

Akemi, Matahachi and Oko:

Otsu left behind:

Part two opens with a duel, MM telling a young kid called Jotaro to leave the arena. But of course he doesn’t, and tags along behind our hero after he kills the chainfighting Old Baiken. Akemi (Mariko Okada, married to director Yoshishige Yoshida, also star of some Ozu films), the girl whose mom married Matahachi is now darkly obsessed with MM, also pops up to torment Otsu, seems to be everywhere. Most of the movie concerns MM challenging the master of a fighting school, who will not fight him honorably so MM kicks the asses of some hundred students instead. By the end, the teacher mans up and meets MM, who does not kill him, after remembering how pissed everyone was when he killed the chainfighter.

MM vs. the chainfighter:

MM controlling his rage at the second duel:

Meanwhile some dickish birdslaying swordsman, supposed to remind us of young MM, wants to duel MM. And Otsu keeps pining after MM, who insists that he needs to keep training. I like the brief moments of animation (a lightning strike, cartoon birds flying across a painted sky) and the catchy theme music.

Akemi:

Part 3: predictably, Akemi has met the birdslayer. MM is still an undefeatable warrior, but now believes it’s best to avoid conflict. He postpones the birdslayer’s duel challenge and lives in a farming town with the kid and ever-suffering Otsu. The town is under siege by bandits (what peaceful small town in ancient Japan was not under siege by bandits?), and Akemi makes a deal with them. The siege goes wrong – MM kills many bandits and they kill Akemi shortly after she fights Otsu with an axe.

Bird guy:

MM and his little follower:

MM finally decides to give up his sword and marry Otsu, but first has to kill the birdslayer, which he does with a wooden sword, keeping the sun behind himself so the other man won’t notice.

I’ve seen Miike do a big-budget action film with Sukiyaki Western Django, and I’ve seen him do period drama with Sabu. And both of those movies were kinda boring. So I knew not to expect the world from Miike’s 13 Assassins, despite online reviews calling it the best thing he’s ever done. He throws a few bones to the longtime extreme-cinema fans – like a tidal wave of blood when a sympathetic character gets blown to bits – but mostly it plays like a high-quality studio samurai drama. It’s classically well constructed – I’m guessing it’s this glossy lack of rough edges (what some would call personality) that has the casual Miike followers raving, but I can’t see anyone who was impressed by Big Bang Love being too wowed by this. I haven’t seen the 1960’s original 13 Assassins, but I’ve seen Seven Samurai, and if I didn’t know this was a remake of one, I’d guess it’s a remake of the other. It plays like a remake. Whiny complaints aside, it’s a fine, entertaining film. I had a good time and all.

Shinzaemon (Kiyoshi Kurosawa fave Koji Yakusho) is our hero, hired by government man Sir Doi (Miijiro Hira, star of Sword of the Beast, psychiatrist in The Face of Another) to kill an heir to the throne, Lord Matsudara (Goro Inagaki of Hypnosis, one of many Japanese horror movies I rented in a flurry back when The Ring came out). The Lord is extremely evil – rapes a girl at random then kills her husband and, for good measure, ties up his entire family and uses them for close-range target practice.

Shinz is going to need a lotta swords to take on Lord M’s army of guards so he hires 12 more guys, only a few of whom get personalities because hey, we don’t have all day here. Most of the movie is build-up as it is. He gets his hard-gambling nephew (Takayuki Yamada of Crows Zero, who will be one of the only survivors, not that he particularly earned it more than the others), a badass ronin with a spear (was his name Sahara?), a couple explosives novices, and finally Koyata (Yusuke Iseya, awesome leader of the white clan in Sukiyaki Western Django), a wild man with a sling they find in the woods. Of course Shinz has a personal rivalry with the leader of Lord M’s guard, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura, voice of Mewtwo), in order to up the stakes.

A ton of the fighting comes down to a bunch of indistinguishable, muddy brown-robed guys slashing at each other amongst clanging sound effects and quick editing. But the best parts involve Shinz’s master plan to turn this entire town into a trap, full of spring-loaded gates, explosive-rigged houses, and flaming bulls (quite cartoony, but they got a good laugh), like Seven Samurai or Three Amigos. Fun ending – Koyata, having been stabbed through the neck to his death, shows up alive and unscratched.

S. Tobias:

What is surprising about 13 Assassins is how far it goes in upending the samurai picture. In Miike’s mind, there’s nothing honorable about the thoughtless commitment to honor and code, especially if it means protecting dastardly men who don’t deserve that kind of loyalty. With 13 Assassins, he’s made a film both punk and moral.

The actors playing Sir Doi and Otake previously worked together on a movie called Big Shitty Marathon (“Biggu Shiti Marason”).