Not the acclaimed Takashi Miike remake
from 2010, but the black-and-white 1963 original. It's a samurai film, but I liked it.
I'll get its biggest problem out of the way first. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's still a bit of a drawback since we're talking about the entire third act and until then I'd been thinking the movie was excellent. The battle's too big. Our 13 assassins have led 53 enemies into a trap. That's an awful lot of fighters and for my money that turned out a bit too much for Eiichi Kudo to handle. He doesn't let it get confusing, but he also doesn't really bring it alive.
Oh, it's well photographed and well staged. In fact it looks great. The fighters use strategies and counter-strategies, making use of the layout of the town they're trapped in, and you can follow everything. What's more, the battle's scale comes across. It really does feel like a fight to the death between dozens of samurai, with barricades and groups chasing each other up alleys. Crucially the good guys are also colour-coded for ease of identification. That all works. That's not the problem. It's completely watchable and it's always clear what's happening, which has to be considered an achievement in itself.
My objection is simply that we lose sight of the cast. It's too distant. We're just watching the battle's overall progress, rather than the individual fighters within it. I'd liked the slow recruitment of the thirteen earlier in the film, with a good balance between spear-carriers and memorable individuals who bring a more human dimension to the movie. Where are they all at the end? Buggered if I know. You'll need a cheat sheet with photographs and character notes if you want to keep track of everyone.
This probably sounds bad, but the movie gets away with it. Everyone's accepted that it's effectively a suicide mission. They're not expecting to get out of it alive and they're entirely focused on their goal of whacking their assigned son of a bitch, Lord Naritsugu (Kantaro Suga). It feels reasonable for the film to be similarly goal-oriented, while in any case it would be wrong to say that the finale jettisons all characterisation. Obviously Suga himself is important, while in addition there's a surprising resolution of the relationship between the boss warriors on both sides. They're old friends fighting each other to the death, which isn't weird to them because they're simply doing their samurai duty and it doesn't stop them from still liking and respecting each other.
I'm not saying it's a bad final act. It's a strong film. I liked it. I'm just saying that I personally prefer movies to stay more in touch with their characters. One assassin gets a shocking, anti-heroic death after the job's done, though.
So that's my problem with this film out of the way. It's not a crippling one and everything else I liked.
Firstly, I love the cinematography. Admittedly I'm a sucker for black and white, but this is another example of why I prefer it to colour. It's further from reality as far as the human brain's concerned, so you can create stronger effects and do more powerful things with the shapes on screen. Look at the rape scene, for instance. (Suga's been invited to stay at someone's house, so he rapes his host's daughter-in-law, murders her husband and then leaves without even acknowledging that people are trying to talk to him about this.) There are any number of realistic rape scenes in cinema. but here instead we have something more artistic as the director uses the victim's hand and arm to carve the screen into abstract geometrical shapes.
So the film's a delight to look at. On top of that, though, it made me cheer for samurai. Instead of assuming that I'm going to be on their side from the beginning, the film's first act is basically "This Guy Needs To Die". They build up to it slowly and it takes us a surprisingly long while to meet Suga in real time, but the important thing is that we're 100% behind the idea of putting him in the ground.
Act two is about setting up the job, which includes recruiting the men, laying plans based on what Suga's expected to do and then watching something else happen. The characters are good. There's the wise old dude (Chiezo Kataoka) who knows exactly what they're up against and whom you'd trust in any situation. There's an ugly, wedge-faced ronin who's making samurai pride look like the best thing in the world. Everyone has their own motivations, be it money, pride or love, while one of the men is a self-confessed layabout who lives with a geisha and at first turns down Kataoka's men because he has no desire to get himself killed.
We get to know and sometimes sympathise with the bad guys. If a good man serves a wicked master, is he still a good man? This movie says "yes".
Act three... well, there are lots of people who love action and sword-fighting under all circumstances. If you agree with that, I'd recommend to you this movie. Personally though my attention wandered.
Incidentally this is apparently the first of Kudo's loose Samurai Revolution trilogy of zankoku jidaigeki, with the other two being The Great Battle and Eleven Samurai. All three are basically the same film, with samurai being ordered to kill an evil lord, and they've all been praised for their ambitious and well-executed action sequences. Interestingly they're also based on real history and real officials and lords.
Overall, I liked this a lot. Its storyline is solid and it has emotional strength, especially when it comes to the man whose son was killed and daughter-in-law raped. (She committed suicide, so he has no heirs.) It's classy and elegant rather than visceral, but that's no bad thing. As far as I'm concerned it merely loses its way a little during the climactic battle, which is why I'm looking forward to the remake. If there's one director you'd trust to know what to do with violence and cinematic extremes, it's Takashi Miike. Comparing the two films will be fascinating, but the original's good qualities are sufficiently strong that I don't think it'll be annihilated even if the remake is as good as everyone's saying.
This isn't one of the more famous samurai movies, having been relatively unknown in the West until Miike's remake. However I preferred it to some far better-known ones.