It's a breakout movie. Every so often, Japan makes one of those. Battle Royale
are two recent-ish examples, while of course Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki would do it regularly.
This though is from the insanely prolific Takashi Miike, best known for extreme cinema like Audition
or Ichi the Killer
. That's not what he's doing here, though. This film is a remake of the 1963 black-and-white samurai jidai-geki of the same name
, regarding which Miike decided to play it straight as an arrow. To quote the man himself:
"When I was asked to remake this movie, I had heard of the title but hadn't seen it. It was released when I was three years old. I would say that anyone under sixty in Japan probably hasn't seen it. It's not a popular movie. However when I watched it, what I felt was its quality and how well it was made. Beyond that, in addition I felt the extreme desire, the power of the people who made this movie. Not an individual passion, but the passion that the people at that time had for making movies [...] I noticed how much we've lost in our ability to make movies and I thought it would be a good time for a full-frontal attack on how to get that back."
Miike thus went out and made an utterly old-school movie. This involved making no compromises whatsoever for modern Japanese audiences. Thus for instance he refused to water down the characters' feudal viewpoints or shoehorn in more female characters (e.g. a love interest, or a gender-swapped assassin). The script will often stick word-for-word to the original. Even the archaic language hasn't been tweaked, to the extent that apparently even young Japanese people might have trouble with the dialogue. (I certainly did).
It's more historically authentic even than Eiichi Kudo's original, in fact. Women have ohaguro blackened teeth, for instance, despite this making them look ugly and creepy.
The result is Miike's best-reviewed film to date, although I have my doubts about his claim in the DVD extras that he thinks this is a family film. Look at the sound effects and facial close-ups of the seppuku in the opening scene, or else the sex slave who's had her limbs severed and her tongue torn out. (That wasn't in the original film, incidentally.) Oh, and if you do take children to see this, expect them to be impressed by the scene where Lord Naritsugu has a family tied up and then uses them for target practice. The tiny boy is the last to go.
In case you haven't worked it out yet, by the way, Miike's Naritsugu is making the original's look like Gandhi. You will want him dead. That's a promise. Almost everything he does is straight from the 1963 film, but Miike is more intense and this time we see stuff that had previously stayed offscreen.
It's interesting to compare Miike's directorial style with Kudo's. Occasionally he seems to be deliberately channelling, with a couple of shots at the beginning that felt to me like visual quotes. He's reining himself in and making a conscious effort not to be modern, but even so he can't help but be more dynamic. The difference is in immediacy. All that languid distance so beloved of classical Japanese cinema... it's a bit boring, isn't it? Great directors were able to overcome this and create art, but Miike is punchier. His shots are more vivid and he creates more empathy with his characters.
The difference is biggest during the final battle, which is where the two films diverge. Kudo's final battle was apparently one of the most impressive to be realised in the sixties, being obviously influenced by The Seven Samurai
and going further than Kurosawa in grittiness and brutality... but I found it kind of dull. It's a big battle. Uh huh. Miike's battle on the other hand is involving. It has laugh-out-loud deathtraps with explosives, awesome badass moments and a burning bull stampede. It's in-your-face and personal. Heads are cut off, the violence itself is characterised and the ronin (Tsuyoshi Ihara) in particular seems almost unstoppable. Heroes die unglamorous deaths. If you're into action cinema, I'd guess this is pretty much a must-see.
Even here though, Miike's paring everything down. He gets rid of music, for instance. He's talked of instead trying to characterise all the different sword-on-sword sound effects, all in the name of not trying to spoon-feed the audience emotionally.
Similarly the storyline does its own thing in the last half-hour. Until then, Miike's film had stuck closely to its predecessor, but with additions. Examples of those include Hanbei's a nasty surprise for Shinzaemon, the reinvented recruitment of the prodigal son and the film's running count of how many assassins have been recruited so far. (I particularly appreciated the latter.) However when it comes to the finale, the thematic thrust is completely different. Naritsugu still needs to die, obviously, but Kudo's film in the end was showing us the choices that a samurai makes for honour. Miike's film on the other hand dissects a ruler's mandate to rule over his subjects and condemns the feudal system of authority. Then the final scene is an explicit rejection of samurai and their code of honour, after which we're told that "23 years later, the Shogunate system was abolished and the modern Meiji era began".
I really liked this. The film's plot is straightforward, but as always with Miike there are strong themes under the surface.
The weirdest part of the film involves a swamp rat dude (Yusuke Iseya), who's a much more colourful thirteenth assassin than in the Kudo film and could be read as being a demon. Note his supernaturally large penis and scene of comic sodomy, for instance. It's open to audience interpretation, though. When something impossible happens, this could equally be a ghost appearing to the last survivor, or else that we're looking at a ridiculously tough guy who's simply not part of this samurai world.
The actors are giving it everything, so much so that I didn't even recognise Koji Yakusho in the lead role. He's not in disguise. It's just that you'd never guess this was the gentle, vulnerable loser of The Last Chushingura
or The Uchoten Hotel
. Apparently half of the cast had never used a sword before, by the way, which meant they were just as desperate and focused as their characters when Miike was shooting a fifty-minute action finale in two weeks of non-stop eighteen-hour days, in terrible weather. Now I understand better how he manages to make 1000000 films a year.
This film was nominated for Best Film at the 34th Japan Academy Awards and has attracted international reviews so glowing that they can only lead to disappointment. Is it the greatest film of all time? Hell, no. It's a badass samurai flick with deceptively deep themes, lots of killing and a clear mission statement. Go in expecting that and you'll be fine. I don't know if I'd even call it my favourite Miike film, although it's clearly on a level of quality and discipline that he's perfectly capable of but rarely visits. (His last before this was Audition
.) The only thing I don't like about it is that the film's international cut is twenty minutes shorter than the domestic Japanese one, although fortunately most of the extra material is on the DVD under "deleted scenes". If they ever bring out a DVD edition with both versions, I might well let myself get double-dipped.