04 June, 2011

Cinecult: Chiarascuro Chambara

[Editor's Note: I've been futzing around with this post for far too long not to post it. I'd appologize for the delay, but you don't really care, do you? Nah. That's healthy.]

Yes! Yes! Fuck those samurai up!

I just got out of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins. I'm going to try to refrain from giving a full blown review because I neither have the time, the inclination, nor the sobriety to coherently espouse my opinions on the film. I will leave that to better men and sunnier days. Or at least until I get bored or need a concluding paragraph.

13 Assassins is from the mind of Takashi Miike, who is probably most famous for making a movie where a guy does a sixty foot long line of coke and then explodes the world, as well as a musical with an alien, along with the movie with an assassin who comes all over the people he kills with modified ice skates which sits right next to a surreal road movie where a yakuza member changes genders and eventually emerges from the vagina of a woman hand first.

He's an intermittent blast is what I'm saying.

To say the least, there's a bit of a pedigree to this movie. Maybe a dubious one-- IE: one of those pedigrees that only fucking your cousin for 400 years can create, but a pedigree nonetheless. This particular movie has a pedigree beyond that, it's a remake of a 1963 movie (Don't worry, there's a punchline coming).

They don't make trailers like that any more, do they? Thank God.

The last Miike movie I watched was Sukiyaki Western Django, which is a remake of another genre film from the 1960's. 13 Assassins suffers from the same problem, but where 13 Assassins differs from Django is that the remixed Asian Western is a mind-boggling bad composite of swill and trash and it's safe to say that the title is the best thing about it (See: I Spit on Your Grave, Hot Tub Time Machine, and Snakes on a Plane*).

If you want to know what Sukiyaki Western Django looks like, imagine a world where Quentin Tarantino did a bunch of DMT and decided to make a samurai movie exclusively staring Americans who spoke Japanese phonetically. That's it in a nutshell. It's a mess, not even the tiniest bits of the madness work together, and what's worse is that unlike Miike's uglier and crazier films, it isn't even all that much fun. It's neither as good as the Westerns it copies or the samurai films it is mired in and more than a few of the Westerns it's aping are pretty poor in the first place.

Beware the film with a blurb from Eli Roth. And, yes, that is QT himself.

It's kind of funny. I started watching the first Django movie the other day (which Tarantino is taking the name of for his new film, because I guess that mine is still paying out). It's not a great movie by any means. Apparently, at the time, it was really revolutionary from a violence stand point. Nothing went as far as that-- at least not Westerns-- before Django came along. Looking at it now, it comes off as a goofy B-movie that's plenty of fun and worth seeing if you're a Spaghetti Western completest, but I only see doom in being too inspired by it. I mean, I know I'm not supposed to bother worrying about gun mechanics in an Italian B-movie, but it still drives me crazy that. . . ah, I'm babbling again. Sorry. I've got an upcoming entry on Spaghetti Westerns coming up, I just think that the timing of all of this is funny.

Alright, alright. It isn't that funny. Bizarre? Weird? Metaphysically malicious? Who knows. In short: Go see The Good, the Bad, and the Weird instead.

Anyways, I'm not talking about 13 Assassins at all, am I? Sorry. Sorry, again. Writing and editing this going from drunk to sober to waffling between the two and back to drunk again has done me no favors. I'm sure there's a lesson in this.

13 Assassins isn't a great movie. It is an interesting one and it's rather tame by the standards of Takashi Miike (despite there being more than a few torture victims and at least two rapes that I can remember, in addition to the expected sundry of slashings, stabbings, and executions). There's some very horrific scenes in the beginning that set the stage for the second half of the movie, which plays out like a Chambara interpretation of Straw Dogs and 300 (I'm sure I could draw up a mathematical formula for this. Gimme a minute.). It's also a team movie, a sword fight movie (obviously), and ultimately, a siege movie**.

Of course the elephant in the room for all of this is one film. At the end, when you boil everything down and no matter what angle you come from, one film, above all, stands out as the specter hovering over this whole picture-- Picture, hell-- this whole genre. That film is Seven Samurai.

That isn't necessarily a good thing. Seven Samurai, as you may know already, is a perfect film. It might be the most perfect film ever made (I'm of the opinion that, yes, there can be more than one perfect thing. I mean, we got Jesus and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, you explain that).

To his credit, I don't think Miike was attempting to out Kurosawa Kurosawa, but he did try to out Leone Leone and look at the mess that got us in. There's ambition and then there's insanity.

Toshiro Mifune has no real baring on this article other than his attachment to Kurosawa. He just happens to be one of my favorite actors of all time. So, there's that.

But there I got dipping too deep into the review pool. I'll stop.

Overall I liked it, though a movie like this, with such a specific plot and result can only run up against the elephant in the the movie house: Seven Samurai.

There is no chambara film that compares with Seven Samurai. In the same way there is no mafia movie that compares with The Godfather or no detective movie that compares with The French Connection or no western compares with Once Upon a Time in the West (because I already named that other one he made. It isn't isn't fair, but I'm a film nerd and worse yet, I'm a Kurosawa nerd. It is especially unfair since, like 13 Assassins lives in the shadow of its betters (like Yojimbo and Sword of Doom and Harakiri), so too does the rest of cinema live in the shadow of Seven Samurai.

It's the statue of David, it's the Nightwatchmen, it's the 5th Symphony, it's Swan Lake, it's everything***. It's the best you'll ever get. I might be wrong about that, but I'm not far wrong.

That film one of the most venerated films of all times by critics, by fans, by nerds, by whoever. For me, it has a special emotional resonance. I borrowed my copy of it from a guy I looked up to in a coffee shop (I was twelve or thirteen, in my defense) and from there, my whole like, I'd like to think, changed. I watched it on my PS2 of all things (my parents didn't own a DVD player until years later and the only way I watched DVDs for years was on my game console) and even though it skipped, I loved what I saw. I eventually rented it from Blockbuster (haha, remember those?) to see it in its complete and unmarred form and it still hit me in a way I've never been hit before. I've described the first time I saw The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a religious experience and Seven Samurai isn't far from that. It hit me in a certain way at a certain time, but unlike I think a lot of movies or songs I like because of what they represent (when I was young, when I lost my virginity, when I first heard metal music, etc.) Seven Samurai stands up. I guess I was lucky in the order.

With that in mind, obviously 13 Assassins can't compare. But, it isn't quite as quick or clean cut as that. It reminds me of Seven Samurai, it isn't aping it and that's why I genuinely liked it (bringing a flask of Jameson with me and talking to the nerd to my left about Miike's works helped, no doubt). It's chock full of thrills, kills, and spills****.

I guess that's all you need, sometimes. Not everything can be the greatest spectacle in cinema history. Sometimes there's a place for just doing well. In fact, that's all art really is. It's people doing pretty well in whatever field for long enough to make a name and buy a house and maybe feed they're babies. In that regard 13 Assassins ironically fills up that water line. It's a fun movie. If you want to see an unrestrained but less well composed Seven Samurai (or any film like it), then I've got the film for you.

Fourteen year old James Kislingbury would have loved to have watched 13 Assassins in the theater, I can tell you that.

*I didn't mention Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, because it's a fantastic movie and my favorite Sam Peckinpah movie by far.

**I swear to God I'm making a list of siege movies. Some dark day there will be an entry on that. Also, maybe train movies?

***I'm not sure how to cite paintings or symphonies or any of that. I'm sure the MLA inspector would be appalled.

****That is a reference to The Simpsons. I can't find the episode in question on the internet. That is not Google's fault, I'm too drunk.