Film

13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)

Jesse Hicks

13 Assassins is a taut, slow-burning movie with an explosive conclusion.


13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku)

Director: Takeshi Miike
Cast: Takayuki Yamada, Hiroki Matsukata, Kazuki Namioka, Kôji Yakusho, Yûsuke Iseya, Gorô Inagako,
Rated: NR
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-04-29 (Limited release)
UK date: 2011-05-06 (General release)
Trailer

Takeshi Miike is a prodigious and protean talent, with a 20-year career spanning nearly 50 films and multiple genres, often bending and blurring them along the way. His Audition appeared to be a restrained romantic drama until it suddenly turned horrific. On paper, Gozu sounds like a typical gangster flick, but it plays out as an intricate and nearly incomprehensible art-house experiment. 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), however, hews very closely to the conventions of the samurai epic. It's a taut, slow-burning movie with an explosive conclusion.

A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins takes place in Edo-era Japan, a time and place of relative peace and prosperity. The shogunate rules through a military dictatorship, but outright war has become a thing of the past. "These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes,” as a merchant says early in the film.

In this world, the sword-wielders are anachronistic. They live by a code of honor that seems increasingly irrelevant and serve masters who are rarely threatened, at least not physically. But these appearances are deceiving: the outwardly sedate shogunate is a place of subterranean intrigue, until the Shogun's senior adviser, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), recruits a middle-aged samurai named Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho). Sir Doi is planning an assassination: the Shogun's half-brother, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), has become a bloodthirsty political liability. If he gains real power, he'll usher in a new time of war.

Miike presents these developments with measured, highly formal shots of torch-lit, claustrophobic interiors. The light is always wavering, casting uncertain shadows across the actors' faces and leaving corners drenched in darkness. These early scenes make great use of the glow's weak warmth and feeble reach to create a brooding, melancholic atmosphere.

The atmosphere suits Shinzaemon. When he's first recruited by Sir Doi, he responds, "As a samurai in this era of peace, I have wished for a noble death. Now fate has called to me. See, my hands are trembling. It's a warrior's battle shakes.” As he declares his desire for that noble death, he's describing a past ordered by obedience and dedication. The film demonstrates such desire in a beautifully composed opening scene of harakiri, one of several ritual killings in the film.

The formality of harakiri seems to contrast with Lord Naritsugu's wanton violence, yet the two also share an underlying connection. Sir Doi presents to Shinzaemon a peasant woman whose father dared oppose Naritsugu. She appears in a candlelit room, wearing only a robe and crying and drooling. The Shogun's adviser explains that Naritsugu cut off her arms and limbs. He then has her robe removed: the flickering candle renders her mutilated body a grotesque canvas that might have been painted by Caravaggio, light and shadow vying over its surfaces.

The scene makes painfully obvious Naritsugu's cruelty, but also illustrates an aesthetic dimension of violence. In the harikari scene, pain and suffering are also offered for aesthetic appreciation. The ritual of harikari ennobles the death by placing formal strictures upon it; adherence to these elevates dying to an art. Similarly, but not identically, the woman's ruined body becomes an object to be contemplated in the moment the light strikes it in a certain way. It is made brilliantly appalling, underscoring the tension between an audience's desires to look and to look away.

That it's a female body so objectified fits Naritsugu's villainy as well. He's a rapist who's caused the death of one woman and her disgraced husband. He takes joy in shooting arrows into an entire family, delivering a speech as he does: "Dying for one's master is the duty of a samurai. Dying for one's husband is the way of women.” Thus samurai and women are united under this militant, patriarchal political system.

Unsurprisingly, the samurai have greater potential for freedom. As they begin to rebel against their ostensible masters (though in service of other masters), Miike's camera likewise evidences breathing room. There are fewer interiors, more daylight, and more apparent improvisation as the battles change shape. The shogunate would fall only two decades after the events of 13 Assassins, and the film's movement from rigid structure to chaotic free-for-all signifies this tumultuous historical transition.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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