Reviews

'13 Assassins': A Slow Burn with a Huge Payoff

Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike takes on the samurai genre, with spectacular (and very bloody) results.


13 Assassins

Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Takayuki Yamada
Distributor: Magnolia
Release date: 2011-07-05

So far in his ludicrously prolific career, Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike has been a consistently above average (if gratuitously extreme) genre director, who has occasionally, through sheer quantity of product, managed to pull off a near masterpiece or two. He last did this nearly a decade ago with the audacious and infinitely harrowing Audition, a Lynchian horror show that was as artfully subtle in its deceptive front half as it was truly monstrous once the gloves came off. Now, with 13 Assassins, Miike achieves a similar coup, seemingly dialing down his tendencies for the grotesque to make an old fashioned samurai film in the lofty tradition of Kurosawa, before unleashing a torrent of swords and buckets of blood in a sustained, hour long battle scene that is both brutal and elegant.

Invoking the Kurosawa’s name is not entirely the sacrilege it sounds. Miike’s scope here treads in similar epic waters, displaying a respect for tradition and a surprisingly strong development of, and sympathy for, character. Working within the codified tropes of a samurai film seems to have forced Japan’s enfant terrible to restrain his penchant for cartoonish and ugly excess, the result being an immensely satisfying bloodletting that never seems needlessly gratuitious.

The film opens in 1844, with an aged samurai committing hara-kiri in front of the current Shogun’s palace, as a protest of the rise of Lord Naritsugu, the Shogun’s bastard half-brother. Naritsugu, an unredeemable sadist, has been responsible for innumerable massacres in villages throughout the Japanese countryside. He rapes and kills for sport, with no other aspiration than the pleasure he gets in killing and the chaos that ensues (Miike does get to indulge his love of the grotesque in a few, fortunately brief, shots of the warlord’s victims).

Naritsugu’s relation to the Shogun ensures his immunity to reprisal. This appalls Sir Doi, the head of the Shogun’s samurais, and though powerless to come out against Naritsugu openly, he drafts Shinzaemon, a fellow and much feared fellow samurai, to assemble a posse to take out the warlord before he tears Japan apart and plunges it into civil war. What follows is a fairly standard assemblage of the titular assassins, various samurai from different backgrounds, who bring different skills and talents to the table. Miike comes close to coasting on autopilot here, hewing close to the traditional script for such a film, to the point where the film almost seems to become inert and you wonder if Miike is actually the director behind the camera.

It’s all a slow burn, a good hour of prep work and necessary ground-laying, but the payoff is huge. Shinzaemon works out a plan to ambush Naritsugu and his entourage as they travel across Japan, the assassins lying in wait in a village across the warlord’s route. Once Naritsugu’s own gang of samurai and mercenaries walk into the ambush, the film explodes in a tremendous, expertly choreographed battle scene that takes up the remainder of the film’s two hour run time.

Miike’s execution here is simply stunning (and wholly unprecedented in his prolific oeuvre) a perfect fusion of mayhem and tightly controlled direction. The sustained action is relentless and savage, but never boring, as so much of the blurry, jump cut action is in American films. Part of this comes from the ingenuity of the assassins’ plan, which is born out of necessity of being outnumbered 20 to 1. Their ambush makes use of the tightness of the village—its narrow streets, irregular buildings, and convenient gangways between roofs--and turns the entire place into a huge boobytrap, with all sorts of explosive and devious traps being triggered every few minutes (I especially liked the stampeding herd of warthogs engulfed in flames). But also forces Miike to limit the number of combatants on the screen at any given time, the better to isolate and follow the action.

The film continuously delights and surprises when all this hell breaks loose. All the swordplay and running and fighting is easy to follow, even as the bodies start to pile up and the carnage becomes increasingly graphic; the explosions more numerous; the fires more raging out of control; and streets flowing with torrential rivers of blood. Such visual excess in any other hands would seem gratuitous, but with Miike he actually seems to be reining himself in, playing it all matter-of-factly and not giving in to the sort of reveling in the tidal wave of blood that I would’ve expected of him.

At the end of the day, once the smoke clears, 13 Assassins emerges as a superior genre film that works as an elegy to a code of honor that has disappeared from the modern world; as a homage to the great Japanese samurai pictures of the past; and as a possible career reinvention for Japan’s most notorious director.

The extras on the DVD release of 13 Assassins are not numerous, but are adequate as supplementary props to the main action. An 18 minute interview with Miike for Japanese television reveals that during shooting and postproduction, he always thought of the film as a drama first and foremost and shot is as such. The huge action sequence, though the obvious focal point of the film, was always just the logical outgrowth of the story and characters. While not exactly dismissing his brauva setpiece of sustained mayhem, he does seem to want to direct the audience’s attention more to the slow first half, which to him forms both the emotional core of the film, and the important links back to cultural and societal traditions.

About 20 minutes of deleted scenes accompany the film as well, which I imagine are the 20 minutes missing from the US release that were actually included in the 140 minute cut of the Japanese release. Most of these scenes are from the first half of the film, and add greater depth to several of the characters who seems to get short shrift.

The scenes don’t sequence well by themselves, though, and unless you watch them right after the film, it might be hard to slot them into their proper places in the film in your memory. I have no idea why they weren’t just kept in the film itself. Perhaps a leaner run time, and quicker lead in to the main course of the battle scene, was imperative for the American distributors. In any event, unlike with other caches of deleted scenes, where you know exactly why they were left out, here I’m scratching my head as to why they weren’t kept in. The film is no worse for it, but it would’ve been even more epic with the 20 minutes added on.

7

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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