Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Thirteen Assassins (十三人の刺客) (1963)

Having first watched the 2010 Takashi Miike remake and realising he would also embark on redoing the original Hara-kiri/Seppuku, Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 The Thirteen Assassins was on my to-watch list. This is a review of the original, in light of the remake.

Available as part of the Samurai Revolution box set, The Thirteen Assassins was the first jidaigeki film that propelled studio journeyman Eiichi Kudo into pop culture consciousness. Ostensibly period action flicks, The Thirteen Assassins, The Great Duel, and Eleven Samurai weren’t so much exercises in a violent genre than an attempt to recast past history to reflect present political turmoil and stagnation. Set in the final decades of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Samurai Revolution trilogy is thus the director’s laser-focused evisceration of the feudal code of a dying and corrupt military regime, fuelled by his rage against a post-war political consensus. Yes, these are samurai flicks where the samurai enact some sort of justice – but it is clear that their justice is at odds, or serves very uncomfortably a sclerotic regime that demands not a formal revision but outrage and revolution.

In The Thirteen Assassins, the shogun’s younger brother, a great lord in his own right, is a nasty piece of business who rapes and kills his smallfolk beyond what is acceptable in a lord. An attempt by a retainer to bring public embarrassment to his deeds fails; the affair is hushed up by the Great Council but Lord Doi, fearful of the crazy bastard being next in the line of succession, decides to sanction an assassination attempt on the lord. The rest of the film follows the 47 Chushingura movement of recruitment, slow waiting, patient strategem and counter strategem, and a final orgy of violence.

If you’ve watched Miike’s remake, you’d be shocked at how faithful his version appears. Entire scenes are remade shot for shot, most notably the stark opening image of a corpse lying in seppukku position in front of a mansion.

Yet what little differences are not inconsequential. Suzuki Jubei’s cinematography, despite in black and white and without the whizz-bang of modern CGI, is more memorable. Through a combination of low angle shots, tight angles, and high shots, the film emphasises an impersonal, constricting hierarchy of space, an ominous character in its own right whose presence makes the plotting and battle of the assassins and the lord’s retainers seem so futile.

Miike’s remake is far more of a genre flick than Kudo’s; it is interesting to note that the wayward lord is far less of a towering, maniacal figure of demonic appetites in the original, that he is dispatched before the obligatory face-off between the head of the assassins and the retainer, that the fatalities are far less in the original (possibly to emphasise how futile even a good death is for the arch-rivals), and that the film closes with a half-mad retainer rolling about, laughing in a rice field as the credits close.

It would seem that whatever was good in the Miike remake was not his own, and what was Miike’s own devising detracted from the radical message in the original.

Verdict: Watch the remake for a straight up kill-em-all action piece, then watch the original as radical cinema.

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