Saturday, June 09, 2012

All-Out Bakufu Brawlz-Animeigo’s “13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing”

In chanbara, bloodletting comes in many forms. There’s the one on one duel between sword masters (perhaps best exemplified by the infamous ‘blood geyser’ duel between Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya at the end of “Sanjuro”). Then there’s the fight between a harried single swordsman and a small host of enemies (the climactic battle in “Sword of Desperation”). From there it’s a small step to a single combatant facing a horde of enemies (Ichikawa Raizo in “The Betrayal” or Wakayama Tomisaburo in the “Lone Wolf” series). And of course, combine the two and you get the sword master versus a horde of enemies AND a sword master (our favorite being the rumble between “Azumi” and Bijomaru). But until 1963, large groups of swordsmen battling each other were relatively rare in Japanese Cinema (especially if you discount the glut of 47 Ronin films). Enter director Kudo Eiichi and his so-called “Samurai Revolution Trilogy”-“13 Assassins”, “The Great Killing”, and “Eleven Samurai”. These films brought brutal, extended street fights between opposing mobs of katana-wielding combatants to the screen in a style Japan had never seen before. Today we’ll be looking at two B/W classics-1963's “13 Assassins” and '64's “The Great Killing” (“Eleven Samurai” will be released by Animeigo in the near future). They’re all-out Bakufu brawlz that’ll leave you feeling the need to mop invisible blood splatters off your face...

Both of these films were based on actual historical incidents. “13 Assassins” abstracts the circumstances surrounding the death of Matsudaira Narikoto, the adopted son of Matsudaira Naritsugu (the daimyo of Akashi han in Harima province). Narikoto was considered to be bad news, at one point having apparently killed a small child for getting in his way. For this he was denied passage through Owari province, a major plot point in the film. He died of a ‘mysterious illness’ at age 20. “13 Assassins” changes Narikoto’s name to that of his adoptive father Naritsugu. In theory, this means the film takes place around 1844. “The Great Killing” is even more specific-it states up front it takes place in Enpo 6, or 1678. Here the character names and situations are taken straight from history-Sakai Tadakiyo did indeed attempt to keep Tokugawa Tsunayoshi from becoming Shogun, and Tokugawa Tsunashige did indeed die in 1678. Now, of course, you won’t find any records in the history books of these ‘mysterious deaths’ being the result of attacks by crazed bands of killers-you don’t think the Tokugawa would ever admit to that, do you? It never happened! Hey, it’s a plot device that worked out great for “Seppuku” (like “13 Assassins”, another film recently remade by Miike Takashi, this time using the “Hara-Kiri” title), so don’t knock it. 

Screenwriter Ikegami Kaneo had already pioneered the “team versus team” style of Shudan Jidaigeki with “Seventeen Ninja” in 1963. The concept resonated with Japanese audiences who identified with the feeling of community between the protagonists more than they sometimes could with the headstrong individuals that were the heroes of other films. He joined forces with director Kudo Eiichi at Toei Studios to follow it up with “13 Assassins” (Ju-san Nin No Shikaku). With veteran screen legends Kataoka Chiezo (leader of the 13, Shimada Shinzaemon) and Arashi Kanjuro (his second in command, Kurenaga Saheita) anchoring the cast and newer actors like Tanba Tetsuro (Shogunate Elder Doi Toshitsura), strong individual performances were almost a given. Kudo decided he wanted the action to be more immersive than what was traditionally seen in most period films and shot many of the fight scenes using tracking shots with hand held cameras. While this is a common technique these days, one can only imagine the effect it had on Japanese audiences of the early 60’s who suddenly were put into the sandals of an attacker chasing his prey through a labyrinth of back alleys and dead ends. Being an experimental technique, things didn’t always go as planned. The cameras were huge and heavy, needing two men to carry them-and the viewfinders couldn’t be used, resulting in many shots being out of focus. While this infuriated Toei executives, it gave the shots that extra element of realism Kudo was striving for. It proved to be a hit with Japanese audiences-even today, Japanese cinema magazine Kinema Jyumpo considers “13 Assassins” to be the #2 Jidaigeki film of all time, trailing only Kurosawa Akira’s “Seven Samurai”. 

“13 Assassins” is sometimes criticized as a knock-off of “Seven Samurai”, and there are certain similarities. A team of skilled fighters is slowly assembled to carry out a seemingly-impossible mission. One of the team seems to be much more a farmer than a samurai, and another is the prototypical ‘inexperienced kid’. Another is the master planner, with his loyal second-in-command, and a badass sword master forms the fighting center of the group. A thoroughly thought-out and executed plan leads to a final drawn-out battle that resolves the fates of the combatants. However, at their core, they’re two different types of films. “13 Assassins” essentially pits the samurai against their own corruption and abuses. The ‘good’ samurai basically have to turn their backs on the myth of Bushido to have a chance of success, and even if they pull it off, there will be no acknowledgement or record of it. In effect, they’ve become stereotypical ninja (hence the ‘Assassins’ of the title). The ‘bad’ samurai are in turn defended by a mastermind who holds true to the precepts of loyalty to one’s master and working within the guidelines of the Bakufu. Samurai leadership is shown to be completely ineffectual in dealing with the crisis in an aboveboard manner, but the evil lord Naritsugu’s twisted logic can defend his every action.

The film opens with the suicide of one of Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu’s retainers. He sacrificed himself to bring the excesses of Naritsugu’s behavior to the attention of the Shogunate’s Council of Elders. However, the Council finds its hands tied-Naritsugu is the half-brother of the Shogun and in line to become a highly placed councilor himself. Direct action against him is out of the question. Needing to employ more clandestine methods, Elder Doi Toshitsura calls in Shimada Shinzaemon-one of the few men in an age of peace who hasn’t neglected military strategy and training. After speaking to the father of Naritsugu’s latest victims (the out-of-control daimyo raped a retainer’s wife and then callously killed the retainer and the wife committed suicide), Shimada agrees to ‘take care of the problem’. It’s decided to attack Naritsugu’s procession as he returns to his fief-even then, he will have well over a hundred retainers. Shimada is only able to cull 11 capable men from among his numbers-his fallen nephew, seven police inspectors/retainers, and three ronin. Realizing that proper planning will be essential for any chance of success, they painstakingly put together a plan that they hope will split Naritsugu’s forces and herd his reduced retinue into a specific town. With ample financial backing from the Shogunate, Shimada’s group turns the town into one giant death trap and hopes that the procession will find its way there. Along the way they pick up their final member-a farmer claiming to be a samurai who wants to join the fight to impress his girl’s father.

Meanwhile, Naritsugu’s chief retainer Hanbei Onigashira (who has deduced Shimada’s involvement) does his best to counter all of the Assassin’s well laid plans. Despite having as much trouble dealing with Naritsugu’s stubbornness as with Shimada’s measures, Hanbei manages to deftly turn aside each challenge. It appears as if he’ll succeed in getting the procession home safely…

The final battle, when it comes, is a long, brutal, and lengthy affair in which every move made by the Matsudaira seems to have been anticipated by Shimada. Traps and false escape routes sap the will of the larger force. Mass slaughter ensues as Naritsugu’s forces scatter blindly in all directions looking to escape the killing grounds. However, Hanbei proves up to the challenge and despite huge losses manages to keep Naritsugu safe-with the exit in sight. And don’t think you can guess the ending if you’ve seen the remake. 

The movie is essentially split into two sections as far apart in tone as possible. Early on it’s all about setting things up-the plans, the personalities, the counter-measures, the preparations. It’s a traditional slow-moving, leisurely paced Japanese film. When it finally explodes into action, it turns the last third of the film into a non-stop battle with fighting that never lets up. Toei was generally known for having jidaigeki films that featured highly stylized kabuki-style swordplay, but that isn’t the case here-it’s down and dirty sword fighting with the participants becoming more exhausted the longer the fight goes on, their sanity leaving them as the horrors mount up. The sure strokes and proper form they exhibited earlier give way to feeble, spastic single-handed swipes at empty hair as they frantically try to stay alive.

“13 Assassins”, of course, was recently the subject of Miike Takashi ‘s big budget 2010 remake. While we don’t really want to get into an involved discussion of that film now, the two versions offer interesting contrasts. Miike’s version starts off much like a shot-for-shot remake of the original but soon shows its teeth with the graphic introduction of one of Lord Naritsugu’s piteous victims. It introduces a bit more oddball humor (much of which was cut for the American release), a lot more graphic violence and CG, and surprisingly a bit more character development. Kudo’s original is far more dark and serious with set pieces that don’t appear in the remake. The films resolve differently as well, making them both well worth a viewing. In fact, it’s one of those rare situations where a healthy debate can be justified over whether the original or remake is a better film.

While “13 Assassins” is certainly deserving of its reputation, Animeigo notes that “The Great Killing” (“Dai Satsujin”, The Great Duel) is usually considered to be Kudo’s masterpiece. It has much in common with “13”-a group of determined swordsmen sets out to kill a corrupt member of the Tokugawa family despite overwhelming odds, culminating in a huge final battle. However, this time, the Bakufu are the bad guys-Tairo (Senior Elder) Sakai Tadakiyo is attempting to push his candidate for Shogun, Kofu Saisho (AKA Tokugawa Tsunashige), into power through any means necessary. A cadre of the Shogun’s personal guard opposes his plan and plots to destroy him-however, they are betrayed, branded as rebels, and mercilessly hunted down by Sakai’s agents. 

One of the rebels, Nakajima Geki, breaks into the home of his friend Jimbo Heishiro (played by Satomi Kotaro, a link to the previous film where he played Shinzaemon’s lackadaisical nephew Shinrokuro) looking for sanctuary. It proves to be short lived. While Jimbo had no involvement with the plot, he is lumped in with the rebels when Sakai’s men break into his home and find Nakajima. They slay Jimbo’s new bride and what was an idyllic life turns to hell within the space of a few seconds. 

Jimbo manages to escape when his captors are set upon by a rescue party, but the life he knew is now over. Resignedly, he joins the group of conspirators in order to avenge his dead wife. They are few in number, and in many cases only kept together by the rather hot body of Lady Miya. She’s the niece of the group’s leader, Yamaga Soko, who is himself a student of Hojo Ujinaga. And who’s Hojo? He’s Sakai’s Ometsuke (Chief Investigator) and has been made responsible for ferreting out the rebels. This he does with relish in some excruciatingly realistic torture scenes, including one where boiling water is being ladled onto tied up victims.

Yamaga gathers his ragged force and outlines his plan-while they don’t have nearly enough force to successfully engage the heavily guarded Sakai, they do have a chance of striking down Tsunashige. Without Tsunashige, Sakai will no longer have a puppet to place in the Shogunate-and his threat would be neutralized. It’s decided to divert and attack Tsunashige’s procession as he returns to Edo after seeing Tokugawa Mitsukuni (yes, Mito Komon hisself) back to Mito. Can a former Shogunate bodyguard, a wicked priest, an umbrella maker, a ‘ninja girl’, and a handful of low-level officials pull it off?  

“The Great Killing” is a much more anarchic film than “13 Assassins”. While Sakai’s forces present a united front, the rebels are a varied lot, from various backgrounds with different reasons for joining, many of them of suspect loyalty. Some even prove to be worse criminals than their enemies. Their plans are constantly changing as more members of the plot are captured, and it’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s fighting for whom. Unlike “13 Assassins”, it’s tough to keep track of the sides during the final battle-it just seems like a big frenzied free for all, but no less effective for being so. The action moves from the streets of a crowded town into the middle of a river, and since this is a Japanese film, there’s no guarantee of anything resembling a happy ending-for either side. It also has an outstanding delayed ending that we didn’t see coming until a few seconds before it happened.

The camera work and shot composition is particularly outstanding. There are bizarre, striking shots such as Sakai talking with one of his underlings in an extended take-with the underling being “on screen” but completely obscured behind a wall. This emphasizes the fact that while others might be involved, it’s Sakai who is wielding all the power here-in effect, he’s the only figure on the Bakufu side that matters. Another shot features rebels as seen through cut-outs in a fence. This not only underlines the chaotic nature of their mission but also the fractured state of their forces and the faint hopes they have of success. There’s also a beautiful shot that involves an assassination in a hall with backlit shoji screens.

Animeigo’s program notes also detail how Kudo used sound in an innovative way. Wanting to use realistic crowd noises, Kudo taped audio at several student demonstrations against the US/Japan alliance. He used the resulting noise from the riots in the film, giving it a quite different vibe than the usual canned crowd sound effects. If you listen closely during the final battle, you can even hear police cars in the background! The “student riot” angle becomes particularly intriguing when combined with the assassination in 1960 of Japanese Socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma by a young right wing student-an event captured on TV that might have contributed to the film’s ending. 

The transfers for both films are solid with Animeigo’s typical superb translation and subtitling job. Both feature program notes that give some of the historical background for their respective periods (both scenarios are based on real-life events) as well as bios for the main actors and crew. There’s the typical selection of trailers as well and small still galleries as well. Interestingly, “Great Killing” lacks a title on the title screen, something we also saw on Animeigo’s “Sword of Desperation”. 

Taken individually or as a set, “13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing” put you right into the action without incurring those annoying sword wounds. They function both as traditional chanbara films and as straight out actioners, groundbreaking films that set the stage for the increasingly violent and more realistic efforts of the late 60’s and 70’s. And when you get right down to it, who doesn’t want to take in two of the greatest on-screen Bakufu Brawlz in J-Cinema? Seems that everyone likes seeing the Tokugawa have it stuck to them.

13 Assassins” and “The Great Killing” are available directly from Animeigo at a discount, or through Amazon here and here.