In most of the world, Takashi Miike is known for two things. The first is his extremely prolific career. It is not unheard of for him to produce four films a year. Such a worth ethic is one that makes people like Roger Corman look like Stanley Kubrick. The second is his interest (some would say obsession) with gore. Films like Ichi the Killer and Audition are hard to watch for many people. Miike can create a good film, but most of his work rarely ascends above B-movie status.
Imagine the surprise of this film, which becomes the best epic Kurosawa never made. Yes, the plot is slightly derivative of the classic Seven Samurai. But there is so much more present. The ideas of honor, the costumes, the well executed choreography all could be present in the sort of film that Kurosawa may make today if he were still alive. It sounds as though there is nothing to offer in this film beyond a director trying to clone another’s masterful style, but the result is so exhilarating and well executed that it ultimately does not matter. There are very few directors working today who would even try to make a film like this. This is the first true masterpiece that Miike has crafted.
The film is based on a true incident, takes place during the waning era of the samurai. Lord Naritsugu, the younger brother of a current shogun (military ruler) and is said to be above the law. He uses his position to commit horrible acts, including rape and murder. After an older samurai commits harakiri over an incident Naritsugu is responsible for, a government official hires another samurai, Shinzaemon, to assassinate Naritsugu before he could be one day appointed to a higher political office. Shinzaeon gathers eleven more samurai to ambush Naritsugu during a trip to Edo. But the samurai find the conditions to be much more difficult than expected (for example, there are almost three times as many guards protecting Naritsugu as there were supposed to be) but still decide to complete their mission for the sake of their honor.
What is surprising about this work is just how “clean” it is. Normally, Miike’s films read like trips to the slaughterhouse, and it is not for nothing that Miike often works with Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, in a film that opens with someone disemboweling himself, it must have been very tempting to turn the film into another gore fest. Samurai, after all, were not the most peaceful of people.
But Miike’s normal style (which has yielded some interesting films) would not have worked for this material. It’s what makes the film so special -Miike seemed to sense that there was something greater in this material than his usual style. And that change is what makes the film so unique.
Now, he does borrow liberally from Kurosawa. One of the assassins is undeniably Kikuchiyo, and the final battle at the village in this film is undeniably, well, the battle at the village. But the film still deals with themes more prevalent to the modern society. It takes place much later than any Kurosawa film (about twenty years before the Meiji restoration) and thus makes the themes of honor seem almost quaint and outdated. Many of the samurai in any time period were more like Naritsugu than like the usual image of the honorable warrior. That clash caused more battles than any fight with bandits.
Miike’s films have often dealt with that theme of good versus evil. Most of his films try to present a grey view of the condition – that it is very easy for one to quickly become the other. This film does not really do so. It is simple, but somehow more grand it its view. However, the “good” in this film do not necessarily find their reward, and the survivors live to see their ways of life destroyed in a few short years. That is more complex a theme than Audition dealt with, and one that Kurosawa tried to understand in his films. I would have never thought that Miike had it in him to explore these ideas, but he does, and manages to do so very well.
Miike has been prolific, but most of his films fall into the category of B-movie. Finally, Miike has made the masterpiece that he seems to have always wanted to make. The result is one of the most enigmatic, well executed films of the year. Yes, in many ways, it is a giant Kurosawa tribute. But it is one that was done with great care and love.