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Two Recommendations for fans of "13 Assassins"
After a limited run in American theaters, Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” was released on DVD last week. A remake of the 1963 film of the same name, Miike’s interpretation stays close to the original’s intent with minimal use of modern CGI or “Wire-Fu” techniques that dominate today’s action thrillers.
After a couple of viewings I was reminded of two other classic Japanese films, some of whose elements can be found in “13 Assassins”. I heartily recommend these two for your collection if you have become of fan of “13 Assassins”.
Seven Samurai (1954)
This is perhaps the greatest work from one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, Akira Kurasawa. Ravaged by bandits every year around harvest time, the leaders of a town decide to hire samurai to defend themselves from these attacks. Lead by Kanbe Shimada (Takashi Shimura), an eclectic group of samurai build defenses and teach the townspeople how to defend themselves for the price of three meals a day. The climax of the film culminates with the attack on the village by the bandits.
This is a soaring, superb work that almost seems too short, despite the 3 hour+ running time. The plot has been copied in many other films, most notably “The Magnificent Seven” released several years later. Highlights begin with the excellent performances of the samurai, especially the vibrant Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). All the sup-plots are well conceived and even the black and white photography shines, particularly when the bandits charge over the hill and descend into the town amid the panicking townsfolk. The inventive use of slow motion used in several of the death scenes to highlight their impact.
The plot of “13 Assassins” certainly borrows heavily from “Seven Samurai”, as well as the performance of Koyoga (Yusuke Iseya) who performs similarly to Kikuchiyo.
Princess Mononoke (1999)
This is one of the best animated films from the fertile imagination of Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps Japan’s greatest animation director. An “action/fantasy” film where the young warrior Ashitaka has been wounded, perhaps fatally by a demonic boar. As he travels to the far reaches of the countryside looking for a cure, Ashitaka runs headlong into a war between the humans and their technology and the surrounding forest filled with mythical beasts lead by a young human girl known as Princess Mononoke. The corruption of “nature” by the “technology” (in particular, the lead bullets fired by the human’s muskets) threatens to destroy the world and take the humans down with them. Ashitaka must find a way to save Mononoke while defeating the leader of the humans, Lady Eboshe
A highly ambitious film, this is definitely not one for the kiddies as we see numerous beheadings and lots of blood and vomiting. Not surprisingly, Disney who owned the rights to the American version (identical to the Japanese, save for using American actors as the voice talent like Claire Dains and curiously enough, Billy Bob Thornton) did a limited release and it did not do all that well at the box office.
A shame really since “Mononoke” is a very well conceived action film, filled with tension and dramatic flair. Yet the overwhelming beauty of the animation, particularly rendered in the depiction of the main “forest spirit”, an elk-like beast with an almost human face, is enough to evoke that sense of wonder so lacking in many of today’s action/fantasy film efforts.