From Takashi Miike, best known for Audition and other horrific film freak-outs, comes this modern version of a Kurosawa-style samurai film, handled with his typical careful, expert craft. It is, you know, whenever, the ending of the age of war, and a time when samurai find themselves increasingly useless. The son of the Shogun, Naritsugu, is in line to take over the throne. The problem is, he's a sick, sadistic psychopath who torures and kills people for his amusement, with a vaguely sad, dispassionate look on his face. We get three of his major crimes up front to demonstrate his cruelty, as we see him slaughter an entire family, including children, rape a wife and kill her husband in front of her, and choose a peasant to use as a sex toy, cut off her arms and legs for the purpose, then abandon her when finished. She seems a teensy smudge bitter, which is only going to cause unattractive frown lines.
All of this is laid out for Shinzaemon, aging samurai, and he is tasked with building a team to take out Naritsugu at his earliest convenience. He is happy about the task, as since samurai are becoming obsolete, he has been worried that he would not be able to die a noble death in the service of a great cause. So it's a win-win.
So there it is, the very simple, basic idea of the film: build a team and kill this guy. The next portion is comprised to Shinzaemon building his team, who are all distinct characters by the end, although in these early scenes you might just despair of ever telling anyone apart. They all join with the expectation that they will be killed in the process, and told that "If you value your life, you will die like a dog." Naritsugu is scheduled to travel to this other province, at which point he will be untouchable, so they need to get him en route. Once his team has been assembled, Shinzaemon and his men set out on their mission.
It all proceeds, loaded with a lot of character-building and situation-setting along the way, which some other critics have found "boring." Although this material goes far to lay out the scene and importance of the mission, as well as filling in the motivations of all the characters, which goes far to elevate this above being just some empty action movie, and give the entire thing a very welcome mythical resonance. Although for some people, anytime people are just talking, NOTHING is happening. For those critics who find the setup boring, one wishes they had someone in their lives who might say "Maybe it's not boring. Maybe you're just stupid."
Personally, I was riveted. The main achievement of the movie is the expert, movie-long build-up to the massive battles that makes up the last 45 minutes. The slowly rising action, gradually increasing stakes is what the movie is about, and if one is unable to engage in the skillful way the talk scenes add resonance to the action, well, too bad for you. There are surprises and reversals, tense confrontations and noble stands, all of them gradually ratcheting up tension and interest. I found myself staring at the screen wide-eyed, entirely in the movie's spell and knowing I was in expert directorial hands.
As I said, it all ends with this massive blowout battle, which includes many surprising and ingenious tricks on the part of our heroes, none of which I would dare spoil. The action alternates with smaller, intimate passages that keep one from just getting overwhelmed by the whole thing, and perfectly balance the awesome action with the personal level and what it all means.
SPOILERS > > >
So you might consider it a spoiler to learn that Shinzaemon does indeed achieve his goal at the end. That one line about him wanting a noble death comes back to enrich the proceedings—beware the man who has nothing to lose—as does Naritsugu’s response. As Naritsugu crawls around in the mud, stabbed through, he shouts “Pain!” in amazement—and we realize that this is the first time he was felt serious pain, which colors in why he could be so oblivious to the pain of others. Sure, super simple, but it works. He thanks Shinzaemon for killing him, as it is an amazing experience, and Shinzaemon thanks him back, for giving him a noble cause to die over. See? Everybody’s happy.
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I really liked it, and I’m liking it more and more as I write about it. It’s just an action movie made extremely well, with historical context, psychological depth, technical mastery, wonderful writing and acting, and absolutely expert pacing. It’s kind of a modest masterpiece. It doesn’t aim to be much more than an action movie, but it’s an excellent action movie with a lot of quality and depth—if you can stand to sit through a few minutes where someone’s not getting killed or something’s exploding.
Yes, especially if you like those old-timey samurai movies.