After years of pushing contemporary Japanese cinema into new realms of wrong with films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike reaches back to chanbara, the venerable samurai film that most Americans probably think of when they think of Japanese cinema. To the surprise and delight of many Miike watchers, he plays the genre fairly straight while still managing to add his own particular oomph to the usual conventions. But 13 Assassins (Magnolia DVD and Blu-ray), rousing as it is, falls short of a breakthrough.
The brother of the shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), is the sort of capricious unrestrained sicko that unchecked power and lifelong indolence breed, at least in movies, and Miike certainly doesn't let the period setting inhibit him in depicting Naritsugu's depravity (one scene makes Boxing Helena look like a Lifetime movie). As a powerful noble, Naritsugu is above the law, and he is only gaining more power, threatening the country's long, hard-earned peace. Not even the shogun's advisor, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), can do anything officially, but knowing something must be done, he asks veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to kill Naritsugu.
As in Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai, Shinzaemon assembles/accumulates a band of stalwart warriors, including an untrained wild card in mountain man Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya); as in Seven Samurai, they fortify a small village to serve as a trap for Naritsugu and his guards. The requisite final showdown takes up the last hour of the film, and Miike crafts a bravura tour de force of escalating kinetic mayhem, complete with giant street-blocking gates and collapsing buildings. The referent shifts slightly from Seven Samurai to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch as Shinzaemon's weary, blood-spattered samurai hack away at walls of warriors and impossible odds.
The thing about Peckinpah and Kurosawa, though, is that their blood 'n' guts epics were also compelling stories of individual men facing and dealing with desperate and sometimes uncertain circumstances. In Miike's film, it's made plain that Naritsugu deserves to die like a dog while Shinzaemon and his fellow peacetime samurai are eager for a good cause, a glorious fight, and an all but certain honorable end. The feints and gambits involved in the pursuit of Naritsugu and the turns of the final battle keep the film moving, but there's surprisingly little drama in watching these stoic types blithely rush to embrace their pre-accepted fates. A scene explicating the longtime acquaintance/rivalry between Shinzaemon and Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu's head samurai, hints at more personal grist that may have been part of the 15 minutes cut from the version released on this side of the Pacific, but this 13 Assassins wows as a genre exercise while failing to transcend genre.
Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo series returns for a third installment, and anyone who's seen the first two knows what that means: Screaming rage! Smoking metal! Horrible mecho-biological transformations! A constantly shaking camera! FILMMAKING AS MULTIPLE EXCLAMATION POINTS AND ALL CAPS!!! Okay, maybe that last bit is an exaggeration—1989 founding icktacular cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man featured its share of quiet dread—but only by a little. Tsukamoto wouldn't be the first genre filmmaker to take up a franchise again after a long (nearly 20 years) and seemingly merited dormancy, but he just might be one of the few not out simply to throw some red meat at the fanboys and cash in. There's something so single-minded about the aesthetic and themes of Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (MPI DVD) that the uncomfortable possibility presents itself that occasionally Tsukamoto has to make movies about salarymen whose suppressed fury transforms them into metal monsters.
Indeed, once again, Bullet Man splits the difference between the incoherence of Z-horror and the aesthetic rigor and surrealism of the avant-garde. It's the first Tetsuo filmed in English, but even with the subtitles on it's not clear exactly why sinister forces had to mangle Anthony's (Eric Bossick) young son with a car. The American expat is even more horrified when his dying boy makes machine screams and bleeds motor oil. As his wife Yuriko (Akiko Mono) urges him to seek revenge, he tries inexplicably to tamp down his anger. Smoking black metal starts bursting through his face, however, and before long his torso is a mass of machine guns, literally triggered by rage and aimed at squads of assassins and the series running antagonist known as the Metal Fetishist, or just "the Guy" (Tsukamoto himself).
The themes (imperiled children, milquetoast monsters, science run amok, issues with the ladies) and their repetition from film to film reek of juvenile obsession; the characters, plotting, and dialog are laughably basic. But Tsukamoto isn't kidding around here. Where the older films were grotty, grimy affairs, Bullet Man bears a slick digital sheen—which he applies to a cavalcade of the grottiest, shiniest visuals he can manage. It's about texture and kineticism as much as anything else—the inky ferrous hunks Yuriko tenderly pulls off Anthony's body like barnacles, the frenzy of a multiple-automatic-weapon shoot-out in a narrow hallway, the sheaves of muzzy medical illustrations and tanned papers that periodically layer the screen, the incessant shakycam. And in those particular, obsessive areas, it's like little else.