Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

Dead or Alive (1999)

deadoralive

The film’s opening sequence knocks you over the head with its rebellious attitude. Intercutting between a strip-show, cocaine snorting gangsters, a shoot-out, and an apparent suicide, are coming at you so thick and fast that it is overwhelming. Once the narrative proper starts there is a clear intent to shock, with bestiality porn shoots, a horrific death involving an enema, and several other alternately horrific and hilarious set-pieces. The central story involves a feud between gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and police detective Jojima (Show Aikawa), though it is hard to say that is what the film is truly about. Rather that rather staid plot is used as a canvas for director Takashi Miike to create a work that is troubling and humorous in equal measure.

Director Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” established his reputation as a talented film-maker, with an exciting, politically conscious take on the Yakuza genre. With Dead or Alive, Miike again tackles many of the same issues, but there is something different in “Dead or Alive” a punk aesthetic that is typified in the extreme opening and closing sequences of the film. It almost feels as though Miike is attempting to sabotage his own work, although it might be politer to suggest he is creating a post-modernist masterpiece. There are a number of fantastic scenes here, building character and back story, and Takeuchi and Aikawa give incredible performances throughout. During the interrogation scene there is an almost unbearable tension between the two leads. Watching a Miike film you are aware that he is fully in control. If he wants you to feel panic, dread, to laugh or be shocked or even upset, he can, casually confounding your expectations throughout. The film is such an eclectic mix of slapstick and gross out humour wrapped around a core of serious crime drama that it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Miike almost seems to be suggesting that he could make a great Yakuza epic if he wanted, but is constantly distracted by some wild or hilarious idea with which to toy with the audience, or perhaps it is all a commentary on the film industry, or whatever else occurred to him that day.

Miike delights in taking well-worn stories about cops and gangsters and turning them on their heads. There is social commentary here, on crime, the treatment of women, immigration and more, but it feels as though the whole thing has been through a blender. It is a kaleidoscope of ludicrous over-the-top moments, sombre family drama and scatological humour. Obscene, bizarre, satirical, at times emotionally raw, it is a film that pulls no punches.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Hara Kiri Death of a Samurai
The age of the samurai is drawing to a close with many having fallen on hard times. For a struggling ronin there is a risky, but potentially profitable, gambit that might be attempted: approach a wealthy lord and request to commit ritual suicide in his presence. If all goes well the lord will decide to take you on, or at the very least give you some money and send you on your way, rather than see blood spilt in his hall. This so-called “suicide bluff” is what we see attempted in this film by the samurai Tsukumo Hanshiro. However, following his request to commit ritual disembowelment the guards inform him that another recently appeared there attempting the same thing, and rather than being offered money they had forced him to carry out his proposed course of action. We learn that Tsukumo was aware of this and in fact good friends with the young samurai, who is in fact his son-in-law. We then hear the sorry tale that led him to that juncture, taken in by Tsukumo after his own father perished, and married to his daughter with a young child. Through various circumstances he was driven to the rash course of action that ultimately ended in tragedy. Tsukumo is now here for his revenge.

Takashi Miike is usually known for outrageous spectacle, violence, and even extreme horror. With this film, a remake of the 1962 classic, he takes a much more restrained approach. The tone is sombre, the drama slowly revealed and delicately considered. There is a certain theatrical feel to proceedings, particularly the sequences in the lord’s palace. Everything is driven by dialogue rather than action and this could easily work as a stage play. In fact there are perhaps only two sequence of swordplay coming late in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is incredible, perfectly captures the period, the palaces, feudal era streets and homes. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is likewise a gorgeous accompaniment to the drama. There is a lot to recommend the film, both cinematography and music, fantastic acting and a stirring central plot. It is a little overlong and lacking in the sort of frenetic action you may expect in a samurai film. It takes its time, relishing each moment and scene, and it rewards patience.

The film features a great look at the code of honour prevalent in the feudal period. It may seem peculiar that anyone would think to attempt this “suicide bluff”, but it allows us a look at both the relationship and reaction to death of this harsher social climate. There are a few hints to a more biting satire here, such as the shots of a white cat perched atop a pillow in the noble palace starkly compared to the feline corpse lying in the dirt in the lower home of the ronin. This is a world where the caste system rules and the line between rich and poor is clearly drawn. It is also a film about duty, both to your family and superiors, and whether it is possible to be good in such a rigid hierarchy, asking what it means to be an honourable person in such a world.

13 Assassins (2010)

Takashi Miike’s remake of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film brings a modern action movie feel to the historical epic. The story itself is partly based on real people and events. As brief expository text explains at the beginning of the film, it has been an era of relative peace for Japan, with the various warring factions under the control of the Shogun. That hard-won peace is threatened with the elevation of Lord Nagatsugi (Goro Inagaki), a sadistic noble, to a position of authority in the Shogunate. One of the Shogun’s top advisors, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), realises the danger of such a man in a position of authority and goes to a samurai friend, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), for help. Together they enlist a group of samurai, including Shinzaemon’s pupil Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), and Doi’s own men and set out on a mission to kill Nagatsugi, thus freeing the country from the terrible injustices he is visiting upon it.

The film opens with a brutal depiction of a man committing hara-kiri, this ritual disembowelment being a protest at the appointment of Nagatsugi. The scene is not particularly gory, but in its slow, careful build-up it creates a tension that is impossible to turn away from. Nagatsugi is introduced through a number of scenes that are equally stomach churning and set-up the perfect villain. He is a man completely lacking in morality, raping and killing at will, and torturing his victims; and any sense of right or wrong he has seems to revolve entirely around his own desires. Inagaki’s performance as the unpalatable Lord Naratsugi is truly chilling and keeps you watching in hopes that he gets his just deserts. He is helped by his advisor Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who is a man whose sense of service overrides any ideals of compassion for others, as he watches his master slaughter innocents on a whim. The thirteen assassins of the title are led by Shinzaemon, and Koji Yakusho turns in a great performance as the former samurai who is brought back into a world of conflict for the most important mission of his life. The film does a decent job with such a large cast, creating character moments that define them, although some more fully than others. Some of the standouts are Shinzaemon’s nephew, Shinrokuro, who is shown as a gambler and joins up out of a sense of honour; and Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya), who is found by the group later in the film and is given a romantic backstory. The others are variously grouped together, or given short scenes of explanation, for the most part keeping them distinct and interesting in their own rights.

Takashi Miike is perhaps best known for his more outrageous films (Gozu, Happiness of the Katakuris, Dead or Alive”), so it is always interesting to see him taking on something more traditional in style. While the film captures the period perfectly, Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan can’t help but slip in a few moments of black humour, such as when a recently decapitated head is kicked along the ground. In its violence the film also shocks, but in a way that fits the tone. Nagatsugi’s actions early in the film are almost unbelievably violent, but this is required in order to understand why his assassination, that goes against the wishes of the Shogun, is deemed necessary. In addition to this, by showing these horrors early in the film, there is a sense of dread throughout that anything is possible and the worst could quite easily happen.

“13 Assassins” is beautifully shot and care has clearly been taken in recreating the period, with stunning sets, often on a large scale, and costume and other details. There are also moments where the fight choreography and swordsmanship is given time to shine in the tradition of the best samurai films. The large cast of extras for armies and attendants goes a long way towards creating a sense of realism in the film. The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is exceptional and has a strong sense of rhythm to it, contrasting the quieter moments, such as the ritual disembowelment that opens the film, with the kinetic action of the final battle.

It is in this grand finale that the film truly excels, with a gloriously excessive battle sequence taking up almost a third of the entire runtime. Each of the characters is given a moment to shine, and nothing is safe as the huge set is almost entirely torn down by explosions, buildings collapsing, and hordes of extras racing around the streets in chaotic scenes of carnage. There is creativity in abundance, with every manner of weapon being used, tactics varying as the protagonists rush from skirmish to skirmish, either in man-to-man swordfights or facing off against larger groups. Miike oftentimes favours aesthetics and cinematic triumphs and tragedies over realism, putting this squarely in the action movie genre. Examples of this are katana being used to deflect flying arrows, the large gate contraptions that are set up to trap people into certain parts of the village, and the CG animals that are set alight to run tearing down the street. The camera work too is frantic, darting from one place to another, though never confusingly so as we always keep track of our heroes throughout the struggle. There are moments of real intelligence in the filming of the fight, as when it slips into hand-held footage, getting up close and personal with the actors, creating a sense of danger and drawing you into the heart of the fight.

As with many samurai films, the themes that come through strongest are those of honour and duty. With the assassins on the side of a moral right against their opponents who are the figures of authority and loyal to the leader. The character of Kiga is interesting in that he offers a glimmer of the contemporary critique of absolute rule and class-based society, berating the samurai for looking down on him and other people of lower classes. These ideas are never fully expressed (the film is having too much fun as a samurai action romp) but it is a fun addition to the story, offering a further denouncement of the notion that those in power deserve to be there purely by birth right, inheritance and that their actions are justified by their position. “13 Assassins” is a thrilling samurai action film, with excellent performances and memorable fight sequences.