At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Miike’s ferocious swashbuckler; Ghibli’s latest animated triumph.
As vast and varied as Takashi Miike’s oeuvre has become over the past two decades—a miscellany of Yakuza movies, gory J-Horrors, family-friendly fantasies, and just about everything else in between some seventy film and video projects later—we’ve yet to see him deliver a feature film as well assembled and executed as 13 Assassins. In fact, so robustly built is this big budget chambara redux, that it’s hard to fault throughout its enormously entertaining duration. Adopting the rag-tag, against-all-odds formula hashed out in the epic suicide missions of The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen, more recently Red Cliff, and originally The Seven Samurai—which 13 Assassins pays mud-soaked respect to—Miike’s film is staunchly conventional in a way that only this kind of durable screen adventure can ever be. Of course, there was a time when Miike couldn’t make a movie without turning it inside out, but with 13 Assassins, his vigorous workout of the samurai code through sturdy genre clichés is a more than satisfying substitute for the outlandish conduct usually synonymous with his name. Training montages, lusty male bonding, and a sustained, roof-raising battle-to-the-death check all the boxes within a vivid Edo period setting whose only real anachronism is the rogue mountain man Koyata (Yusuke Iseya, standing in for the loutish Toshiro Mifune archetype), a character prone to such outbursts as “your samurai brawls are crazy fun!” Incongruous as that line of dialogue sounds, it is enabled by some highly theatrical performances (not to mention, death scenes), which even the dreadfully earnest Koji Yakusho contributes to. Trimmed from 141 minutes for the international film festival circuit, nothing is lost in terms of the film’s capacity to reenergize Japanese swordplay and galvanize its audience. Even Miike’s outré sensibility is not entirely smothered by the crowd-pleasing carnage: a shocking image of a dismembered victim is straight out of the director’s transgressive playbook, while closing the action is a defiantly what-the-fuck moment no Takashi Miike film, however straightforward, would be complete without.
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Just as satisfying, if very much for all ages, is Studio Ghibli’s latest animated fantasy, Arrietty. Though based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, the joy of this film is the manner in which it enlivens and enriches the classic children’s tale as if it had never been told before, or at least, were its own original, magical creation. Centred on a teenage girl whose family of ‘Borrowers’ eke out a humble, precarious existence as tiny people living under the floorboards of a ‘human bean’ household, the concept seems tailor made for the Ghibli universe, which has long been populated by young, plucky heroines coming into maturity through crisis and adversity. The film, as with every Studio Ghibli offering, is also a perfect synthesis of the real and the imaginary; a seamless coexistence between miniature and life-sized worlds that only animation of this pedigree is capable of. Peril and conflict lurk around the corner of every wondrous sequence depicting life in a land of giants, evincing emotion and pathos throughout the journey, while even allowing for Miyazaki’s well established environmentalism to register within a story essentially about the plight of endangered species. (Miyazaki supervised the production, while 38-year-old animator, Yonebayashi Hiromasa, directed.) Not only a textbook Ghibli animation, but an impeccable fairytale rendering, Arrietty is as good as anything the revered studio has produced—Miyazaki’s cherished films included—and will stand the test of time.