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Monday, August 17, 2015

Takashi Miike's 13 ASSASSINS Shows How To Handle Endless Action

How do you handle an action scene that runs for nearly forty minutes? It's a question that is becoming more and more a concern as blockbuster movies seek to justify inflating budgets with the seemingly endless action climax that will, ideally, become something you have to talk about with friends and colleagues, like Man of Steel's major fight between Superman and Zod's forces, or Avengers: Age of Ultron's enormous Sokovia brawl. There are moments of interest in both scenes, but for the most part, the fights have one real tool available: Escalation. Superman fights Zod's forces in Smallville, then in a bigger city; Superman smacks Zod with a steel beam, Zod retaliates by collapsing a building on him. Start small, build bigger and bigger, then end on a single moment that personalizes the destruction. The fights are all build, and for many viewers end up being a bit enervating. What if there was a different way?

13 Assassins is Takashi Miike's 2010 remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 samurai film. It is 1840's Japan, and Lord Naritsugu, the sadistic half-brother of the current Shogun, runs roughshod over the country. He casually rapes and murders, even among the nobility, confident that the samurai code of honor by which so many nobles live will not allow open rebellion. He is right, but only to a point, and when word of his crimes reaches respected but seemingly retired samurai Shinzaemon, he recruits a group of 11 other samurai to attempt to assassinate Naritsugu on the road. He's opposed by Hanbei, a former colleague and cunning strategist who knows that something is going on, and a small army of soldiers loyal to Naritsugu.

Everything comes to a head in a small town called Ochiai, where the film's climactic battle occurs. While there are technically two other action scenes in the film, they are both brief and perfunctory, barely even appetizers before the main dish. And the Ochiai battle very much is the centerpiece of the film, pitting 13 samurai against over 200 soldiers. The action runs nearly forty minutes basically without break. And it is gripping from start to finish.

Tony Zhou once described a major rule of storytelling as, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch...." Build a scene to a natural climax or turning point, then jump over to another story. Once that comes to its own small climax, switch again. Because you're switching from story to story, they can build to different levels of intensity or scale, rise and fall as best sets the tone. While this is excellent storytelling advice in general, I think it works particularly well for extended action sequences. Just like any scene, good action has an arc, and the longer it runs, the more that arc has to do to keep its viewers engaged.

In 13 Assassins, Miike is constantly playing with our expectations and sympathies. The first five minutes of the battle are harrowing, but we're placed watching over the common soldiers, the protagonists we've been following through most of the film either hidden or standing casually above the fray. It's controlled chaos - but only for a time. Then, we take a minute or two for character as the leads confront the villain face to face. It's a tense and emotional scene, but it's also a breather, a cool-down that lets us catch our breath and reminds us of the stakes, of why this fight is happening, before launching into the heart of the battle.

And even within the melee that follows, there's a concrete sense of ebb and flow. We check in with each of the samurai briefly before choosing one to follow. Build his scene to a brutal climax, then return to the core melee. Jump around, then pick a character, build, and release. Then pick someone else. Between them, give us a moment of silence - the score stops, the characters talk, periodically to philosophize on duty or to get a death scene, before we begin moving again.

Think of action as a conversation. Most of us accept that dialogue should tell us something about the characters, right? To return to the blockbuster well, think about how often Black Widow's conversations involve telling people exactly what they want to hear in exactly the way they need to hear it in the MCU, then think about the lovely uncertainty that creates in her bonding with Cap in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or (more clumsily) her romance with Bruce in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It gives us multiple ways to view what she's saying, forces us to engage with her as a character and with the conversation as a source of drama. It creates and maintains a light, simmering tension while still giving us all the surface pleasures of two characters with whom we like hanging out; the more we know about who Steve and Natasha are, the more even a simple conversation has layers that can grip us.

Action is basically the same thing. You set up expectations, then you play with them. For example, take a major action scene with Ogura, a samurai we know to be nervous and unskilled thanks to the two earlier action beats. He's clearly terrified to be fighting, so when he's confronted, the viewer already knows how hopeless the situation is for him. The music cuts out as he flees, raising the tension - he's overmatched! There's no way he can survive! Until he leads them into an oil patch. He sets one on fire, but it seems like he's blown the trap too early, only catching a single soldier in it. And then his mentor, the cool, brutal Hirayama shows up, and tension gives way to elation. Build, twist, release, move on. Rather than the extended set pieces Hollywood currently favors (think Jack Sparrow in a 10 minute long duel that starts on the ground and ends on a water wheel rolling through the forest; escalation, escalation, escalation), this favors discrete bits that combine to create something new and thrilling.

Meanwhile, the scenery is changing. The claustrophobic side streets give way to paper-thin, booby-trapped houses. We return to those side streets before sliding over to a courtyard of fire and steel, one of the film's most haunting tableaus. Return to the streets, then fight in a barn. Return to the streets... only to have an off-screen explosion make it literally rain blood. Every time we return to the streets for the film's 'standard' fight scenes, the scenery becomes just a little more apocalyptic, a little less recognizably civilized. Yes, even the locations have a "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." structure that leads to a small arc, one that mirrors that of the increasingly exhausted characters.

The climactic brawl in 13 Assassins lasts for 38 minutes of a 120 minute film, over a quarter of the run time. Even at that length, however, Miike's action is relentlessly gripping, in part because he treats action the way most directors treat conversation. His action can contain revelations about characters. It contains rises and falls, not just in scale or danger but in the mood of the thing. Some segments borrow from the language of horror films; others, from Westerns. Miike, a flexible director - seriously, he tends to direct two or three wildly different films per year - is comfortable using his action to tell us about the characters, and that's vital to making us care about what's on the screen.

I used to think that action was simple. A few well-timed explosions, a supporting character endangered, throw in a quip; chaotic, but fundamentally simple. I didn't understand why some action scenes had all of this and still bored me to death. 13 Assassins was, for me, formative in showing how to tell a story using action, in explaining why some action bored me and other action had me at the edge of my seat. It has nothing to do with length, or budget; it's as simple as a conversation, albeit a conversation with a body count.

13 Assassins is now streaming on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime, and is also available on DVD and blu-ray. Directed by Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins stars Kōji Yakusho, Tsuyoshi Ihara, and Takayuki Yamada.
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