13 Assassins

Miike is only partly teasing when he says he wants 13 Assassins – best known for an exceedingly bloody 45 minute final faceoff between the titular thirteen and an army of 200 – to be viewed as a family film. The spectacle is great, but Miike and the writer (Audition and The Eel's Daisuke Tengan) are more concerned about the character drama that precedes it. There's a big emphasis on staying true to the original film, and the period detail – particularly the more ornate language spoken by the samurai.

The film begins with a slow scene of a lord committing hara-kiri, and its prevailing interest is in the sacrifices these men go through in order to remain true to their sense of self-worth and protect the values of their class. Miike wants to honour the rigours of doing your duty, but he also undercuts this with his decision of who survives the final massacre – the wastrel gambling nephew and a freewheeling Jack Sparrow-esque hunter who finds all these lords and their retainers ridiculous. Before he dies, the hero of the film describes being a samurai as a burden. The two survivors choose to lift it from their shoulders – pursuing women and the good life abroad or in the margins of society. It's an individualistic attitude totally at odds with the grim loyalty to lord and country of the older generation.

The film ends with a grin from the gambler looking forward to future pleasures, before the titles inform us that 23 years later the Shogunate fell and the modern Meiji era began. Miike is careful to leave the ending open to multiple interpretations, but I suspect his overriding attitude is to pay tribute to but to also break down the psychological fetters of Japanese feudalism, and remind the audience to be grateful that they live in more liberal times.

The Warriors

"There really isn't a lot to think about so keep it moving, keep it moving" was the instruction the director Walter Hill gave to his editor when cutting the film. That's slightly unfair on Hill's part. The story, taken from a pulp novel the producer found without a cover in a second-hand bookstore, is a retelling of Xenophon's Anabasis using New York gangs. Inadvertently it illustrates quite well the recent (and persuasive) theory of state-creation as a glorified form of protection racket – the earliest politicians extorting tribute in exchange for defending you from rival chiefs. The film begins with the biggest gang-leader Cyrus attempting to unite the other gangs to take over the city – showcasing the next stage of state-development where one emerges to rule them all and win the game of thrones.

The film got into trouble when it was released. Violence broke out in some screenings, leading the producers to pull advertising. Hill suggests that the subject matter may have attracted rival gangs into cinemas, which sparked scuffles. The film certainly doesn't try to moralise about the activities the characters get up to – the young men (and it is mostly men) are products of an environment that doesn't provide alternative avenues for respectability and success.

This is illustrated most effectively by the major female character in the film, who is attracted to the war chief of the Warriors gang to the point of abandoning her previous gang affiliation. Mercy isn't treated particularly well by any of the men around her – sexually harassed, insulted and dragged around against her will. But she is the only one who articulates the hopelessness of the neighbourhood she grew up in, and the attraction of escaping to somewhere, anywhere, else – even if that involves the risk of violence and death.

So there are things to think about, but Walter Hill isn't wrong in emphasising the propulsive nature of the film. The director's cut makes the comic book-inspired style of the story explicit – where the violence of the city is displaced by flamboyant gang colour costumes, outrageous personalities and a slipstream science fiction aesthetic. The director of photography does some amazing work around the underground train stations to make them look like scuzzy nightclubs, and the synth-embellished rock music was a novelty at the time. To an extent the film prefigures the neon-lit cyberpunk look and feel of Blade Runner three years later, although it owes a lot to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange as well. It is certainly more enjoyable than either of those landmark pictures.


The Piano

Jane Campion originally wanted a bleaker ending for the film – where Ada follows her piano into the sea and drowns. The echo of that ending remains, with Ada's thoughts continuing to dwell on the buried piano, and the silence that comes with death. Campion may have been aiming to round off a life as well as a film in this way. The first shot is quite an abstract one of light piercing through the flesh of fingers – a not very subtle evocation of being born. In between the silence that surrounds our lives, the main character Ada is impelled for reasons she doesn't quite understand not to speak.

Campion at the time of making the film didn't quite know why she wanted to pursue this idea of a woman insisting on silence. She was attracted to the rebelliousness and willpower just an act demonstrated. In hindsight, she puts an explicitly feminist spin on it – as a commentary on a society that doesn't value women's voices. This was very overtly the case in the Victorian era the film depicts, although Campion's point is that those prejudices endure. So why should Ada speak if she's just going to be ignored? She'll speak in her own way.

That's the piano, of course, but she also speaks directly to us in voiceover at the beginning and end of the film. We learn that her first husband, and father to her daughter, could hear her thoughts in his mind. This terrified him and he "stopped listening". Towards the end of the film, Ada performs this miracle again – through sheer force of will she instructs her new husband to let her go. The fact that we can hear her voiceover clearly suggests that film is a kind of telepathy as well – an oblique form of communication for Campion, like Ada and her piano.


"'Praise You' spoke to the sense, both frivolous and zen, that prevailed in the late 1990s: nothing 'mattered'. There was no need to agonise the way we used to. We were free. We could just be. Rock music was just about dead and nobody believed it had the capacity to transform the world. The counter-culture had long disappeared; the motorways were here to stay. The Great Battles had either been won or lost but, whatever, they had been fought. The time for fighting, the time for protest was over. What was left was a vast, democratised mass of people in the same large cultural (and physical) peacetime space who wanted nothing more than to live really happily for as long as possible, preferably for ever." – David Stubbs, Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music