To watch Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins is to receive a master-class in screen auteurs subtly defying expectations.  On the surface, each film seems perfectly suited to its respective director: Outrage finds Kitano re-entering the world of the Yakuza—as he did to worldwide acclaim in Sonatine and Fireworks—while 13 Assassins gives Miike the opportunity to indulge in the sort of blood-soaked mayhem indicative to.…well, to practically everything he’s ever made.

Yet the pleasure comes from the curveballs.  For better or worse, those two setups don’t do justice to the end result.

You could fit the plot of Outrage on a postage stamp: a Yakuza crime boss (Kitamura Soichiro) decides to clean house, thus setting in motion a chain of assassinations.  Do not succumb to the numerous double crosses and betrayals that Kitano throws out; ultimately, these side bits don’t matter.

The name of the game is Last Man Standing, with “Man” deemphasized as much as possible.  No one matters here, not Kitamura’s Top Dog or Jun Kunimura’s scheming chief lieutenant or even Kitano’s weary enforcer.  Character takes a backseat to carnage—be it of the bullet, X-Acto Knife, dental drill, or rope-based-decapitation variety—all of which Kitano shoots with his trademark flat precision (think a Jim Jarmusch-directed Kill Bill, and you’re on the right track).

That focus on the red stuff is new for Kitano.  He’s no stranger to violence—from Violent Cop through Brother, Kitano has punctuated his crime pictures with flashes of brutality—but these bursts take a backseat to quirky, deeply felt human drama (think Horibe’s flowering artistic talent in Fireworks or Sonatine‘s lovely beach hideout sequences).  The juxtaposition of humanity and sudden death sends a clear message: violence is scary because of how fast it can extinguish life.

Not so in Outrage.  The gore is plentiful and prolonged, and the people exist only as decoration.  I don’t know how appealing the squeamish will find it, but as a Kitano fan, I loved Outrage.  It plays like a postmodern deconstruction of the gangster film, with everything removed but the bloody essentials.  There’s a real frustration here, as if Kitano made the film to condemn anyone bored by the gentle currents running throughout his oeuvre.  “Don’t like the quiet stuff?” Kitano seems to be asking.  “Fine.  Here’s your ‘Good Parts’ version, except I’m gonna make it way more disturbing than you want, and I hope you choke on it.”

Kitano’s indulgences become even more pronounced after viewing Miike’s 13 Assassins. I didn’t see this one coming—Miike turns a story about thirteen ronin starting an all-out war into one of the least violent films he’s ever made.  That’s not to say Miike shies away from the battle scenes; in its violence and intensity, 13 Assassins makes Seven Samurai look like a children’s fable.  However, I never felt Miike indulging in violence for violence’s sake.  He keeps the film’s worst atrocities—the massacre of an entire family, torture inflicted on a young thief—off-screen, while the on-camera bloodshed stays grounded because it serves the story.

Because it serves the story.  13 Assassins is Miike’s best film as it doesn’t traffic in hardcore sadism (Ichi the Killer, Audition) or head-scratching semiotics (Sukiyaki Western Django)—from top to toe, 13 Assassins is an engaging adventure story.  It is Japan, 1844.  The shogun’s adopted son Naritsugu (the chillingly baby-faced Gorô Inagaki) is indulging his every depraved whim, and many people—not least the shogun’s trusted advisor Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira)—fear what Naritsugu might do when he holds the highest political office.  Stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare (no one can publicly condemn Naritsugu for fear of undermining the shogun’s reputation), Doi secretly hires noble samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assemble a hit squad and assassinate Naritsugu.

One problem: Shinzaemon and his twelve conspirators first have to carve their way through Naritsugu’s personal army of 200 men.

For those following Miike’s career closely, the shock comes from the sturdy grace Miike gives the film.  His film has a classical three-act structure: forty minutes of introductions, forty minutes of preparations, and forty minutes of action.  That end battle scene really is splendid—a visually coherent and dramatically layered operation that grows bloodier and more labored as the minutes tick by—and it works because Miike takes his time with the various characters and intrigues before dropping the hammer.  13 Assassins knows the value of steady buildup; it puts the lie (to fare like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the action movie need only be a never-ending string of visceral climaxes.

Even more refreshing: Miike slips in a little social criticism.  I can’t think of a more savage attack on Japanese honor; as Miike sees it, everyone who buys into this system is crazy.  Despite his efforts, Shinzaemon is crazy for making his life’s work the pursuit of death (a samurai is most noble if killed in battle), and the shogun’s guards (embodied by Masachika Ichimura’s Hanbei) are crazy for devoting themselves to the clearly bonkers Naritsugu.  In fact, Naritsugu comes off best—at least he’s not couching his madness in outdated codes of “honor.”  Best of all, Miike doesn’t belabor this point, burying subtext under rich character work and action.  It’s there if you want it, but no one blames you if you’re having too much fun to look.

Magnolia’s Blu-rays offer terrific 2.39:1 HD transfers and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for both films.  Features are slim but worthwhile: on Outrage, two trailers, two cast interview sessions, a Cannes premiere feature and accompanying Q&A with Kitano, and a behind-the-scenes documentary.  13 Assassins has trailers, a great interview with Miike, and deleted scenes that, in part, help to explain the ultimate fate of Yusuke Iseya’s spirited Koyata.

You can’t imagine two films more different that Outrage and 13 Assassins, and that’s what makes them so exciting a double feature.  To watch great directors pushing against and tweaking their well-established authorial conventions….well, ain’t that the dream for moviegoers?

Outrage streets on January 31st, and 13 Assassins is now available.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s respective page listings.

Culture Japanese Cinema Movie Review: An OUTRAGE and 13 ASSASSINS Double Feature