Alpha and Omega is a recurring feature that examines a famous horror director’s best critically received film and their worst reviewed installment (according to Rotten Tomatoes). It will compare and contrast these two efforts, looking at the difference in the auteur’s work and seeing if any overlap exists as these two extremes of the director’s career are examined.
Today we get bloody with Takashi Miike’s best and worst films, the samurai masterpiece 13 Assassins and the clunky Ringu wannabe, One Missed Call.
“As a samurai in the era of peace, I’ve been waiting for a noble death. Now fate has called me here.” – 13 Assassins
“Your life will be ended in 56 seconds…” – One Missed Call
Takashi Miike is a prolific director who has always had a considerable amount of buzz around his name, but it’s been fascinating to watch him break through and become more of a mainstream filmmaker over the past decade. He’s one of the few filmmakers that can actually say that he’s made every kind of movie, from serial killer dramas, to spaghetti westerns, to high school musicals, to sprawling anime adaptations. It’s interesting to see that many of Miike’s more iconic films from the more blatantly extreme phase of his career, like Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, or Dead or Alive comfortably sit in the high 50% and low 60% area on Rotten Tomatoes. Audition, arguably Miike’s most popular and buzz-worthy film is a little higher at 81%, but still considerably lower than 13 Assassins.
My opinion on Miike’s films largely lines up with Rotten Tomatoes’ and while these are flashy, unbelievable movies, I don’t need to see opening credits get spelled out in ejaculate or have a room in a house get flooded with lactation milk. That being said, I do gravitate to a more colorful and playful kind of film from Miike, and stuff like As the Gods Will, Terra Formers, and Ace Attorney are some of my favorite films from him. It’s just insane to look at the variety of this director’s career and while he gets far away from horror at times, this extreme, gonzo aesthetic to his movies is inherently in his DNA. So even something like 13 Assassins, a Samurai film, can still feel like a horror picture in many ways and is certainly at least as bloody as one. This “Alpha and Omega” will examine 13 Assassins (which currently has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and is also No. 18 on their 100 Best Fresh Action Movies) and One Missed Call (which currently has a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes), and examine the massive differences as well as the strange similarities between the films, plus how they display Miike’s eclectic skills as a filmmaker.
2010’s 13 Assassins and 2003’s One Missed Call, while both wildly different movies, are still alike in the sense that they both prescribe to two incredibly rigid, formulaic genres: the Samurai film, and the J-horror film. In that sense, these films both document Miike’s ability to fulfill the requirements of a traditional genre picture, while also injecting it with his own gonzo filmmaking sensibilities. 13 Assassins is an example of when these disparate elements properly come together, and One Missed Call is when they fight against themselves and become too much a product of genre rules and traditions to become a worthwhile film. What’s so fascinating about these two movies is that Miike’s “best” and “worst” films aren’t from opposite ends of his career, as is often the case, but instead he made them within the same decade.
With 13 Assassins, Miike makes his intentions clear right from the film’s opening sequence, which is a recreation of the original 13 Assassins’ introduction from 1963. It’s a nice way for Miike to pay homage to the original film. In fact, Miike was very adamant about honoring Eiichi Kudo’s work and the original picture. He lamented how most directors failed to properly adapt Kurosawa films or movies from this era for modern younger audiences. Miike went out of his way to not add modern affectations to the film, like a romance element or CG assistance, and instead did a hard-boiled tribute to what made these old-fashioned films great in the first place. For the titular thirteen assassins, Miike intentionally hired actors that weren’t proficient in swordplay and horseback riding because those comfortable in these fields would inherently approach the areas differently and fall into their natural habits.
13 Assassins also begins with a gory harakiri disemboweling sequence and the carnage only goes up from there. This is a very violent and bloody film, even for Miike’s standards, but so much of the movie is steeped in rules, history, and honor. In that sense, it really effectively represents the duality of Samurai and assassins as well as why they fight. Swords get impaled through bodies as naturally as if characters were shaking hands or simply breathing. The film shockingly normalizes such intense blade work. The carnage almost operates like scene transitions. Within the first twenty minutes there’s a female servant character who’s had her limbs severed (including her tongue) and is basically just a living symbol of pain. It’s extreme, but it’s these drastic actions that set the whole bloody story in motion and generate such a desire for vengeance towards the vicious enemy.
At its core, this is really just a revenge film and a “men on a mission” story as determined warriors go up against insurmountable odds. Its plot is even akin to Suicide Squad (or a more amped up Seven Samurai) in terms of how these individuals care more about wiping out evil and going out in a blaze of glory than actually surviving any of this. The beginning of the film adopts a very “getting the band together” kind of structure while it establishes the stakes and obstacles as the dozen or so assassins are assembled. Miike captures some really stunning landscape shots and wide shots of the outside (the fishing scenes at the beginning are gorgeous as are any of the traveling sequences), which decidedly makes this feel bigger than One Missed Call.
It’s also just nuts that a film with so many swordfights can still make them all seem varied, exciting, and visually stunning. That’s a lot harder than it seems. On that note, Kiga Koyata, the bandit that eventually joins the team, is actually a Yokai—specifically a forest/mountain spirit—which is why he’s immortal and returns after his “death” scene. It’s considerably bizarre to have a strong, invincible supernatural force in the movie all of a sudden, but it again reflects the apocryphal nature of this story. Plus, it’s Miike. Of course, there’s an immortal mountain spirit fighting alongside Samurai.
The final fight in 13 Assassins is incredible and it makes bow and arrows frightening again in a way that Hawkeye could only dream of achieving. The showpiece is initially supposed to contain 70 opponents, but reinforcements are called in and the thirteen assassins are left to take down 222 freaking enemies. This all translates to a 45-minute long fight before epic series like Game of Thrones or The Avengers films were making fights of this length commonplace. It rubs its authenticity in the audience’s face and never settles for compromise in any regard. Why trim a single minute of this outrageous, dizzying bloodbath?
On top of the stunning choreography and swordplay, there are also rampant explosions, flaming demon bulls, and all other sorts of unexpected flair to make this finale as impressive as possible. In spite of all of this craziness, it also wisely knows to end it all on a traditional one-on-one sword fight and comes down to honor between warriors. There’s a dark sense of humor at times through this intense battle, too. At one point a bomb explodes, killing many, and resulting in a shower of blood to rain down on the remaining fighters. It’s as heightened as possible, while still attempting to be grounded in reality.
13 Assassins finds a way to spread its focus across these dozen warriors in a way that feels natural. It’s crazy how this 45-minute fight relatively flies by and doesn’t get bogged down by its own extravagance. It’s a lesson in how to do excess properly, whereas One Missed Call presents a relatively brief story that still feels like it stalls and pads its running time. This fight scene alone arguably contains more planning and care than the entirety of One Missed Call. It’s not that One Missed Call is without its meager charms, but it’s more so a testament to just how polished 13 Assassins is. There’s a reason that it nearly has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for a Samurai film that’s over two hours. The final sequence where a lone warrior walks through a street that is littered with hundreds of bodies is both haunting, yet emblematic, of the life of a Samurai. It’s the perfect visual summation of the entire film and the final image of One Missed Call is an unmemorable tease as opposed to a poignant tableaux.
13 Assassins came out after One Missed Call, which certainly speaks to an evolution in Miike’s filmmaking, but there’s arguably no reason why he couldn’t have crafted this movie back in 2003, even if it was just slightly less polished. However, the fact that 13 Assassins is Miike’s 100th film means that this should be such an impressive showpiece that feels like a culmination of the director’s filmography in many ways. Thankfully, this wasn’t Miike’s final film and he’s showing no signs of slowing down, but it would have made a perfect swan song if that had been the case. One Missed Call would have been a severe low point for Miike to go out on, even if it was just the director’s final horror film. He’s a director that’s capable of much greater depth, but it still makes for an unusual project for Miike.
Miike’s done plenty of horror throughout every stage of his career, but One Missed Call is his attempt at a Ring or Grudge style effort that tries to fit into that mold, while still hoping to push the sub-genre further in some ways. It’s not completely successful in the latter of those goals, but it does feel exactly like that aforementioned variety of longhaired creepy girl “J-horror,” for both better and worse. It’s worth pointing out that Miike’s more recent horror film, Over Your Dead Body, is only a little more popular on Rotten Tomatoes with 50% and even though it’s a more original story, it’s a lot less fun as a movie.
The eerie film looks at a psychology student whose friend perishes under mysterious circumstances after receiving an unnerving voice mail on her cell phone that’s dated two days in the future and contains her own screams. After this prophetic phone call comes to pass, the psychology student learns that this deadly chain letter type event has been happening for years in Japan and if she doesn’t figure out the origin and cause for this curse then she too will fall victim to the death sentence.
It’s kind of remarkable just how much it feels like One Missed Call wants to be a Ringu movie, right down to how it incorporates telephones or hair-based attacks (even though One Missed Call is based on an original novel). Miike provides a worthwhile take on the sub-genre, but it feels like if he just completely strayed and went off the rails then he’d come up with a more satisfying product. In some respects, One Missed Call plays with similar themes that compliment what’s at work in 13 Assassins. Both films intentionally hold themselves up to the rigid formula of their respective genres, both look at the eradication of evil, and in a way One Missed Call is also a revenge film, but against a paranormal creature and an unstoppable curse. Albeit, 13 Assassins handles all of these elements more eloquently than One Missed Call, but the fact that they’re present in both pictures makes this comparison between Miike’s efforts easier and more compelling.
There’s something to be said for how extreme One Missed Call’s demon girl, Mimiko, is. It’s like if Sadako from Ringu just binged the entire Final Destination series and decided to take her inspiration from the Rube Goldberg-like nature of those films. It’s crazy to see simple objects like an asthma inhaler eventually ensure someone’s death. Much like the tortured characters in Ringu of The Grudge, Mimiko’s backstory also involves a highly abusive home life, drawing further parallels between her and these other franchises.
One Missed Call begins very formulaic at first, but it at least keeps moving along, features plenty of complex death scenes, and tries to be unpredictable whenever it’s possible. The film also deserves credit for how the characters actually perform an exorcism to try and stop this curse, which is a rarity for this kind of film, even if it does prove to be a fruitless exercise. These characters do a lot of smart things like this, which makes their foolish behavior later that much more disappointing. It’s almost the opposite of how 13 Assassins operates, where a bunch of hapless vigilantes become hardened warriors and improve upon their mistakes by the end of the film.
The ghostly character Mimiko bears a resemblance to the demons in Ju-on and Ringu, but the execution of many of the scares in this film also feel derivative of those franchises, yet they still work. The periodic scares may lack in originality, but it’s the actual deaths where Miike gets to show off his wild side. Miike also gets the most out of each death in this film and even when there’s a “normal” fatality Miike makes sure that crazy shit still happens to the characters before they die. At one point all of the bones break in a character’s body before he goes out and there’s never really an explanation for why. The simple, yet creepy jawbreaker that comes out of each victim’s mouth is another nice detail, even if it feels kind of like a detail that’s forced in there to give the film more bite. Regardless of its impetus, it still works. Variations on Ringu’s infamous “you will die in seven days” death sentence get played around with here with the “your life will be ended in 56 seconds…” ticking clock text message, which is invariably even creepier.
Miike also isn’t afraid to end his film on a downer of an ending that requires viewers to pay more attention than they may be prepared for in a film of this nature. The ending is powerful, but it feels drawn out and loses much of its impact before the final punch. Just to make a point of comparison back to the ambition that’s present in 13 Assassins, imagine if there was a 45-minute scare sequence or ghost assault in this film? Even half an hour or 20 minutes would go a long ways. That level of precision in a scene that just doesn’t allow the audience a breather or a chance to reorient themselves would do this film so many favors. The individual scares tend to work, but there’s no moment where you’re just lost in the dizzying chaos of it all, like the finale in 13 Assassins.
While Miike’s One Missed Call isn’t anything groundbreaking, it struck enough of a chord with audiences and brought in enough money to warrant two sequels, a TV series, and a US remake. These supplemental takes on the same idea contain some decent set pieces, but they all do even less with the same premise. These less effective sequels at least highlight even more that Miike was at least pushing this concept further than others could and that his trademark bonkers touch was still enough to make the film creepy and memorable, even if not one of the pictures that are in the better half of his 100+ film filmography.
With the director still going strong, it will be exciting to see if he ever tops the peak of 13 Assassins or if he experiences a film that’s an even bigger mainstream misfire than One Missed Call. His latest feature, First Love, has once again made him a critical darling, but who knows what the future holds.