Film Review: SHIELD OF STRAW (2013) – directed by Takashi Miike

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Fantasia 2013
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SHIELD OF STRAW (2013) - directed by Takashi Miike

I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with maverick Japanese filmmaker, Takashi Miike. Here’s a director who knows how to begin and end his films with jaw-dropping, visceral and visually eye-popping set-pieces that linger long in the memories of his audience. And considering that people, by and large, remember the beginning and ending of the film they’ve just seen more than anything else, it’s perhaps no wonder why so many people hold the man in such high regard. However, when you truly sit down with one of his pictures and watch it from start to finish, you’d be hard-pressed not to concede that while Miike can be brilliant in small doses, he fails as a storyteller who’s able to build, sustain and deliver a consistently engaging narrative with characters we can empathize with. Much like Jess Franco, Miike has always struck me as a filmmaker with good ideas but with no real filmmaking ability to carry them out successfully. Films like ICHI THE KILLER are conceptually brilliant, but not particularly entertaining or even interesting as a three-act narrative.

So it was with great trepidation that I went into SHIELD OF STRAW last night at the opening gala of the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival here in Montreal. Miike’s films always seem to play well with an audience, which can sometimes mislead you into thinking they’re actually genuinely “good films.” I defy you to watch something like SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO at home and tell me whether the film was as enjoyable as seeing it with an audience of 700-800 people.

At any rate, SHIELD OF STRAW is an anomaly in the filmography of Miike in that it was absolutely thrilling and enjoyable from start to finish. Miike has really grown up as a filmmaker and it shows as this picture was directed with a lot of restraint and without the garish juvenile flourishes of works like DEAD OR ALIVE or even an ICHI THE KILLER. This was a film that told a very compelling story that wouldn’t look too out of place in Hollywood, circa 1970s. The characters were fairly well-developed and three-dimensional enough for us to actually care about what was happening to them.

My main critiques would be that like most Asian genre films, it was a little on the long side. Clocking in at 125 minutes (2h 5mins), the film could have easily been cut down a good 20 minutes or so, namely in the end, which almost bordered on LORD OF THE RINGS territory with the multiple typing up of loose ends sequences. Some might criticize the melodrama of certain moments in the film, and while by our Western standards, they may seem a little “cheesy,” you have to understand that this is common dating back to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Quite frankly, I actually enjoy seeing these kinds of sequences, if used sparingly, and Miike proves that he has a heart in addition to a wild imagination.

Miike has another film playing at Fantasia this year – LESSON OF THE EVIL – that I’m planning to check out Sunday morning. Stay tuned for that review.

 

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