Directed by Takashi Miike
Screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami and Daisuke Tengan
Kôji Yakusho as Shinzaemon Shimada
Takayuki Yamada as Shinrouko
Yûsuke Iseya as Koyata
Gorô Inagaki as Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira
Masachika Ichimura as Hanbei Kitou
Tsuyoshi Ihara as Hirayama
Running time: 141 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.
Takashi Miike turns in his most mature work to date — a rousing, complex film reminiscent of genre classics like ‘Seven Samurai.’
The insanely prolific (four films coming out in 2011, which is standard for him) Takashi Miike has always been a kitchen sink style director, meaning that he throws a lot into his films and sees what sticks. His bizarre and brilliant Yakuza film Gozu is a lot like this, as are his popular (and equally bizarre) entries in the Dead or Alive series. His more well-known and profoundly disturbing work, however, subdues some of the out-there tendencies in the service of the craft. The creepy romance-horror Audition and the overtly violent Ichi The Killer work so well because, despite the underlying pulpiness of the plots and the graphic, squirm-inducing violence, they are works that tell us something about our humanity in much the same way David Cronenberg’s or David Lynch’s films do.
His new film, 13 Assassins is certainly his most mature work to date, and with few exceptions, it plays much like a traditional chanbara, or samurai period drama. There are hints of classic Kurosawa, as well as the blood-soaked infusion of more explicit action flicks like Samurai Rebellion and the Musashi saga. A loose remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins follows a band of samurai who are given the assignment of assassinating Lord Naritsugu, the Shogun’s sadistic brother, before he can cross into the land controlled by his own clan, thus relieving the people under his rule from the bloodshed and horror his potential coming-to-power would yield.
There are important questions raised about honor, duty and morality during the course of the film, with the central conceit, that Naritsugu is a monster who must be stopped despite the oath the samurai have taken to the Shogun, providing a large portion of the conflict the assassins feel within themselves as they seek to die an honorable death. The very first scene is one such honorable death, in which a samurai commits hari-kari in protest of the Lord’s actions, and which spurs the dissent of even the council leader, Hanbei, who gives the secret order to assassinate him. The samurai code is brought up repeatedly, as well as the difficulties of protecting the people under the Shogun from evil no matter where the source may lie. Seeing the twilight of their existence, the samurai are faced with choosing sides before the system of government, which has made their status possible, topples and falls in the wake of history.
The first part of the film is spent getting to know the large group of samurai, tracking their coalescence into a group, and their preparations for the job they are charged with. Each man has his own reasons for joining up, from simple loyalty, to their displacement as wandering ronin in a time of peace. The last forty minutes of the film are an extended action sequence that never lets up. Once the leader of the group, Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), holds up a sign reading “Total Massacre” he obtained from a tortured woman he meets, whose family has been murdered and her limbs severed by Naritsugu, it’s a non-stop tour de force of stuntwork, bloodshed and inventive set pieces.
The scene-stealer of the group is the master swordsman Hirayama, played by Tsuyoshi Ihara (Letters from Iwo Jima). His first encounter with a group of the enemy’s spies sees him cutting down ten men in a matter of seconds. A second fight sequence in the film’s finale has at least fifty men walk onto a street to find katana placed in and on every surface to be used by Hirayama however he can to kill them, and must be seen to be believed. In many ways he is the character screen legend Toshiro Mifune played many times, and Ihara totally owns the role and makes us believe that he can never be defeated. This scene is a showstopper in the middle of forty minutes of showstoppers, and it will prove to be an audience favorite, mark my word.
There is also Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a thief the assassins free on their journey, who joins their group as the thirteenth. Enamored with the samurai, he signs on mostly due to his fascination with their mission and his wish to see how magnificent it is to live a life dedicated to warfare. Improbably, he is a pretty good fighter, and serves as comic relief, pointing out more than a few times how stupid and horrible the samurai are as human beings. He’s also a standout character that pairs perfectly with the stoic nature of someone like Hirayama, providing the often goofier and more free-wheeling style that Mifune would have brought to his roles. These are two are sides of one coin, and though they share very little screen time, the film requires them for balance.
What makes 13 Assassins so thrilling is its dedication to classicism and form, something that action films have quietly abandoned over the years. It’s relatively slow paced, even glacial, by today’s standards, but clocking in at a little over two hours, it never feels like a long movie. But fret not those out there who may be worried about boredom, for the film is also thoroughly modern, featuring flowing blood and crunching, booming sound design that reminds us why the theatrical experience is so important to truly absorbing a film. The score is sweeping and epic, and accompanies the first half of the final battle only to drop out entirely for the last fifteen minutes or so, leaving only the sounds of gurgling, slicing and death to punctuate the carnage on the screen. It is in so many ways a perfect marriage of old and new, of Miike’s eccentricities with classical style.