13 Assassins *** ½
Directed by: Takashi Miike.
Written by: Daisuke Tengan based on the screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami.
Starring: Kôji Yakusho (Shinzaemon Shimada), Takayuki Yamada (Shinrouko), Yûsuke Iseya (Koyata), Gorô Inagaki (Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira), Masachika Ichimura (Hanbei Kitou), Mikijiro Hira (Sir Doi), Hiroki Matsukata (Kuranaga), Ikki Sawamura (Mitsuhashi), Arata Furuta (Sahara), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Hirayama), Masataka Kubota (Ogura), Sôsuke Takaoka (Hioki), Seiji Rokkaku (Otake), Yûma Ishigaki (Higuchi), Kôen Kondô (Horii), Ikki Namioka (Ishizuka).
13 Assassins is a throwback to the days when Japanese movies were defined by the samurai genre. True, from the earliest days of Japanese film, they produced a wide variety of films and genres, but most observers concentrated on their samurai epics. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is easily the best the genre ever produced – although there so many to choose from its hard – and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins strikes some of the same notes as Kurosawa’s masterpiece did (although it is a remake of a later film, unseen by me). This being a Miike film, the film is of course brutally violent, and yet given what he has directed before, it’s almost tame when compared to films like Ichi the Killer or Visitor Q. It also just may be his best film.
13 Assassins takes place at the tale end of the samurai era of Japanese history. Most samurai are already dead or retired or no longer practicing their trade when the film opens. The Shogun has a half brother who he plans on naming as his successor, and giving him enormous power even before then. The problem is that this half brother Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki) is a cruel, sadistic man, who kills and tortures for the sheer pleasure of it. For the Shogun’s senior adviser Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), this is unacceptable, and knows that if Natitsugu were to actually rise to power, it would be devastating for the empire. So he reaches out to his old friend Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a samurai pretty much forced into retirement. His job is to kill Natisugu so they he cannot rise. He can assemble any team he wishes, but he, and they, must know that it is essentially a suicide mission. The chances of success are slim, and the chances of survival pretty much non-existent. Shimada accepts.
The story of 13 Assassins is familiar to anyone who knows samurai movies – or pretty much any action really. At first, we are introduced to the villain, a snarling caricature of evil, and then we are introduced to the hero, who in a long sequence will assemble his ragtag group of men to pull off the impossible job. And then, the action comes in, and an extended battle sequence will ensue. 13 Assassins is no different in its storytelling that movies like Seven Samurai or its American remake The Magnificent Seven. Or for that matter movies like The Dirty Dozen or even The Expendables. And yet, with a movie like this, it is all in the execution – and that’s where Miike has succeeded greatly.
First of all, in Natitisugu and the performance by Gorô Inagaki, Miike has found one of the most memorable movie villains of the year. Here is a man who is so casual in his cruelty that it’s shocking. The rapes the wife of an underling, and when the woman’s husband comes in, shocked by what he sees, Natitisugu cuts him down with his sword – finishing by decapitating him. Later, he will slaughter an entire family that Sir Doi had told him not to touch. How does he do it? He ties up the entire family – small children included – and casually shots each repeatedly with a bow and arrow until there’s no one left. In perhaps the only scene in the movie where Miike goes a little too far (which, after all, is his trademark), we see his handiwork on a woman who family Natitsugu slaughtered. He kept her around afterwards as a sexual plaything, and eventually discarded her after cutting off her arms and legs, and removing her tongue. Her ravaged body is an image that won’t likely leave by head anytime soon. Natitsugu is quite clearly insane – which is brought into full focus in the film’s final, epic battle – which he enjoys way too much.
And the heroes, especially Shimada, are sketched with great skill. It’s one thing to assemble a large group of killers for a suicide mission, it’s quite another to make them all unique characters, and make the audience care about them at the same time. Kôji Yakusho is excellent in the lead role – a wise, old samurai who thought his warrior days were behind him, and until Sir Doi approached him, thought that an honorable death in battle would not come to him. But now he has his chance. On the other side Hanebei (Masachika Ichimura), an old classmate of Shimada’s, who is now the leader of Natitisugu’s soldiers. He knows his boss is crazy, and dangerous, but that’s not his call to make. His job is to follow orders – and no doubt he, like Shimada, relishes the conflict as a way to fulfill his destiny of honorable death in battle.
When the battle finally does come, it’s an epic one – taking up about 45 minutes of running time. And yet, this battle is not all flash, rapid fire editing and shaky camera movements. Miike finds a way to make this battle exciting, but never loses focus on the characters or the storytelling. I get bored when action sequences in a Michael Bay movie drag on and on, because they are essentially meaningless, empty exercises in style. But Miike’s battle is anything but that.