13 Assassins [Jûsan-nin no shikaku (or) 十三人の刺客] (2010) ***1/2 out of ****
Review by: Mark Bernard
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Daisuke Tengan,
Based on a screenplay by: Kaneo Ikegami
Story by: Shōichirō Ikemiya
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuke Iseya
(R) – Sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity
Running time: 141 min
(In Japanese with English subtitles)
It would be hard to make a Samurai film in the post Kurosawa era, doing so in the same style as he does would be even more difficult… well if you wanted to show your face in public afterwards. This is something that the ever so diverse and talented Takashi Miike accomplishes with great skill and enthusiasm, as 13 assassins is hands down the best Samurai film since Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ in 1985.
The film is an epic tale of revenge from the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1844). This was an interesting point in Japanese history; as the western world encroached upon the previously isolated and medieval Japan, the days of the Samurai were ending. Peace and stability was becoming the norm and the Samurai of days past were becoming sell swords just to eat in a world that no longer needed them.
In many ways ’13 Assassins’ is about suicide. The movie opens with a particularly disturbing suicide, and arguably ends in one as well. We see warriors who have dedicated their whole lives to a system that not only doesn’t need them, it doesn’t want them either. How does one deal with that fact, how does one do that with honor. Rather than sink into obscurity, our heroes decide to one last mission, something that would fulfill their honor and bring some sort of peace to their own lives as the world changes around them far too fast to measure.
The plot involves a twisted and pure sociopath if I have ever seen one in a movie, Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu. He is the half-brother of the current Shogun and is rising to power fast. Naritsugu spends his time brutalizing, raping and destroying almost anything he feels like and were he to rise to be second in command as he has just been appointed, the progress that Japan had worked so hard for would all be for not. In response to this brutality, a high ranking lord commits suicide as a message of protest. This reaches a Sir Doi, who enlists an older and experienced Samurai, Shinzaemon who after being shown in graphic example of Naritsugu’s cruelty, agrees to accept Doi’s mission – to assassinate Naritsugu before he can wreak the havoc on an even greater scale than before.
In the finest Kurosawaian tradition, Shinsaemon recruits 11 more samurai to undertake what they all know, and perhaps are hoping to be a suicide mission. All of which are on the outs as Samurai as their lords of whom they dedicated their entire lives have no need of their services anymore. They have nothing against peace, rather it seems peace has everything against them as they have become obsolete and violence was all they ever knew.
This sets off a fantastic game of chess between the two parties of warriors, one headed by Shinsaemon, the other by Naritsugu’s lead Samurai, Hanbei. Hanbei learns of the plot to assassinate his master and regardless of how he feels about the evil that he serves, his code of honor binds him to protect Naritsugu at all costs.
The 12 warriors find a place that they can set an ambush then through a series of bribes and cunning work to corner them in the small town, which is to be the scene of possibly the best sword play battle sequence that I have seen since ‘Rob Roy’. Hanbei knows through his knowledge of Shinsaemon (of whom he had trained with) that the town is most likely an ambush but regardless of the warning, the arrogant Naritsugu walks into the trap, expecting to crush the plot and feel the exhilaration of a battle, which the era of peace has denied him.
Now I said 12 warriors, and at this point you may wonder why the film is called ‘13 Assassins’. The 13th assassin is picked up along the way as Shinsaemon’s group becomes lost in their attempts to reach the ambush point first. The hunter Kiga Koyata manages to convince them to take him, in exchange for guiding them out of the forest. We learn later that nothing about Koyata is normal, in fact he is quite possibly a demon. Now if you see the 126 minute international version, this won’t make any sense as all the mythology was cut from that portion… I highly recommend you don’t see this version, I went through quite a bit of strife to get the Japanese blu-ray and was well rewarded for doing so, having seen the international version first.
When the final showdown happens, the next 50 minutes of the film is dedicated to one of the most skilled combat sequences I have ever seen on film. I won’t go into details as they should be for you to witness for yourself, but the brutal and bloody battle is shot and choreographed with such skill by Miike, that it will blow you away. It’s not that he avoids hand camera or is opposed to moving it, but rather when he does so, it creates a full picture and works. He doesn’t rely on annoying close ups or trying to shake the picture for effect, rather letting the skill of the performers and blocking speak for itself.
Most of the movies that I have been reviewing for the blog have been dramas, this is the first action movie that I’ve presented and it’s well worth sitting up there with the others. Now if you haven’t seen Kurosawa’s Ran, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress, or Seven Samurai, see them first as they are pure inspiration for Miike’s film, but if you have seen all the classics, and you’re looking for proof that the modern world hasn’t forgotten how to make an action movie, this is for you.