by NIR SHALEV
Filmmaker Takashi Miike is popular around the globe for being the most “out there” director. In Japan, he’s been crowned “the most adult filmmaker” because he’s directed crazy films like Audition (2000) and Ichi the Killer (2001). By now, those two films have garnered a classic status (because most film lovers are mostly desensitized to gore already). However, 13 Assassins is a welcome change in pace because it’s an old-school samurai revenge film that packs heat and is all kinds of awesome; yet it still manages to deliver a traditional samurai tale of true and tough warriors.
The year is 1844 and the samurai era is dwindling. Most samurai don’t fight anymore and those who are employed by high ranking officials, like the shogun barely even have experience in the field. Enter Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), the shogun’s half-brother and one of the most utterly evil men I’ve seen in cinema in a long time. He is evil incarnate and practices his bow and arrow skills on entire peasant families, even the ones that his brother had pardoned. During another occasion, for amusement he cuts off the limbs and tongue of a woman and then throws her away once he’s bored with her.
To combat such wickedness and utter lunacy, a samurai lord from another clan commits hara-kiri (ritual suicide) in protest against Lord Naritsugu but his suicide is entirely superfluous. Lord Naritsugu is simply too high up on the ladder of power for anyone to be able to do anything about. And so, another high ranking official, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) has also, finally had enough of Lord Naritsugu’s evil. He forms an assassination squad beginning with recruiting Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), a master samurai he’d trained together with in the past and who’s relatively equal to him; except when cornered, Shinzaemon never backs down and always manages to survives. His spirit has protected him equally with his skills. Shinzaemon and Sir Doi begin the recruitment process until they have ten other samurai under their wing. They plan to attack Lord Naritsugu en route to his fortified castle, where he’d be protected and they hope that luck is with them because their plan of attack requires a cunning gambit.
I won’t spoil who the thirteenth assassin is because his character is rather unique and brings a welcome cheer to the second and third acts of the film.
What eventually follows is a 40 minute battle between the 13 assassins and Naritsugu’s force of 200 soldiers, originally thought to be no more than 70. The choreography and cinematography are masterful. Filmmakers around the globe can study this 40 minute battle and properly learn how to shoot action sequences from it: there is no shaky camera syndrome, no rapid-fire editing, and no close-up shots that are shot from afar with telephoto lenses and that are cross-cut rapidly with other incomprehensible shots. The geography of the small village where the battle takes place is explained to the audience before and during the battle so that we are always aware of what is happening and where, and the 13 assassins can be individually distinguished due to their various age differences and fighting styles.
This is not a children’s film, this film is rated R for strong, bloody violence and a massive battle. Lots of characters die and there’s nothing to laugh at but even though this is an action film, it’s essentially a traditional samurai film that is filled with samurai lore. I quote Shinzaemon: “If you value your life, you’ll die a dog’s death.” It means that true samurai are supposed to die. That is their entire purpose in life. In accordance with the code of Bushido, a samurai must die one day for someone else. These 13 assassins are not dying for a single person though; they’re dying for an ideal and for the possibility of having peace across Japan once again. They are true warriors that through embracing death become the ultimate killing machines.
Miike has directed many Yakuza films in the past, some strange and some really powerful, violent and disturbing. He’s also directed comedies, parodies, and adult oriented, X-rated horror films. He’s also directed other samurai films but none yet have managed to be as utterly embracing, thoughtful and ingenious as 13 Assassins. The relation to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is strong here and even though it’s a superior film to 13 Assassins, this is still a remarkable achievement in samurai action filmmaking that can only be compared to Kurosawa’s classic. It’s a compliment that Miike should embrace with open arms and I hope that between directing more adult oriented, X-rated horror films he delivers more magnificent films like 13 Assassins.
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