Depending on your point of view, 13 Assassins is either very familiar or very unusual. For those with even a casual knowledge of Japanese cinema, the film is immediately recognizable as a remake of the better than average The Thirteen Assassins, a film that was a lesser riff on Seven Samurai. As a remake of a film that was heavily inspired by a classic in the genre, 13 Assassins does little to deviate from the traditional story. If you have no knowledge of Japanese films, 13 Assassins will feel like something altogether new and original–a period piece that doesn’t skimp on action, suspense, or blood and guts. No matter which camp you come from, the film succeeds as a wholly entertaining action film.
Set in 1844 Japan, the film takes place after a long period of peace has been instituted by the previous shogun and continued by his son, the current shogun. This has led to little need for the samurai warriors who still populate the countryside. But peace is threatened by the shogun’s half-brother, Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki).
A sadist of the most brutal variety, Naritsugu takes pleasure in raping, torturing, and murdering anyone he chooses, even if they are nobility. This causes a scandal that threatens the shogun’s power, but he refuses to do anything to punish Naritsugu. This leaves Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), the shogun’s head of justice in a difficult position. Sir Doi knows that Naritsugu deserves to be punished, but he cannot go against the will of the shogun. But when news spreads that the shogun plans to appoint Naritsugu to a political post–where he can do harm on a national scale, Sir Doi takes drastic measures to make sure this doesn’t happen by bringing in Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), a veteran samurai who has all but retired to a quiet life of fishing in his autumn years.
Sir Doi’s request is simple: Shinzaemon is to assemble a group of samurai and assassinate Naritsugu as he travels across the country to return to his brother and take up his new post. Shinzaemon recognizes he is being handed a suicide mission, but as a samurai long without a master, he is thrilled at the prospect of finding an honorable death while protecting the citizens from the reign of terror that is sure to befall them with Naritsugu’s increased political power.
13 Assassins feels very much like two different movies. The first movie is a period piece about the final years of the samurai in everyday Japanese life. The second movie is a straightforward action flick that encompasses a jaw-dropping forty-five minute battle scene that is both exciting and vicious, stylized and brutal. This sudden shifting of gears is slightly jarring and gives the film a schizophrenic nature, but both halves are so well-done that it’s a flaw easily overcome.
Director Takashi Miike is one of the true wildcards of world cinema. Incredibly prolific–IMDB credits him with directing 84 films since 1991, counting theatrical, DTV releases, and television projects–and traveling anywhere his interests take him, he often brings his own nutty sensibility to routine genre films. This has led to a number of misfires, but when he hits (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer), the results are like nothing seen before.
That’s why it’s a surprise to find 13 Assassins to be such a traditional film. Despite the slightly jarring nature of the narrative structure, this feels like a film that would easily have fit into the Japanese film movement of the ‘50s.
But traditional does not mean that Miike fails to add his personality to the proceedings. Especially in the early scenes that showcase Naritsugu’s penchant for cruelty and violence, Miike is able to push the envelope when it comes to the portrayal of sadistic violence (the reveal of one of Naritsugu’s pitiable victims is one of the most horrifying images I’ve seen in a film this year). And while the inevitable comparisons will be made to the House of Blue Leaves sequence from Kill Bill when talking about the climactic battle, Miike seems to be taking more inspiration from Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But even when approaching the violence of the battle in such an ugly, bloody manner, he still finds ways to include odd, stylistic choices that reminded me of the hilariously over-the-top climactic battle in Dead or Alive, his twisted take on a cops and gangsters film. That these absurdist touches melded so seamlessly with the gritty realism present in the rest of the battle is a credit to Miike as a director.
Interestingly, where the film doesn’t feel traditional is the fact that it refuses to view the samurai code through the rose-colored glasses that so many of these films do. This is shown through the competing viewpoints of Shinzaemon and Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), the samurai bound by honor to protect Naritsugu.
Old rivals, Shinzaemon and Hanbei view duty and honor in two different ways. Hanbei is personally disgusted by Naritsugu’s actions and fears what his increased political power could lead to. But he believes that it is not his place to worry about such things–the only thing a samurai should concern himself with is the safety of his master, even if that means laying down his life for him. Shinzaemon recognizes the end of the samurai way of life is imminent. With no master to protect, he takes it upon himself to make the people of Japan his master, choosing to adapt the samurai code to changing times and put himself on the side of righteousness, even if it means destroying a fundamentally decent man like Hanbei to achieve his goal. It’s an interesting and unexpected look at the way morality and ethics change as a culture evolves.
Along with Super, 13 Assassins is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen this year. Purely as an action film, the climactic battle sequence puts most bloated studio blockbusters to shame. Add in a healthy dose of philosophical soul-searching and it becomes that rarest of film species: an action movie with a brain.
It’s currently in limited release in select cities and available on demand.
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