13 Assassins (Review)
aka Jusan-nin no shikaku aka 十三人の刺客
Directed by Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike can make any type of film imaginable. He loves cinema, he loves to work, and his output is legendary. Miike crosses genres like they’re T’s, smearing the lines and creating unique works. His pattern of excesses give his films a tone that cannot be matched by other directors, even as the tones differ based on which excesses he is exercising for the film. From family-friendly fare to ultra-violent yakuza film, Miike puts his heart into everything he does. He pushes limits, test boundaries, and kicks butt.
Due to Miike’s initial popularity in cult movie circles in the West due to movies like Ichi The Killer, Audition, Fudoh, and Dead or Alive, people naturally assumed that he only made ridiculously violent films. I’m sure watching The Great Yokai War, Zebraman, or Yatterman blew their minds to smithereens. 13 Assassins has returned Miike to notice in the international scene, but again it is for a film that features a lot of violence. Most of the violence waits until the end of the film, and instead we go through samurai life, political drama, honor, and journey and preparation. I could say that I was one of those people who like to watch samurai films and am totally into the whole samurai code blah blah blah thing, but I actually don’t like samurai films (nor other period dramas known as jidaigeki.) Frankly, I don’t really care to watch stodgy guys sit around worrying about their honor for 90 minutes until a brief swordfight happens. This probably makes me a bad nerd and bad movie reviewer, but, whatever. I’ve avoided other recent samurai films, and only saw this one as Miike is attached to it. Miike manages to keep things interesting better than I hoped, preventing what could have been a dry and slow buildup with good characterization, planning, and the fallout when things don’t go according to plan and you end up wandering around the woods. There are even supernatural elements hinted throughout the film, the more you pay attention the more you realize where they are.
13 Assassins is a remake of 1963’s Jusan-nin no shikaku (The Thirteen Assassins), a film many (including myself) haven’t seen. In fact, my favorite part of the reviews for this is everyone bringing up Seven Samurai (including this review) while hardly anyone mentions the original version of 13 Assassins. It actually took a while to find a good site comparing the two films, and from what I can see Miike follows the original’s story fairly faithfully, but brings it down to a more human level.
Like in the original film, we open with a samurai committing seppuku, in front of the home of the shogunate heir Lord Naritsugu because of offenses done against the samurai’s family. This is like a gauntlet thrown down that finally convinces some of the master samurai that it is time to take out the trash. As Lord Naritsugu is untouchable, being the brother of the Shogun, he can’t just be arrested. The only response left is to kill him to defend the people.
Sir Doi recruits a leader, Shimada Shinzaemon, and convinces him to lead an assassin squad after parading some of Lord Naritsugu’s victims. Miike shows a brief bit of his excess as we witness the victim who had her family slaughtered in front of her, then her limbs removed along with her tongue. She can only communicate through writing with a brush in her mouth. Just to drive in the point Naritsugu is insane, we see him murdering whole families, including children
Some of the samurai recruited the plot have been effected by Lord Naritsugu’s policies of murder and cruelty. Miike doesn’t try to make the guards of shogunate into evil people, but paints them as men who are bound by their honor to be loyal, even if they personally don’t like who they’ve pledged their lives to. The captain is Hanbei Kitou, who used to train with Shimada Shinzaemon back in the day. There is a limited time to strike, while Lord Naritsugu is on a journey back to court to have a bigger role in the rule. They force Lord Naritsugu to take a certain route, and fortify a village on that way to strike at his escort.
This all leads up to what 13 Assassins will be remembered for in the West, the 45 minute long battle scene that ends the film. The sequence is very well done, and the 13 men facing off against a force 20 times their number is done in a (somewhat) believable fashion. And where besides Mars Attacks! has flaming cattle been used successfully in a film? My favorite part is when they’ve whittled the guards down to around 130, and decide to dispense with the bow and arrows and just fight them with swords. Like most epic stands in samurai films, we know most of the characters will not survive, so don’t get too attached to people.
I liked 13 Assassins very much, and would recommend it to people who don’t even like the samurai genre like myself. Miike’s next period film is another samurai remake, this one of Hara-Kiri, but with the complete 180 in tone from this film, Hara-Kiri will find less of an audience except perhaps people disappointed there isn’t another 45 minute long battle sequence. Once again, Miike will surprise people by doing what they seem to never remember he can do, make a film that isn’t ultraviolent excess. And as he’s also dropping the films Zebraman 2, Ninja Kids!!!, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, maybe this time people will remember.
But I doubt it.
Rated 8/10 (it’s seppuku time!, it’s Hirayama time!, this town, this geisha, Sir Doi, symbol, roast beef, guard)