Movie Review by L.L. Soares
To say that Japanese director Takashi Miike is eclectic is an understatement. His long career has included everything from horror films (AUDITION  and IMPRINT ) to Yakuza (gangster) movies (ICHI THE KILLER , GOZU ) to kid’s movies (2004’s ZEBRAMAN) to totally off-the-wall weirdness (THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS ). His newest film is a samurai epic called 13 ASSASSINS.
A remake of the 1963 film, THE THIRTEEN ASSASSINS, directed by Eichi Kudo, Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS offers up a work of great heft and beauty, along the lines of Akira Kurosawa’s classic SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), and shows Miike at the top of his form.
When 13 ASSASSINS begins, we are at the tail end of feudal Japan. The old ways don’t have much longer to go before they’re replaced. Shoguns (governors) control their areas and rely on traditional bonds of honor and fealty to keep their legacies intact. But there’s a problem. The shogun of this particular province has a younger brother who has become problematic, to say the least. Lord Nartisugu (Goro Inagaki), the fast rising nephew, will soon take a larger role in the region’s government, but many of those beneath him feel he is not suitable to wield such power. Based on how much he has abused his power so far, the contention is that things can only get worse. His crimes include vicious rapes, mutilations and murders, to name a few, which he gets away with impunity, because of his standing.
So, to prevent the Japanese version of Caligula from rising to power, various government officials conspire to get rid of Nartisugu, by hiring a group of samurai, led by Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), to see that he does not get back to the government stronghold alive. The first half of the film involves Shinzaemon gathering up his forces a little as a time, as various allies pledge their allegiance and resources to the cause. The band of warriors includes Shinzaemon’s nephew (a samurai who has been living a decadent life of drunkenness and womanizing), two explosives experts, and, as the group travels toward their goal, an animal trapper who somehow ends up in a trap himself (they cut him down, and he joins their mission).
The second half of the film involves putting their plan into action by turning a seemingly quiet village into a gigantic trap to capture Nartisugu and his forces. The thing is, Nartisugu’s soldiers add up to over 200 men, and the samurais only add up to 13.
While the first half is a bit dry as we go about seeing how their plans come to fruition, the second half of 13 ASSASSINS is pure action. At first, the samurais have the element of surprise and the upper hand in their mission, but after a campaign of vicious fighting, the warriors find that more soldiers are ready and willing to take their fallen brethren’s place. The sheer numbers of the enemies is something Miike makes quite clear. This is not going to be an easy mission to complete. Men are going to die on both sides, and there is nothing to guarantee that the mission will succeed at all.
The fight scenes are well choreographed, and exciting, and despite the film’s 141 minute running time, it does not get boring. Each battle between the samurais and the soldiers is a rough and ready tableau that holds you spellbound.
Miike does a great job of conveying the feelings of the time. There has been a long period of peace during the shogunate, and samurais have been raised to do battle – to be perfect soldiers in a society that has no need for war. When they are finally given a chance to tear loose and combine to face a mutual foe, they are overwhelmed with joy (one samurai even finds himself shaking when he is given the news of how vile Lord Nartisugu is, because he can’t wait to take the man out). These men finally have a chance to use the skills they have learned in a real-life situation outside of a dojo, and they can’t wait.
13 ASSASSINS is an excellent film and definitely worth checking out for fans of samurai films, Japanese movies, and just plain great cinema. Considering how many films Miike makes, the number that are actually pretty great is amazing.
© Copyright 2011 by L.L. Soares