Shinzaemon: I shall accomplish your task... with magnificence.
As if it were not cool enough to be having westerns entering successfully back into theaters, the chance to see new samurai films made with the technology of today is equally exciting. Better yet is the fact that I can appreciate a film that has clearly been inspired by samurai films of the past, notably the work of Akira Kurosawa, which manage to practically apply the type of mood and pacing appropriate for such a film. Furthermore, add a fantastic action sequence that lasts nearly a third of the film’s running time. Legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike is certainly no slouch when it comes to filmmaking, and while he may be more known in the U.S. for his cult status as an ultra-violent horror/action film director, his talents easily serve him well here in creating an old fashioned samurai story, using modern sensibilities.
13 Assassins tells the story of a set of warriors working together in a suicide mission for the sake of stopping corruption. Set in Feudal Japan, the era of the samurai is coming to an end. An evil, young Lord, Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), has become a menace; killing and raping as he pleases, with no one able to stop him, as he is the brother of the Shogun, making him above the law. The film literally begins with a man committing seppuku, which leads to the advent of having someone handle the situation.
An older samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), is secretly hired to assassinate the evil lord. Shinzaemon gathers together a team of other samurai, including a young relative, several ronins, and even another unlikely ally. The plan is to ambush Naritsugu during his journey home from Edo. Despite warning from Naritsugu’s own samurai, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), the thirteen assassins set up a plan to trap Naritsugu and his men within a town and fight until all are dead. This leads to an epic, climatic battle where a small, but lethally skilled team must do all that they can to stop evil and preserve what is left of their code.
For anyone that enjoys films centered on samurai or this historical period, 13 Assassins is easily a movie that you will want to see. For anyone who is in the mood for an epic, period action film, this will also easily suffice. For those who just simply want to see some great action, there may be a test of patience for some, but this, again, is a film that will satisfy. 13 Assassins is a very fulfilling film in the way that it manages to create enough of the right kind of drama that lends itself to a stretched out action finale, which is a wonderful achievement from both a technical standpoint, as well as a visual one for audiences.
I have not immersed myself deep enough into the filmography of director Takashi Miike, but I have seen enough of his films to have a certain level of knowledge concerning what to expect. In 13 Assassins, which is currently my favorite of his films (though, once I get to some more of his past work, I may change that stance), Miike has created a motion picture that is of course indebted to the work of past filmmakers who have treaded similar ground, but has also made a film that is distinctly his own. The violence has a level of intensity to it, which is handled appropriately, but not in an overly graphic way (as far as a Miike film goes anyway). There is also a level of dark humor to the film, which is much appreciated. Regardless of serious the nature of this film’s plot is, it is nice to afford some levity to the story, while settling in the strict world of the samurai. Even in the face of death, some laughter is nicely afforded for the audience.
Getting to what is truly impressive about this film, 13 Assassins has an incredibly long final sequence that is all action. The film, up to this point, has laid all of the pieces out, and upon arriving at this sequence, the way everything unfolds spectacular. The town, where this giant battle occurs, has been rigged up by the assassins to be a huge deathtrap for all of the soldiers, as giant spike walls enclose them, fire bombs dwindle their numbers, and the assassins’ themselves, all master samurais, are ready to unleash their fury. It is a great mix of well handled geography in terms of having the audiences understand where all of the action is occurring, while still providing the idea of a labyrinth of confusion for the enemy. It should be no surprise that the film is quite violent. I would not say that the bloodshed gets out of hand in an overly gory sort of way, but the way swords slice through opponents definitely earns this film an R-rating in the same league as something like Kill Bill: Volume 1.
To reference the mixing of styles again, I really enjoyed how I found myself watching a film that put me in the same mindframe as something like Seven Samurai in terms of the tone of the film and they way it gradually builds up to its inclusion, while also getting a feel for the darker qualities and style of filmmaking that suggest something much more modern. The characters are slowly collected and one begins to have a general idea of who people are and how this story is going to progress. All of the different parts of this story are slowly developed and handled appropriately for the period. Then, one is also given more specific touches that remind an audience of the film’s other qualities. Having a villain be developed as such an evil character, that it causes others to literally commit their honorable form of suicide brings you to an intense level. The use of certain technical abilities such as sound design and editing techniques further wrap you into a well established state of mind.
If the film has any problems, it has to do with maintaining control over depicting so many characters clearly. This film does have 13 Assassins to keep track of, which becomes very difficult during the final battle sequence. It is hard to establish characters, aside from the more important ones, as being more fleshed beyond which weapon they use or their general demeanor. The film also has one sequence that requires the use of CG, which truly reflects how the rest of this film was practically achieved, unfortunately making that sequence stick out like a sore cow. I find these to be small knocks for the film, compared to the larger scheme of things, as this is a really solid action film at its core.
Playing in a limited amount of theaters (at least here in America), but also available via Video OnDemand, 13 Assassins is very much a film that people should try to check out. If you like old school samurai films, period action films, or simply action films, this is a film that goes crazy, following careful preparation. Hard edged sword slices, explosions, and fighting in order to maintain one’s honor; not every arthouse film is an existential dramedy. 13 Assassins is a whole lot of fun, very well made, and certainly intense.
Lord Naritsugu: You think the age of war was like this?
Lord Naritsugu: It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei. Something wonderful has come to my mind.
Lord Naritsugu: Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring the age of war.