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13 Assassins (2011,Japan)

04/06/2011

Director: Takashi Miike     Starring: Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Takashi Miike is something of a legend when it comes to film making. Responsible for over eighty films in his twenty year career he is as prolific as he is diverse. His repertoire ranges from comedy to gangster thrillers to horror movies and encompasses everything inbetween. He is probably best known in the West for his psycho-thriller Audition or maybe perhaps his Lynchian weird-fests Visitor Q and Gozu. This may be set to change with 13 Assassins, a remake of a 1963 film by Kudo Eiichi, that is both formidable and possibly the most accessible Takashi Miike film I’ve seen.

Set in the the mid nineteenth century in a Japan still ruled by the feudal Shogunate system it is a straightforward enough story about a group of Samurai marshalled with one task in mind – the killing of the sadistic and deranged Lord Naritsugu, half brother of the Shogun who could prove to be the undoing of peace and prosperity for the nation with his unpredictable prediliction for violence and destruction. Only a handful of men are assembled for this task led by the seasoned veteran Shinzaemon Shinada and given the odds that they must inevitably face, it’s pretty clear that they are being sent on a suicide mission, but one they must accomplish for the sake of their nation.

If you are familiar with Samurai cinema you will recognise a lot of the themes at work here. The dedication to a code of honour, one that is dying out as the Samurai way of life is becoming increasingly redundant in an age of peace, vengeance against the unjust (in this case vengeance by proxy for those unable to avenge themselves), loyalty to the master and sacrificing oneself to a cause – all are hallmarks of the Samurai legend, especially as told in this kind of “jidageiki” (period drama). The sense of the decline of the Samurai way of life recalls the work of Kurosawa (there is much about this film in common with his Seven Samurai) and Yoji Yamada’s The Hidden Blade and Twilight Samurai and it is this sense of loss, of the death of a way of life, that makes the assassins of the title so eager to undertake such a desperately hopeless mission. What other chance is there in the new peaceful world for a Samurai to die and honourable and worthy death? Despite this, Miike doesn’t shy away from the fact that any code of honour is just more dogma that can be twisted to suit one’s own purposes. Shinzaemon, Naritsugu and the evil Lord’s presonal bodyguard Hanbei all sum up different interperations of the same Samurai code, realigned to suit their personal morality.

The cast do an excellent job of conveying these conflicting notions. Koji Yakusho (Shinzaemon) and Masachika Ichimura (Hanbei) are particularly good. Old school friends who trained together in the dojo in their youth are now pitted against one another as Hanbei, sworn to protect his master even if it means sacrificing his own life, must try to stop Shinzaemon from completing his task, even though he cannot hide his disgust at Naritsugu’s abonimable behaviour. In these two men there is an air of other-worldliness, of experience and wisdom that seems lost to a modern age. They are the real deal, battle seasoned Samurai to their grizzled cores as opposed to the Samurai in name only that now populate their world. United in their hatred of the Lord Naritsugu but trapped by their opposing loyalties they represent the purity of the Samurai spirit in contrast to Naritsugu’s corruption.

Goro Inugaki’s portrayal of the despotic rapist, torturer and murderer Naritsugu is chillingly convincing. His depraved interperation of the Samurai ideal is the ideology he uses to rationalise his vile acts. His belief that his social status entitles him to behave however he likes, that his political power is the most, the only, important force in the world. He is the distillation of the weakness inherent in mankind. Greedy, selfish, brutal, vain, he is the antithesis of Shinzaemon.

All of the scene setting and characterisation builds to a stunning conclusion as Shinzaemon and his company of warriors spring their trap. In a raging battle that unfolds over forty five minutes of more or less real time action the assassins make their play for Naritsugu. As far as set pieces go it is one of the most electrifying, dizzying, chaotic battles I’ve witnessed on screen. You can’t help but try and keep count of the bodies as arrows fly, blades flash and explosions rock the village chosen as the battlefield. It’s a futile gesture as the bodies stack up faster than you can count them. It’s so frenzied the forty five minutes seem to whiz by in an instant and yet every detail of the carnage sears itself in your memory. There are few cinematic finales as exhilarating and stirring as this. Combined with the precision and elegance of the fight choreography as it ebbs and flows through the streets and alleyways it is a thing of striking beauty.

The same can be said of the rest of the film. Beautifully paced, magnificently photographed and masterfully directed it is further evidence of Takashi Miike’s exraordinay talent as a film maker.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 08/06/2011 02:39

    Great review! I saw this over the weekend and enjoyed every minute of it. That battle scene is absolutely incredible, no doubt.

    Apparently Miike’s next film is another samurai tale, this time set in 3D. That oughta be interesting.

    • 08/06/2011 05:02

      Thanks for the comment! It takes something special to stage a grand finale like that one. It’s proof of Miike’s obvious talent. Plus of course Samurai are just plain cool…

  2. 11/06/2011 05:00

    Great review. You’ve sold me – I’ll definitely make sure I see this one.

    • 14/06/2011 18:05

      It’s an absolute beast. Looks, sounds and feels amazing and the climactic battle is awe inspiring. See it soon…

      • 17/06/2011 02:30

        I found out yesterday that the Melbourne International Film festival will be showing this as part of their program in August. Hurrah!

      • 17/06/2011 18:03

        Happy days! It really is worth seeing on the big screen, it’s absolutely stunning.

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