Takashi Miike is a difficult director to pin down. Most famous for his seminal horror, Audition, and his ultra-violent black comedy thriller, Ichi The Killer, he’s also directed another eighty-odd films, and regularly churns out three or four a year. This is a man who seemingly makes films for fun, across a wide range of genres, and at a phenomenal rate, yet has attained a status in the West as this uncompromising auteur who’s at the forefront of extreme Asian cinema.
So, when news came through that he was going to be tackling a period samurai film, a remake of the 1963 film, Jûsan-nin no shikaku, people were excited. Rightly so, as it turns out, as 13 Assassins is an absolute blast.
While those looking for ultra-violent thrills on a level Miike has previously demonstrated will be disappointed, this is still a brutal film, with its own set of morals, and those easily offended will probably want to stay away. However, if you like samurais even a tiny little bit, and if you like the sound of a film where the ending battle lasts over an hour, then step right up.
Set in the waning days of the feudal samurai system, the story tells the tale of the evil Lord Naritsugu (played with a well-judged mixture of psychotic insanity and child-like glee by Goro Inagaki), who, due to his untouchable position as the shogun’s brother, rapes and murders his way through Japan. After a nobleman commits seppuku in protest at his actions, Sir Doi, a senior government official, realises Naritsugu must be removed before he attains real power. So, he decides to hire badass samurai, Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), to kill him.
Shinzaemon, in turn, gathers, yep you guessed it, twelve other warriors and then they plan to ambush and kill Naritsugu and his retinue at a remote village. And that’s pretty much that. It’s simple, it’s lean, and it leaves maximum time for samurai versus samurai action. Which is what you’re here for.
As I mentioned up above, of the film’s two-hour running time, over half is devoted to the finale. It is an incredible set piece, where thirteen guys take on two hundred in a believable and easy-to-follow way. This is one of the strengths of Miike’s. Beyond a scene at the very end (which I won’t spoil, but is deliberately done), he grounds the incredible and almost fantastical story in a reality (a muted hyper-reality, to be sure) which has you caring about the fates of the men, as well as thinking they can genuinely pull of their audacious task.
They rig the village up as a giant death-trap full of spikes and heavy smashing wooden objects, all of which look like they could really hurt, much like if the Ewoks were dangerous samurai instead of those lovely cute bears. And then, like a deadly version of Mouse Trap, you’re delighted when it is unleashed against Naritsugu’s men.
It’s the visceral thrills of the film which endlessly entertain. And if you think an hour of sword fighting could get boring, then witness how Miike keeps it fresh every time, with variations on the fight before, a character death to raise the ante, and several set pieces before the final showdown.
However, while the second half of the film is what you will, no doubt, take away with you, and rightly so, 13 Assassins has other strengths. It’s technically marvellous, with the sound editing and practical effects augmenting the story and action incredibly well. Bar a few scenes of dodgy burning cattle effects, the CG is used sparingly and well, and the blood flows liberally across the battlefield.
The lead actors also inhabit their roles in a fashion which allows you to gain an emotional involvement as to their fates, and although this isn’t a character piece in any way, the script and performances deliver a streamlined insight into their motivations.
In particular, Inagaki as Lord Naritsugu is excellent, truly becoming the insane face of sociopathic villainy he is depicted as in stories. He’s a villain you can enjoy watching, despite his barbaric acts, as he’s almost pantomime in his evil deeds.
In contrast, Yakusho as Shinzaemon is the classic stoic hero, putting his duty and honour above his life, and expecting all others to do the same. He’s a noble figure you will on to succeed, but fear he might not.
If the film has any faults, it’s probably in the limited appeal it will have to audiences (the screening I saw was exclusively made up of guys around my age!), and the thin characterisations of the thirteen assassins beyond the main leads. Characters appear with only the briefest mention of how they’re related to each other, and while some attempt is made to differentiate them (two have explosives. Another has a spear), when the fighting and dying starts, it’s occasionally a surprise to be with a character you don’t really recognise, and then wonder who he is!
However, this is a minor quibble, as in the main, Miike expertly keeps the narrative flow throughout the battle, and sketches in enough detail about the main protagonists and antagonists.
So, if you’re a fan of samurais, Takashi Miike, swords, fighting, feudal Japan, explosions, films featuring booby traps, or a combination of all of the former, then I highly recommend you go and see 13 Assassins. It’s excellent.