13 Assassins is a “chanbara” [samurai action] film with all the usual conventions and a few extras. For the time being, let me say that I recommend it especially to those who felt that Kill Bill Vol. 1′s 95 deaths by samurai sword just weren’t enough. The film begins — as any good Japanese period piece begins — with a protest by ritual suicide.
Ok, that might not be a prerequisite for good Japanese film literature, but it certainly works in this case. It’s 1844, and Japan is nearing the end of the Shogun’s reign. We’re introduced to the film’s primary antagonist, Lord Naritsugu, who is the son of a former shogun and the younger half-brother of the current shogun. The man is thoroughly hateful and abuses his power through torture, rape, mutilation and murder. He commits several offenses that tick off the wrong people, and it is decided to kill him rather than let him gain power and ruin more lives. If you’re familiar with the story of the 47 Rōnin, this is the Kô no Moronō character. Powerful, evil, must be killed for the good of the land.
The first third or so of the movie is a lot of talking. People forget that for the better part of 300 years, Tokugawa samurai were merely politicians with swords. They spoke a lot, didn’t fight much and had extensive networks. Our protagonist, Shimada Shinzaemon, uses his extensive network to pull together a team of hardened warriors to undertake the mission of killing Naritsugu. This is where I got really excited, because I know like all of these guys. I’m going to cover them in the style of B+ Movie Blog’s “In Appreciation of Character Actors” list.
Where you know him from: Memoirs of a Geisha, as the Chairman’s friend Nobu; Babel, as the father in the Japanese portion; Silk, as the village baron
Where you know him from: Crows Episode Zero and Crows Zero 2, as Tamao Serizawa;Densha Otoko, as “Train Man”, the lead role
Where you know him from: Letters from Iwo Jima, as Baron Takeichi Nishi
Anyway, those are the biggies for me. I hope you recognized some of them, even through their samurai costumes. Matsukata was the biggest surprise; I loved his acting inBlackmail is my Life and Battles Without Honor or Humanity. The rest of the cast for 13 Assassins was good too, but these were the coolest. Let’s talk about the film, though.
I’ll get it out of the way in advance. This is a Miike film, so you can expect to see Miike stuff. Other than the usual gore, there is a grotesque scene which will repel you for a minute or so. And beyond that, there is always at least one scene in every Miike film that leaves you shaking your head in confusion or disgust. However, both of those scenes combined account for only about .7 percent of the film [I did the math], so it’s nothing to get bent over.
What you can get bent over [or in my case, really excited about] is the solid 40-plus minutes of slashing, stabbing, slicing and impaling. Miike is all about the final showdown between two guys, but first comes the group melee. Naritsugu’s 200 soldiers face off against the 13 assassins and the streets run red with blood. The soldiers just keep coming; I’m actually convinced that there were more than 200 of them, although I don’t know the body count for sure. Hey, now that I think of it, isn’t this imagery of soldiers heading into the showdown,
vaguely reminiscent of this photo from Crows Episode Zero depicting the gang on theirway to the showdown?
Miike seems to have a calling card.
Anyway, there’s a lot of politics in the beginning and a lot of violence toward the end. That isn’t to say Miike doesn’t make time for some references and self-references. The recurring weather theme makes an appearance, as the assassins are leaving on their mission. Just as they’re wrapping up their final meeting, a downpour appears out of nowhere. In previous films, Miike seemed to use the crazy weather to set the tone and to ready the audience for some dramatic action. In this case, though, I think it was representative of the group’s determination and focus on the mission. I say this because the rain lets up some time later as the men start groaning for food and female companionship. Only then does the action start.
The characters have their own appealing qualities as well. Hirayama, the sword master based on a character from Seven Samurai, has his own scene during which he single-handedly dispatches twenty or so soldiers, using five different swords. The non-samurai, Kiga Koyata, is hinted as not being entirely human. And the main protagonist, Shinzaemon’s relationship with Naritsugu’s second in command recalls 1967′s Samurai Rebellion. In it, Toshiro Mifune plays a fugitive whose friend is forced to fight him because the samurai code demands it. 13 Assassins twists that concept around on itself — Miike, through Shinzaemon, is asking, “Why should duty or honor ever trump the greater good? What use is following orders when they will cause unnecessary harm?”
I think my recommendation is the same as it was for Sukiyaki Western Django. If you can take the violence and enjoy an action film, check this out. Miike’s work is always fun to watch, as long as you’re ready for it. There’s so much more I wanted to say about this film, but I don’t want to give away major plot points, so just take my word for it. The direction is great, the acting is great and the story is great. If, from my brief synopsis, this sounds like something you might like, it probably is. It’s on Netflix, if you’re interested.