13 Assassins (2011)
Release Date: April 29th, 2011 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Takashi Miike Actors: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Hiroki Matsukata, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Assassins” is director Takashi Miike’s homage to the epic samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. Like many of those, Miike’s take is structured to show camaraderie, honor, compassion, and loyalty in the face of extreme adversity – but it’s clear that the exhilarating 50-minute climax battle is both the director’s forte and his primary passion. Forgoing elaborate and penetrating backstories, many of the intrepid warriors serve simply to embellish the combat, something Kurosawa’s films wisely avoided. Insightful concepts of fate and destiny do emerge in small doses, along with notions of mythology, but the violent visuals and elaborate action sequences are the moments that prevail. Fortunately, Miike’s aptitude in these fields is quite impressive.
It is a time of peace in feudal Japan (1840s), but such fragile ideals are threatened by the ascent to power of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a callous and ruthless descendant of the Shogun. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), bound by his status as top Shogun official, knows he must act or the Shogunate and its people will be thrown into turmoil and chaos. Secretly devising a plot to assassinate the evil Lord, Doi turns to noble samurai Shinzaemon Shinada (Koji Yakusho) to gather conscripts for the crucial mission. But with spies, lordless troops, and Naritsugu’s calculating advisor Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) countering Shinza’s every move, their impossible task grows ever more perilous.
The opening scene sets up the preoccupation with bloodshed and violence to come, with a rebellious samurai disemboweling himself – ritualistic harakiri – in typical, Takashi Miike cringe-inducing fashion. Although it may not be his most memorable (or brutal) work, “13 Assassins” ends up being one of his most thrilling and technically proficient actioners. All the elements of Shogun adventure are present: a heartless tyrant, wise elders, a mature warrior leader, an unsympathetic henchman, an assassination mission, crossed swords, longtime rivals, and an epic 200-man skirmish.
The hunt for the last remaining true samurai is not unlike assembling “The Magnificent Seven” (or “Seven Samurai” before that). It’s a quest for forgotten champions and not just the kind for show – ones who can still draw their swords and live by them. Obtaining them is just the start. A perilous trek through unforgiving countryside awaits, with ambushes, ronin mercernaries, political bribes and inevitable battle on the horizon. Their success is governed largely by luck (and a hint of the supernatural).
“These days, swords are only good for cutting radishes.” The samurai status no longer insinuates a fighter skilled with weaponry. Honor is everything. This setting mirrors that of “The Wild Bunch,” with men that have outlived their lawlessness and usefulness, despite civilization remaining just as barbaric. Here, villain Lord Naritsugu is especially merciless, deluded, eager to demonstrate his power, and intent on cruelly making examples of those who rebel against his rule. His general vileness and fondness for warfare is a touch overdone. If anything is certain, however, it’s that Naritsugu will satisfactorily receive an ending as blood-soaked as his standard conduct.
– The Massie Twins