The sadistic brother of the Shogun, Lord Naritsugu, satisfies his bloodlust by brutally terrorising the people and gets away with it because of his political connections. Master samurai Shinzaemon Shimada is summoned to assassinate him and is pitted against his old friend and sparring partner Hanbei, who now leads the evil Nartisugu's personal army and must rigidly observe the samurai code regardless of his own principles. Shinzaemon bands together a motley crew of 12 men and begins to plan a complicated ambush.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Beautiful, very, very bloody and even, surprisingly perhaps, laugh out loud funny, 13 Assassins, from notorious and prolific Japanese director Takeshi Miike (Sukiyaki Western Django, 2001, Ichi the Killer, 2006), is an outstanding film on just about every level. It’s a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 samurai film of the same name (which I haven’t seen) and as an action movie it’s just damn terrific. As a period piece, it’s ambitious, political and exquisitely detailed.
It’s also a homage to the samurai genre, especially Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro; at the screening I saw on Sunday night fans whopped with delight whenever they recognised a gesture, a shot or a camera move from any of these classic Kurosawa movies!
Still, 13 Assassins is no museum piece or an exercise in post-modern trickery; though I have to admit Miike has a taste for self-reflexive filmmaking jokes, as when one character says here, after a particularly spectacular piece of action, 'your samurai brawls are crazy fun!" But for the most part Miike is playing this for sincerity and thrills; the characterisations are rich and complex and the drama taps some queasy emotions to do with honour and respect and duty, but none of it ever feels phony or programmed; here’s a movie that takes the time to sketch a very specific moral universe where the emotions feel authentic. It’s not just the internal drama that’s good; it’s easy to engage in a movie where the actors are fine and the filmmaking, shot for shot, is just so seductive as it is here. I think it’s also to do with the plot, which has an obvious contemporary resonance. Within its breathless and superbly staged and choreographed action there’s a grim tale about the dangers of power politics.
Set in 1844, the story is all about moral terror. This was a quarter century before the shogunate, the military leadership of Japan would collapse, and a time when the samurai were losing their significant role in the society. Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is the movie’s arch villain and he’s a very scary monster. One of his past times is to shoot up little kids with a bow and arrow. It isn’t just that he’s a sadist; he seems to love the aesthetics of suffering, the sight of blood, the fear of the victim"¦ What makes him so frightening is that he seems to have purged all compassion from his constitution.
When well-placed bureaucrat Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) learns that Naritsugu is to be promoted within the power elite of the country, assuming a more significant role (one where which would leave him in a position to start a war), he calls retired samurai Shimada Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) into action. Koji Yakusho delivers a simply superb performance; instead of a hard ass, he’s charming, funny, more like a sweet and wise uncle than tough guy (though we learn he certainly is). Understanding the threat Naritsugu poses in not just political terms but in human cost (and by implication to all of Japan’s peasant class), Shinzaemon agrees to raise a small band of samurai to kill him, which involves an ingenious ambush in a remote village. But Shinzaemon’s plan doesn’t go right; Naritsugu has a private army of 200, instead of less than half that, which was what the samurai expected. The inevitable and ultimate face-off takes on epic proportions, which leaves the little village as scorched earth and rubble and its streams running red.
13 Assassins' 45-minute long battle/fight climax seems to have already reached instant classic proportions amongst fans and critics. And to be sure it’s really something to behold; not only is the action imaginative and exciting, its positively dazzling to see a contemporary director rejecting fashionable camera technique where manic energy is favoured over all other considerations. For instance, Miike takes his time; he very carefully establishes on-screen geography. We understand perfectly where the threat is, and the options our heroes face and that creates unbearable tension at times. Still, I think it’s possible to underrate what Takeshi Miike is really doing with this sequence. It’s not just about kicking heads (usually severed ones) and flying blood. Miike can sustain such a lengthy episode of bloody mayhem simply because he’s made us care – about the samurai and their values, and that’s ultimately what makes 13 Assassins seem full and deep. It’s got real tragic grandeur. The sense of loss, of waste, for a society, a culture, is just heartbreaking. That feeling is something special in a 21st century action picture.