Takeshi Miike’s 2011 offering reinforces the controversial director as one of cinema’s best let alone hailing from Japan! 13 Assassins is his fifty ninth film as a director and or screenwriter with four more following it. Mainly recognised for his depiction of extreme violence, this master of shock and awe utilises horror to embolden his dramas. In the west and via Hollywood appreciations his standouts are Hostel and Audition – two films that set the bar for originality of the genre and for easily coined terminology such as ‘torture porn’ (see Hostel, Saw etc) and “Asia Extreme”, referencing the aforementioned Audition.
This theme continues in 13 Assassins which is based on Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name and landed on quite a few Best Film lists. Miike is a prolific filmmaker and one of Japan’s best. A homage to fellow Japanese legend Kurosawa, it’s hard to be a director of his caliber and not reference or find reference within it. Is the film a samurai movie? Absolutely! A horror? Yes! A historical drama? Yes! The fact that elements of theatre, traditional filmmaking and bold storytelling come together in a fluid crescendo says a lot about a man who gave the world Ichi The Killer.
As with his other subjects, Miike’s hand is felt in the setting, themes and outright outrageous outpourings of violence in this period piece that is a welcome addition to the samurai canon.
Kôji Yakusho plays the group leader Shinzaemon Shimada and his second in command is Kuranaga Saheita played by Hiroki Matsukata. Naritsugu is played by Gorô Inagaki and the man who starts the plot – Sir Doi is played by Mikijirô Hira.
The story is set in 1844 as the Shogun’s illegitimate brother Lord Naritsugu, is ascending to power. The skew on this familial power struggle, his twisted and sadistic tendencies that prove all too much for some, let alone his victims. Enough is enough, as what to do is pondered before a group is assembled tasked with ending his evil reign and ending him while coming-up against an army intent on protecting the evil Lord…
The premise is simple in its grammar, but there’s a lot more to be read when prying between the syntax. Naritsugu, being one who revels in others’ misery and pain lends Miike the tool to delve and explore his surreal and twisted take on characters by having a clear-cut baddie. As well as this, it is one who makes us feel very uncomfortable and knows his place in the story compared to characters in some of Miike’s other endeavours.
This is an action movie with plenty of martial arts and set pieces and clearly isn’t a body-horror movie but occasionally it feels like one! Having these occasional glimpses reminds us who’s behind the lens as well as having a direct target to boo and hiss at. Along with this, Miike introduces characters with their names and titles appearing on screen, arcade game-like, clarifying who’s on which side, before the inevitable showdown commences.
The opening scene of harakiri by Mamiya is, by definition gruesome (tame in the context of the film) but lends to promoting what the attitudes toward the Lord are.
We start to get a deep glimpse into Naritsugu’s psyche when the story of Chise is recounted. Having been violated, mocked and her husband killed in front of her, he finds it necessary to then cut-off her limbs and her tongue. The limbless image isn’t the part that shocks (well it does) but the blood-curdling scream she unleashes once she’s managed to scribble “Total Massacre” on some parchment as the 13’s leader Shinzaemon’s rage engulfs his person as he plots how to rid the world of this evil.
From here on out, we’re already keen to see who the 13 will be. What band of ragtags or skilled swordsmen will be assembled?
A rain soaked band meet some Akashi henchmen as we see the first flurry into their mission and of course, what skills they have. Once dispatching some broke ronin fighting for money, they pick up some mountain guides that propel the story and add some comic relief.
There’s an inevitability with the basic story, the title and the general direction of the movie that a few key points need to be checked; who’s the bad guy, who are the good guys (or rather, who are the assassins to battle Naritsugu), how will they overcome such odds for the showdown?
The last 40 minutes, essential and what we’re all waiting for, comes quickly as the group set ingenious traps in a small village before the bloody battle commences. These traps aren’t your Home Alone or even Skyfall types, but flaming bison and spiked gates that both trap and gore the enemy. And improvised explosive devices that decimate the crowd as the group fire arrows from the rooftops, and engage in Koyata fighting using a sling. But having initially taken the upper hand they begin to fall. However…Shinzaemon keeps going until the inevitable…final slice…
This is an elegant picture where the first half is dedicated to the selection process of the cause. The last half is a non-stop battle of swords, arrows, bombs, blood, slash and dash and cinematic guile to include all these elements in what must have been an elaborate set indeed!
Samurai movies do not come along often and it’s refreshing to have a director such as Miike at the helm to remind us of why we love this sort of cinema.
The story is allegorical in the sense that the psychotic Lord has loyal subjects, even those who don’t agree with his mindset let alone methodology or sadistic taste, but yet they do not put an end to the various slaughters that had occurred including the archery lesson of the Mamiya clan where orders were sent for him to cease went unheeded…
Regarding characterisation, some are very underdeveloped, proving that with 13, the leader, his second in command and a few oddities here and there sorely stick out. But it’s always a difficult task to balance these numbers in a story that needs to be driven hastily to its conclusion with a high body count…!
All-in-all movies with first half set ups and second half executions – literally – are reminiscent of the old school action films which is never a bad thing and for that second half, Miike’s offering to the samurai genre is more than welcome.
- Gorô Inagaki who plays Naritsugu got into acting after his sister sent a pic of him to a talent agency.
- 13 Assassins was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.
- It was also nominated in the ‘best film’ category at the 34th Japanese Academy Awards (Japanese Best Prize).