13 Assassins is the latest release from Japan’s most prolific director, Takashi Miike, who is responsible for countless film festival favourites including Audition, Ichi the Killer and Sukiyaki Western Django. What may surprise some about 13 Assassins is the relative lack of gore that Miike is best known for, but this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who has ventured further into his extensive catalogue and discovered lesser-known gems such as the contemplative The Bird People in China and children’s fantasy The Great Yokai War. What will come as a surprise to Miike fans however is just how conventional 13 Assassins is compared to the rest of his body of work, which is by no means a criticism. This is an elegant and entertaining samurai film which embraces the traditions of the genre, rather than attempting to reinvent them. It owes much to Akira Kurosawa’s genre-defining works, especially The Seven Samurai, but does not pale in comparison to them like most.
Miike’s 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white film of the same name (Jûsan-nin no shikaku) and based on a true incident. The film is set in the late Edo peiod (1830s) and stars Koji Yakusho as Shinzaemon, a trusted elder samurai who is secretly hired by a senior government official, Sir Doi, to assassinate the sadistic and out-of-control Lord Naritsugu. In Naristugu we have a truly evil villain: he rapes, maims and kills at will but is untouchable because he is the former Shogun’s son and the current Shogun’s younger brother. Shinzaemon recruits 11 fellow samurai (they will of course eventually number 13) and devises a plan to ambush Naristugu on his journey home from Edo. The climax of the film takes place in a small village which the assassins take over and convert into a labyrinthine mousetrap with camouflaged fortifications to make their stand against Naristugu and his army of 200. The epic battle scene lasts nearly 40 minutes and is the most visually spectacular, gloriously choreographed, highly immersive and exhausting action sequence in recent memory. Hollywood filmmakers ought to pay attention to how magnificently this is crafted, as it puts every summer blockbuster to shame.
Much of 13 Assassins brooding first half reminded me of another recent classic of the genre, Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai. This is another film set toward the end of the Edo period concerning a peaceful samurai being forced to recall the code of his tradition. I highly recommend it and the subsequent films in Yamada’s trilogy (Hidden Blade and Love and Honor) to anyone with an interest in samurai cinema and history. Each of these films share a subtext: making a stand for the traditional samurai way in the face of modern times and in the midst of corruption.
13 Assassins is the perfect action film and deserves comparison alongside the best samurai cinema. I can’t wait for Miike’s next entry, Hara-Kiri: The Death of a Samurai (a remake of the classic Harakiri, in 3D!). For my money this is the best film of 2011 so far, see it on the big screen if you can.
13 Assassins screened earlier this week in Auckland as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, and will be shown around the rest of the country over the coming months. Check out the trailer below.