– Summary –
Director : Takashi Miike
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Koji Yakusho, Hiroki Matsukata, Takayumi Yamada, Masachika Ichimura, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Arata Furuta, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Mikijiro Hira.
Approx Running Time : 127 Minutes
Synopsis: A group of 13 samurai warriors band together to take down a vicious, cruel ruling Lord, and to do so they set up a local village as a deathtrap.
What we think : Tremendously exciting action adventure flick from prodigious Japanese director Miike, 13 Assassins does tend to get a little too melodramatic at times; the finale battle, a forty minute bloody spectacle the likes of which we’ve not seen since John Woo’s The Killer. Instead of pure cinema style, Miike imbues his film with a bloody realism, an almost at-times documentary-style actioner that feels more like Bourne Supremacy than Enter The Dragon.
At least you can’t blame Takashi Miike for not trying as a director. The hugely prolific director, best known for his cult classic films Audition and Ichi The Killer, delivers a massive output of work each and every year – in 2002 alone he produced 8 films, and as many again the year prior – the majority of which touches on a vastly differing narrative style. Miike’s work includes horror, action, children’s films, musicals and even farces like The Happiness Of The Katakuris, in amongst the reputation for gore and horror. Of course, controversial films like Ichi and Audition have given him a following for hard-core horror that overshadows his more traditional fare, which is a shame, because I think if the rest of his films are even remotely of similar quality to 13 Assassins, then he’s a director worth your time. A sidebar: 13 Assassins marks my first Miike film viewing, even though I’ve heard about the famed Japanese filmmaker for a number of years now. It’s not through lack of trying, it’s just that other films seemed to get in the way each time out. Anybody approaching the Miike oeuvre as a virgin might well be encouraged to take a gander at his more accessible fare prior to embarking on Ichi, purely to ensure you realize that he’s a director of many different talents. 13 Assassins, which came out in 2010 (2011 in some regions), received a fair amount of positive praise from critics across the board, and I’m disappointing in myself that it’s taken me so long to finally view it. Having now done so, I’ll be seeking out some other Miike fare post haste!
13 Assassins is, at its heart, a simple story. It’s also a remake of fellow Japanese director Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name – although I dare say this version is significantly more bloody. Set in the min-1800’s Japan, the age of the samurai is starting to wane, with aging warrior Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) sought out to assassinate a vicious ruling Lord of their province’s shogun. A shogun, according to Wikipedia, is literally a “commander of the force”, in other words, a ruler of a particular province of Japan usually nominated by the Emperor himself; in this story, Lord Naritsugu (Mikijiro Hira) is the son of the former shogun and younger brother to the incumbent, meaning his cruel and sadistic behavior goes unpunished. He rapes women, kills entire families (including young children) as a way of satiating his lust for cruelty, and is seemingly entirely without human emotion; the local populace have had enough, and Shinzaemon is hired to gather a force to take him down. Together with his lieutenant Saheita (Hiroki Matsukata), Shinzaemon hires a small mercenary force of samurai, including Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada), a highly skilled ronin Rihei (Kazuki Namioka), a tracker Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) and even a young samurai-in-training, Shoujiro (Masataka Kubota, from the Japanese pop-group ROM-4, and somebody I’ve actually seen on Aussie TV in the Asian pop music chart shows!). 13 Assassins involves a lot of Japanese sense of honor, the kind which makes people commit hari-kiri if they or their families are dishonored, and the majority of the first half contains a lot of dialogue – which is plot development – to get around this. Shinzaemon and his band of assassins set up their attack in a small town, where they booby-trap everything to capture and eventually kill Narigutsu by any means possible. The final showdown, pitting the 13 assassins against some 200 of Naritsugu’s armed guard, is a fast, frenetic and utterly gob-smacking execution of action and stunts, a forty minute sequence of death, swords, arrows and explosions. All told with Miike’s keen eye for violence.
Given my lack of knowledge of Japanese filmmaking, and particularly Miike’s, this review is going to simply attempt to reflect what I enjoyed and disliked about this specific film, and as I’m unable to cast any editorial praise on whether this film stacks up against of Miike’s other efforts, if you’re hoping to see if it’s better than Ultraman Max you can probably stop reading now. What I can say with some certainty is that while my experience with Japanese film is small, 13 Assassins is among the best of those I have seen. As an action film, it’s missing an outright kick to the guts to make it a genuine classic, and as a period film (which this is) it’s certainly got the pedigree of production values going for it, but there’s a mismatch of melodrama and bloody gore which makes 13 Assassins something of a awkward recommend. It’s a film of two halves; the first feels more melodrama tinged with horror elements and a sense of vengeance, while the second half is outright action, action, action. Unlike previous films which take a sharp turn about half way through, though, 13 Assassins’ plot narrative is organic, necessary and believable. The calm before the storm, with Shinzaemon gathering his troops and concocting a plan to kill Naritsugu, introduces each of the supporting samurai in quick succession, with dashes of humor and irony sprinkled throughout. The eventual showdown between the 13 and Naritsugu’s troops is a finely tuned balance of chaos and organization, although the casual observer might lean more towards the former.
Unlike the footage I’ve seen of Audition and Ichi The Killer, 13 Assassins is actually quite restrained with its depiction of gore. Sure, there’s blood around; after all, the samurai and Naritsugu’s army all carry and fight with swords, which inherently means there’s going to be slicing and dicing of human flesh at some point, but Miike restrains himself from Kill Bill-styled bloodletting favor of a more realistic, only-when-it-matters use of gore. Heads roll from time to time, and there’s a particularly liquid-based explosion of an 1840’s hand grenade that makes one gawp a little, but overall, I was expecting… more gore. Miike handles the dialogue-driven scenes with style, plenty of dolly and tracking shots with the camera moving around the speaker ensuring your attention is held, and Miike’s use of lighting and framing is excellent. What I actually enjoyed about Miike’s work here was his decided disinterest in gratuitous hero shots. You know what I mean, the kind of shot Michael Bay inserts every five minutes or so to get his moneys worth of whichever big star he’s got in his film – those “super close up emotion shot” on an actor that oftentimes can detract from a specific scene or moment in favor of simply extending already inherent context. Miike keeps his camera at a distance from the actors in this film, I found, and it was refreshing to be able to soak in the entire frame around the performers face and body. Backgrounds and shadow detail are well designed, and the production design in the early part of the film is reminiscent of what I remember from Memoirs Of A Geisha: non-specific locations within the story that serve to highlight the tranquility of Japanese society which is about to be broken. Indeed, the village-bound finale, where entire wooden houses are flattened by explosive combat and boob-trapped walls of spikes fly across the streets is singularly awesome to behold; I can only imagine what this might have looked like on the big screen! It’s a massive set-piece, with not a single bit of set left standing scratch-free by the time the credits roll.
The cast are all utterly magnificent in their roles, no matter how small. There’s humor and a wry irony in the screenplay, and while lead actors Koji Yakusho, Mikijiro Hira and Masachika Ichimura (as Naritsugu’s lead army commander) carry the larger burden of performance, they are more than ably backed up by their supporting cast. Each of the 13 assassins has a definite personality, each one unique to the story, and with every small moment of character inserted into the action and dialogue, a sense of belonging comes to the viewer with it. I don’t understand Japanese at all, so I have no idea if the actors’ performances were accurate to the subtitles on the screen, but to me, they all delivered convincing performances. Of specific note, watch for Yusuke Iseya as a tracker/hunter character – a somewhat magical character it turns out – his wild-eyed performance and deft use of a slingshot is both awesome and hilarious; also the razor sharp ronin of exquisite skill played by Kazuki Namioka… there’s a scene, in the finale, where Rihei stands at one end of a barricaded compound, facing about twenty or thirty opponents, with the younger samurai Koyata behind him, and between them all are hundreds of swords protruding from the mud and slush. “Kill any who get past me,” Rihei utters to his samurai friend, before leaping into attack against a vastly superior number of enemy. It’s so awesome. I mean, this dude just annihilates everything he touches. It’s one of many small moments that make this film truly awesome.
I mentioned earlier the mismatch of melodrama and violence in 13 Assassins, and I think I should clarify this statement. The dialogue and plot development does feel at times like borderline daytime soap-styled emotive wrangling, with angry glares and spittle-swinging utterances of vengeance and honor among the plotting and hatching. The final battle eschews this style for the hurly-burly of samurai swathe-cutting action – and it is awesome, in case you missed my point – but casual viewers might be tempted to hit the fast-forward button on their remotes looking for the blood and guts: I say, stick with it, even if it comes across as a little hackneyed to Western eyes. Some of the characters do feel a little like too-obvious comedy relief, but in terms of their impact on the quality of the story, they served their purpose well, without feeling too kitschy.
There are two kinds of people in the world – those who enjoy Takashi Miike’s film, and those who don’t. Fans will obviously lap this movie up with relish, while casual viewers and non-fans of the genre might just think it’s all a load of old tosh: whichever your bent towards Japanese films, samurai epics in general or bloody fight movies in particular, there’s no denying 13 Assassins has a lot going for it. Take or leave the violence, maybe even the acting, but for sheer visceral gut-punch this film is a tough one to beat.