In the nineteenth century, shortly before the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, a sadistic regional lord named Naritsugu is threatening the fragile state of peace and stability across the country. Although his wilful cruelty causes widespread outrage, his family ties to the shogun make a diplomatic solution impossible, leading to the decision from a group of officials that they have no choice but to recruit an elite group of samurai to have him covertly assassinated. This band of warriors sets out to plan and carry out a vital mission that will see them outnumbered and with only a slim chance of returning home alive.
Takashi Miike possibly needs no introduction: an enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, his CV is a lengthy and diverse list of striking and often controversial cult hits. I must admit I was very interested to see what his distinctive style could bring to the somewhat traditionalistic genre of samurai epic, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Perhaps surprisingly, 13 Assassins doesn’t overtly show the most obvious Miike hallmarks, although his unflinching portrayal of violence is still evident. We see small demonstrations of his black humour and willingness to shock when required but they’re integral to the plot and the underlying themes that are addressed. The final third of the film has swords clashing and bodies falling, but it’s remarkably convincing and true-to-life; some artistic licence is taken, but that is only to sustain one of the most lengthy and visceral samurai combat sequences in recent memory.
The international edition of the film clocks in at the standard two hours and that time is effectively spent on exposition and building up tension. We are introduced to the main players on the political side of the proceedings and, later, the assortment of samurai of the film’s title. Naritsugu is shown from the outset as a twisted, amoral and thoroughly dangerous character that is completely at odds with the prevailing philosophy and ideology of his time; he’s clearly a psychopath who is drunk on the power that his station allows and is not deserving of any viewer sympathy at all.
The advisor Sir Doi is in a difficult position because skilled warriors are hard to find yet it is still expected that the Shogun holds a position of influence. It’s an interesting period from an historical perspective actually, but despite being allegedly based on real events this is more of an exercise in creating a contemporary interpretation of the Akira Kurosawa brand of jidaigeki samurai film (this is in fact a remake of an Eichi Kudo 1963 movie of the same name, but I’m sadly unable to find a home video copy of that for comparison).
Miike is showing quite a bit of restraint here, so viewers expecting another Ichi the Killer or Audition might be preparing for something that needs a rating higher than the 15 certificate this movie has been given. It is Miike at his most subtle and polished, with a deliberately minimalist soundtrack and using its moments of brutality sparingly to enhance the impact of events in the story. Although some might be disheartened that this is not an ‘extreme’ demonstration of his directing talents it’s a shining example of what is, truth be told, a large and well-explored genre.
As indicated in the title there are over a dozen men who make up the heroes of this tale, so inevitably there isn’t quite enough time to give their characters and acting talents the limelight they deserve. They are a mixture of young hopefuls, idealistic warriors and jaded veterans; many played by well-known names in Japanese cinema. Each samurai has his own motives and story to tell so it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t learn more about them before they march into battle.
Criticising 13 Assassins for lack of character development is justifiable up to a point, but it is also a film concerned with setting up the socio-political scenario, introducing the antagonist and highlighting how important it is to defeat him, then rendering the final showdown in a way that’s as exhilarating as possible... and it does all of these things very well indeed.
Although the preceding eighty or so minutes can hardly be called boring or irrelevant, the inventiveness and assured direction of the finale make it a thoroughly memorable end to the experience. Because the heroes are so heavily outnumbered they make use of an array of shrewd tactics and tricks to even the odds, and every one of the principal combatants gets some screen time before the end. The combat choreography cannot be understated, and as a result of its efforts the fighting never feels repetitive or formulaic. It’s a long combat scene for sure, but doesn’t feel over-long.
After a well-executed portrait of late Samurai-era power plays the movie bows out with a battle whose momentum never wavers and brings the proceedings to a rapid and spectacular conclusion. I’m reluctant to dwell on the edge-of-your-seat fighting when the moral and political issues are so well-realised, because it’s the combination of all these aspects that makes this another startling and unforgettable Miike movie.