The most recent release from the hugely prolific director Takashi Miike, 13 Assassins might be seen as nothing more than a more violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954). But this would diminish the film’s achievement, which has plenty to offer in its own terms, and shows that Miike can keep his cult director street cred intact even while detouring into the realm of old-school samurai action movies.
Miike, who established his career in the direct-to-video boom of the early 1990s, retains a B-movie sensibility even in his much bigger budget later works. Although 13 Assassins has a massive body count, rising into the hundreds, he finds time for quite a lot of talk between the carnage. Uncharacteristically, Miike takes his time in the first half of the film, setting up a thematic line about the nature of the samurai code, which he then proceeds to subvert, giving 13 Assassins an edgy philosophical undercurrent that flows through the long action sequences. At one of its many levels, 13 Assassins can be enjoyed as a satirical retrospective of the samurai action genre, in the same way as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven gave the western a new ideological spin without actually departing from accepted genre conventions.
Although the heroes of the film, the titular 13 assassins, have the most screen time, the real scene stealer is Goro Inagaki, who plays the villain of the piece, the sadistic Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira. He is the half-brother of the ruling Shogun and despite a sadistic and murderous streak that has him massacre, mutilate and maim to satisfy his (blood) lust, he is politically untouchable. Forces in the government decide that the extra-judicial removal of this violent and undependable character is required, and they call on Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), a swordsman who has retreated from the world and spends his time fishing.
13 Assassins (Jusan-nin No Shikaku)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho (Shinzaemon Shimada), Takayuki Yamada (Shinrouko), Yusuke Iseya (Koyata), Goro Inagaki (Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira), Masachika Ichimura (Hanbei Kitou)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
The film is set in the mid-1800s, after a long period of sustained peace in which samurai warriors have had little to do. All the assassins recognize that the Way of the Sword is already slipping into history, and it is in this spirit that they embark on this last great venture in which most of them expect to find death — an honorable death on the field of battle.
The modern age looms just outside the frame of this picture, and many of the more thoughtful characters realize that they are already anachronisms. Miike uses this awareness to ridicule both the aspirations and the bravery of the assassins; he also mocks the inherent hypocrisy of the code they believe in. To kill Lord Naritsugu and his large retinue of loyal servants, Shinzaemon announces to his colleagues that any pretense at honor and soldierly conduct will have to be abandoned.
Miike plays with the conventions of the samurai epic in so sophisticated a fashion that it seems a pity that only the shorter international version of the film will screen in Taiwan; a version released in Japan that is 20 minutes longer has more talk, but was cut for fear that foreign audiences would find long passages about Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, tedious.
But it is this philosophizing, this awareness of the pleasures of violence, that makes 13 Assassins such a fascinating movie. Miike, who in cult classics such as Ichi the Killer (2001) and Audition (1999) has produced some of the most graphically violent movies to date, knows all about the sick pleasure of horrible actions, and has created in Lord Naritsugu a character who yearns to see just how far things can be taken. He smiles as he sees the destruction of his own forces, delighting in the excitement of war as spectacle, and suggests to his horrified bodyguard, the deeply honorable Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), that he would like to bring Japan back into an age of war.