*** WARNING THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
A tour de force battle sequence leading to the defeat of a sadistic villain
It’s hard to decide. In 13 Assassins is Takeshi Miike transcending the noble but depleted tradition of samurai films in his own way, or is he simply debasing that tradition in the general contemporary way, draining it of nobility and personality and turning it into a blood-fest? The long final battle sequence, in any case, is so ridiculously watchable that it justifies a film otherwise less bold than Miike’s previous celebrations of gore. It is tempting to compare this with Kurosawa’s war epic Seven Samurai — but better not to. Miike is no Kurosawa, and isn’t trying to be, except that the traditions of samurai epic are the basis for 13 Assassins‘ basic machinery. Miike’s actual source is a less illustrious film of the same title from 1963 by Eiichi Kudo.
Miike sets his standard of violence with the first sequence, which is probably the most vividly graphic scene of ritual harakiri on film. You don’t actually see the guts flow, but the camera presses in upon the face of the suicide following the grunts and groans of each horrific stroke of the blade. This suicide signals that there has been a humiliation, and in slow, old-fashioned scenes that follow there comes the elaborate explanation. A very high placed and very evil man who may become Shogun is wreaking havoc in the land. He must be stopped, and a few good men are chosen by Shogun official Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) to do the job.
It’s 1844. The evil man is Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), and some of his atrocities are shown, including his penchant for chopping off heads (and, later, for kicking the severed heads around on the ground). His sadistic cruelty is not left to the imagination. There is also a horrifying scene of a scrawny naked woman who has had her arms lopped off and her tongue cut out. The noble samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is the one chosen to assassinate Lord Naritsugu. It’s going to be a tough job, because Naritsugu moves around with a small army to protect him. When the big day comes, he arrives with 200 men instead of the 70 the samurai band was expecting. The 13 have an advantage, though — which adds a somewhat gimmicky element to the film. Shinzaemon has been authorized to buy out a whole village, which he and his men have rigged as a collection of booby traps. Elaborate Rube Goldberg barriers are poised to appear when activated, cutting off groups of Naritsugu’s men; and explosives have been planted all over to kill Noritsugu’s men or to cut them off in surprise cul-de-sacs.
This leads to an outrageously tricky but also curiously satisfying battle sequence that proceeds seamlessly, with a few much-needed pauses, for around 45 minutes, or a very large chunk of the two-hour film. To add color there are several notable individuals. These include the handsome Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), Shinzaemon’s right-hand man; a cute teenager, Ogura (Masataka Kubota), who is as brave and ready to die as the best of the more seasoned samurai; and the crazy mountain man Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya), not a samurai at all and added at the last minute, but both indifferent to traditions and status and superhumanly brave and adept at killing. Koyata has just about the last word, and scampers off through the carnage eager to try some new occupation, such as being a thief or going to America and sleeping with a lot of women.
The battle sequence is a technical marvel: so much vivid and clear sword fighting, interwoven with so many intricate and implausible sequences involving the samurai’s system of traps built in the village, as well as some bold and highly successful archery by the 13, some incendiary bulls, and Koyata using a ball and sling, large branches, and anything else he can get his hands on to wipe out the opposition. And then, after a lot of the evil nobleman’s hired guards have been cut down and nearly all of the 13, the proceedings turn to the the “elegant” focus (Lord Naritsugu’s word) on “one-on-one.” Eventually the classic Western finale: two men kill each other, and the sadist writhes pitifully in the mud, first complaining of the pain, then thanking his assassin for giving him the most interesting day of his life. A nice mixture of the pathetic and the novel, there. For all this, the film is worth watching, and required viewing for samurai movie fans. Apart from the nastiness in the opening sequences, those are conventional and even a bit clunky. But the fighting is amazing. It’s just lacking in the epic context and the rich sense of narrative structure you find in Seven Samurai , not to mention many a good Western.
Miike’s 13 Assassins screened at Venice,Toronto, and London in 2010, and at SXSW in 2010, followed by the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was shown May 1, 1011. It opened theatrically April 29 in the US and May 6 in the UK. Seen for this review at the IFC Center, New York.
DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE
WRITERS: KANEO IKEGAMI, DAISUKE TENGAN
CAST: KOJI YAKUSHO, TAKAYUKI YAMADA, YUSUKE ISEYA, GORO INAGAKI
RUNTIME: 126 MIN
COUNTRY: JAPAN, UK