13 Assassins (2011)

Takashi Miike is not a director who is known for trying to fit his vision to mainstream sensibilities. The director of such censor-baiting movies as Ichi the Killer, Audition, and Dead or Alive has now given us a samurai movie, and we were all very curious to see what a Takashi Miike samurai film would look like.

Feudal Japan. The age of the samurai is coming to an end as peace spreads through the land. But the Shogun’s younger brother Naritsugu is a sadistic tyrant who must be stopped at any cost. Retired samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) is contacted to attempt a suicide mission to assassinate Naritsugu. 13 men will face off against over 200.

Loosely based on a true story, as well as a 1963 film, Miike’s 13 Assassins is not only his most mainstream work to date but a well-crafted, thrilling film. Clearly, the film owes a debt to The Seven Samurai, and Western audiences may think of The Magnificent Seven. It’s the fact that Miike has made a film in that mould that is unusual. There is attention to the mechanics of plotting that the director doesn’t always seem bothered by. The film takes its time setting up the characters, especially, but not limited to, Shinzaemon and his gambling nephew Shinroukuro (Takayuki Yamada), who joins his mission. While it would be an exaggeration to say that we get to know each of the 13 assassins well, Miike does spend time developing the majority of them. In the best “guys coming together for a mission” tradition, there’s the funny one, the old one, the rookie, the stoic badass, the family member, etc.

Clearly, it’s relatively conventional, with a very familiar storyline. But thanks to the time taken to build the story and the excellent performances, particularly from Yakusho and Tsuyoshi Ihara as the aforementioned stoic badass, it feels fresh. It’s interesting to see the personal touches that he brings to this film. While there’s nothing that will send viewers running for the exit, there are still a few moments that fans will recognize as Miike-esque, as we witness the extent of Naritsugu’s wickedness. The visceral nature of the fight sequences gives a modern touch to the old-fashioned themes of honour and duty. Then there’s the blood.

The film builds to a climactic battle between the titular warriors and Naritsugu’s small army of samurais, led by Shinzaemon’s old dojo rival, at a tiny village. As Shinzaemon unveils a banner that reads “Total massacre”, the bloodbath begins. It’s an incredibly choreographed fight sequence that goes on for over half an hour. Miike follows each assassin’s progress as they carve their way through their opponents. Because of the time we spent with the characters, we care when they get hurt. And although the samurais are willing to lay their lives down for their cause, that doesn’t mean that doing so is a quick or easy process and Miike is only too happy to show this.

It might move a little slowly for some viewers at just over two hours, but we can whole-heartedly recommend this expertly crafted samurai film from a director who’s shown that his skill set goes beyond the weird and the disturbing.

Visceral, bloody, thrilling. 13 Assassins is a superb piece of entertainment.


Jonathan Hatfull