The once dormant samurai movie is rejuvenated in 13 Assassins, a spirited and violent romp which delves into the honour and savagery of samurai ideology.
There is a scene in 13 Assassins which represents a turning point in director Takashi Miike’s violent epic. Inside a fortified town that holds a confused army, samurai leader Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) looks down on his enemies and holds a sign which reads “Total Massacre!” It is both a reminder why, and premonition of, what is to follow: bloodshed at its most brutal and justified.
Miike uses the first half of the movie to show how this battle came to be. It is 1840s Japan and the samurai in waning, yet there are loyal warriors still in action. That loyalty is put to the test with the emergence of Lord Naitiskugi (Goro Inagaki), the illegitimate brother of the shogun and uncontrollable sadist, who kills and rapes at whim with women and children not spared his psychotic bloodlust.
Miike, who has directed violent films such as Ichi the Killer and Audition, spares little in the depiction of Naitiskugi’s horrible crimes, presenting a truly horrific and disposable villain who can’t be touched due to his political clout and is protected by a group of samurai sworn to protect their master.
Yet there are those who view Naitiskugi’s emergence into power as a travesty and conspire to take him out. Led by Shinzaemon, 12 assassins and one nutter hunter who sling rocks like a champ swear their lives to eliminate Naitiskugi.
Every member of this suicide troop has a distinct personality, which Miike allows to shine amongst the grunting and the carnage. Also present is the “live by the sword, die by the sword” philosophy which these samurai follow. The question of loyalty is also raised, prompting these samurai to ask whether their allegiance should lie with a blood thirsty tyrant, or the people of Japan?
With minds made up, philosophy is put into action in a stunning second half which is essentially an extended battle sequence, bloody and brutal with a body count that makes Kill Bill look like child’s play.
Miike shoots the action with a brutal, stylish clarity missing in today’s action filmmaking. There is tension at stakes at the heart of its outcome, and extras are used rather than CGI duplicates.
What also makes it work so well is the believability in every swift stroke of the sword, thanks to the performances especially by Yakusho who turns in a commanding lead turn that will convince anyone to follow him to hell.
After the swords are set aside and the savagery of this bloodshed revealed in the mounting bodies amongst the blood and the mud, it is certain the 13 Assassins will be a draining experience for all, but a rewarding one as well.
Action filmmaking of this character and calibre is a rare treat. 13 Assassins is not only about war, but the conflicting philosophies within a breed of warrior facing extinction. Miike presents both in a convincing and entertaining fashion.