13 Assassins (2010)

13 Assassins (2010) – If you say the name Takashi Miike, the people who know it likely associate him with the wildly disturbing scenes from movies like Audition and Ichi the Killer. He even had a cameo in the “torture porn” film Hostel, telling the main characters “if you’re not careful you could spend all your money in there.” The line is clearly about the many torture scenes in the aforementioned Miike films. Like most film-makers, however, it’s dangerous to pigeonhole Miike too much. A few years back he came out with the insane stylistic mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django (a Japanese take on the Italian spaghetti western which was based on Japanese samurai films *pause to take a breather* which were themselves often based on American westerns… whew). Now he’s taking on a genre beloved of the hardcore cinema nerd: the samurai film.

So in 1840s Japan it’s a relatively peaceful time, leaving samurai with very little to do. Of course you can imagine that’s not lasting. The shogun’s younger brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) is a sadist who rapes and kills whoever he damn well pleases and is above the law in doing so. The shogun’s advisers know this cannot continue, but know the shogun will not condone the killing of his younger brother. The shogun’s chief adviser, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) is forced to turn to samurais to perform what essentially amount to an unsanctioned hit on the evil bastard. Shimada Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) has always wanted to die in battle and now sees his chance (as the assassination has very little chance of success). He soon assembles a team of like-minded samurai (take a wild guess how many) and sets out to stop the mad man before he gains any more power and drives the country back into war. Unfortunately Naritsugu is protected by Shinzaemon’s old rival Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) who thinks like Shinzaemon and anticipates many of his moves.

13 Assassins is a damn fine samurai flicks, able to stand alongside those of Akira Kurosawa or Hiroshi Inagaki. Whether or not it stands the test of time like Seven Samurai or Inagaki’s three-film Musashi Miyamoto epic remains to be seen, but I’d say it stands a good chance (though I’m hardly an expert on the genre). The film is not without Miike’s trademark brutality (a mutilated victim of Naritsugu’s sadism comes immediately and sickeningly to mind), but most of it is within the expectation of a film largely consisting of people swiping at each other with swords. This is a movie that takes its sweet time with its set-up but when it explodes, it explodes big. When the action starts it doesn’t let up for over thirty minutes. The action climax goes on for quite some time and is absorbing for every last minute. Some of the lesser samurai characters aren’t particularly distinguished from one another, which hurts the movie somewhat. Some of the characters have defining traits, like a bandit played by Yûsuke Iseya (in a role that 50 years ago would have been played by Toshirô Mifune), but once the action starts it’s a bit hard to keep track of who’s dead and who’s alive once the thirteen assassins become twelve, then eleven and so forth (come on, you knew not everyone was going to make it). Altogether Miike’s film is worthy entry in a distinguished genre and if you enjoy that genre at all you should most definitely check it out.

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