Some call it elegance, some call it cruel
By Edward Copeland
Believe it or not, after hearing his name for years, watching 13 Assassins marked the first time I viewed the work of Japanese director Takashi Miike. Obviously, I can't compare it to his other films but I can say that it did make me eager to check out what else Miike has made. Set in 1840s Japan as the samurai era was ending with the shogun period soon to follow, 13 Assassins remakes a 1963 Japanese film by director Eiichi Kudo titled The Thirteen Assassins (which I haven't seen) and serves as an homage to classic Kurosawa samurai films, specifically Seven Samurai.
The film creates a truly great screen villain in Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the sadistic young son of the former shogun as well as the younger brother of the current shogun — which basically makes him untouchable and has made him arrogant enough that his atrocities prove truly heinous. He rapes and kills at will and, in perhaps his most horrifying act, cuts off a woman's limbs and tongue just to use her as a plaything until he tires of her.
When a father goes to Naritsugu's shogun adviser, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), after Naritsugu rapes and kills his daughter-in-law and murders his son and prepares to commit ritual suicide, Sir Doi attempts to talk sense to the evil young lord but his advice falls on deaf ears. Realizing what horrors could befall the land should Naritsugu rise higher in power, Sir Doi secretly enlists a retired samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho, who has appeared in many films such as the great Tampopo as well as films that earned notice or were partly U.S. productions such as Memoirs of a Geisha, Babel and Shall We Dance?). In many respects, Shinzaemon reminds one of Takashi Shimura's character Kanbê Shimada in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, even sharing the same family name, hardly the last homage or coincidence between the two films.
As in Kurosawa's classic, Shinzaemon gathers other samurai to help with the urgent mission, though there isn't an extended sequence of tests of his recruits as in Seven Samurai — time isn't a luxury that the hired swords have. Naritsugu plans to head to his family's land with his protector Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura) and 70 men. Once there, not only will the cynical and evil young lord be even more protected, he'd be even closer to succession in the shogunate rule. To get there, he must pass through the town of the father who was going to commit harakiri. Shinzaemon talks the man into denying Naritsugu passage so that he and his men will have to follow one of two paths around the village to get there where the samurai assassins can spring their surprise attack.
Problems ensue with that approach: 1) Hanbei catches wind of the plot and enlists some ronin to challenge some of the assassins, who were setting up a town as a trap that Naritsugu would have to pass through; and 2) Naritsugu and his men disappear once they're turned away. Shinzaemon take his men into the mountains to try to figure out what's going on where they discover a mysterious man (Yûsuke Iseya) who calls himself Kiga suspended in a cage in a tree. He has no love for samurais and claims he was put there as punishment for chasing his boss's wife. He calls himself a hunter, but ends up helping the group anyway and at times seems to have inexplicable abilities. Parts of his personality seem quite reminiscent of Toshirô Mifune's Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. Kiga becomes the 13th assassin. Before too long, one of those 13 rides back with news that Naritsugu and his men have reappeared — only what once was a force of 70 now numbers nearly 200. Hanbei had simply hid out to wait for reinforcements.
Then Miike directs 13 Assassins in one of the most incredible extended action sequences I've witnessed. The film runs about 2 hours and 5 minutes in length. The climactic clash lasts for nearly 50 minutes — from when it starts to almost the end of the film itself, with very few moments to take a breath. Miike gets immeasurable aid from his editor Kenji Yamashita, director of photography Nobuyasu Kita and production designer Yuji Hayashida. In an interview on the DVD, Miike admits he didn't set out to make the melee run as long as it does, it just turned out that way in the editing process. It turned out well. It's never confusing when characters die, some getting deaths that almost are afterthoughts, others receiving truly memorable ends.
Though action might be perceived as the selling point of 13 Assassins, Inagaki's great performance as Lord Naritsugu shouldn't get slighted. He creates a hissable bad guy without going over-the-top, but also gets many of Daisuke Tengan's best lines that show how odd this fellow is. As he stands next to Hanbei amid the chaos and bloodshed, he gazes at the death and destruction in wonder. "You think the age of war was like this?" he asks Hanbei who says, "Perhaps." It makes the bastard positively giddy. "It's magnificent. With death comes gratitude for life. If a man has lived in vain, then how trivial his life is. Oh, Hanbei. Something wonderful has come to my mind. Once I'm on the Shogun's council, let's bring the age of war," he tells him, excited at the prospect. When his inevitable end comes, he doesn't have a change of heart, but he does learn the hard way that war ain't all it's cracked up to be.
While 13 Assassins turns out to be great fun and one of the best films released in the U.S. this year, it's not quite up to the quality of the Kurosawa classics or even John Woo's recent Red Cliff, even though it's not a samurai picture. 13 Assassins provides a damn entertaining time. I just wish that all of the characters were developed as well as Lord Naritsugu, Shinzaemon and Kiga.