By Andrew Walsh
13 Assassins is a new film by controversial filmmaker Takeshi Miike, who has gained international notoriety for his unflinching portrayal of violence, sexuality, and numerous taboo subjects. While I’m not on for pushing the envelope simply for the sake of it, Miike’s work has a very unique style to it, and the man is always willing to work in a variety of different genres.
The film tells the story of the assassination of Lord Naritsugu, the brother of the Shogun who is rendered “above the law” due to his status. However, other government officials fear the eventuality of Naritsugu rising to a higher political position where he may gain true ruling power. To stop this from happening a ronin samurai, Shinzaemon, is secretly hired to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon enlists the help of 11 other samurai, and eventually a bandit, to fight through the Lord’s daunting number of bodyguards. Together, they orchestrate a final stand against the Lord within a booby-trapped laden village.
One could say that 13 Assassins, despite being a remake of a film from the 60’s, could be said to parallel Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai. It deals with numerous ideas about the life and code of a samurai, as well as the gathering of a large number of characters to accomplish a singular task. There are several instances of characters performing hara-kiri, a concept that is quite foreign to Western audiences.
The film also deals with the duty of a samurai: the 13 assassins are initially ronin (master-less samurai) who can fight for their own causes due to their lack of loyalty to any master. Yet Lord Naritsugu is protected by hundreds of samurai who have sworn to give their lives for his, regardless of how they personally feel about his actions. One such samurai, Hanbei, the personal bodyguard of Naritsugu, is actually an old friend of Shinzaemon. Hanbei is shown to be a generally good person who is faced with a difficult moral descision of whether to betray his (quite obviously evil) master, or retain his honor as a samurai. For Western audiences the choice would be obvious, but from the point of view of a samurai it becomes far more complicated.
Lord Naritsugu in particular is an interesting villain. The kind of villain that is so cartoonishly evil you would expect him to be larger than life and unbelievable, but he is actually quite an engaging character. He is the kind of villain you love to hate, the kind of person who, in a perfect world, no one could possibly identify with. He interchangeably rapes the wives of men who offer him shelter and uses entire families (including children) as target practice. He is the kind of person who will kick the severed head of a man who has just sacrificed his life for him, and delights in the numerous deaths of men who protect him. Naritsugu is a man of great power who knows how to abuse it.
One may be surprised at the pacing of the film. For well over the first hour is mostly expository information, building up the incomprehensible evil that is Lord Naritsugu as well as the entire plan to bring about his death. There are brief bits of action within the first half, but thing don’t really get rolling until the second half… and boy do they get rolling. Almost the entirety of the final 45 minutes of the film consists of the final stand within the village. Imagine the ending of Saving Private Ryan but in Feudal Japan. The entire sequence is thrilling and rarely lets up until the final showdown (we all knew it would come to that). In the end, the surviving samurai contemplates his loyalty: does it belong to a master, or to himself?
13 Assassins is definitely not to be missed if you get the chance. You can currently watch it on Amazon before it’s in theaters, but is scheduled for release by the end of the month. Do not miss that opportunity.
Production Value: 9
Entertainment Value: 9