I don’t make new year’s resolutions, mostly because I’m a grumpy old twat, but mostly because I’m terrible at doing what I say I’ll do. Granted, that’s probably the point of a new year’s resolution but… that’s just, like, your opinion… man. What I aim to do this year, however, is get a more consistent review schedule going. There’s been a little slacking off due to my Youtube channel growing, which has led to me focusing more on that. The aim is to balance this out. Part of this balance includes picking out a more eclectic mix of films to review, which I’ll start with tonight by reviewing Takashi Miike’s remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film 13 Assassins. Click the link below for my review.
13 Assassins follows a group of, well, 13 Assassins tasked with killing the murderous and all round general piece of shit Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Goro Inagaki), the half brother of a Shogun. Naritsugu was responsible for the murder of the son of a local leader, the rape of that son’s wife who then later committed suicide. As if that wasn’t enough reason for this future leader to be assassinated he also massacred a family leaving only one girl limbless and tongue-less, after having his way with her, and regularly murders any people, including children, he feels like. The samurai tasked with putting together this team of assassins is one Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), one of the last of his kind who has been starved of a good fight for years. He puts together a small band of samurai and ronin with the intension of ending Naritsugu’s life and the lives of any of his 70 personal bodyguards that plan to get in the way.
This film kicks an incredible amount of arse. There… I’m just going to come out and say it. And I’m not just talking about the film’s climax here, which is one of the few action sequences in the whole film. Every single step of this film’s plot, character work and direction is meticulous. The pacing is restrained as it slowly gets you excited for the idea of 13 warriors taking on an army. If you somehow were not right from the start that is. The first half of the film is spent almost entirely on the planning of the assassination and the search for Shinzaemon’s team. The plotting of the film establishes why we will, and I mean will, hate Naritsugu from the start consistently adding another more shocking reason why. The depravity of his evil is the kind only a director like Takashi Miike is willing to dwell on.
Quit unlike the works Miike is most known for, 13 Assassins actually avoids going full Gozu. The violence is bloody but not in the fountains of claret launching into the air way you’d expect if you’d just seen Ichi The Killer. He even resists the chance to show a detailed disembowelment a couple of times, which is most unlike him. He makes sure you’ve seen enough of Naritsugu’s ways to feel suitably uncomfortable. This is often coupled with some dark, brooding ambient music, the kind you’d expect from David Lynch, in the earlier establishment of evil scenes. Once the disturbing moments have passed at the mission is in full swing Miike drops into a much more traditional, but masterfully handled approach to his film making. He even employs a large number of Tatami shots for the meeting and planning scenes. A style of shooting most associated with Yasujiro Ozu. What this film can remind you is just how versatile and skilled a director Miike is. Whilst he’s capable of producing some duds he’s certainly one of Japan’s top talents.
When the action does kick off it’s all managed with minimal digital effects and some excellent use of location and set pieces. The assassins essentially set up a mass trap environment to split Naritsugu’s army apart in order to give themselves a fighting chance. Before long the fight is spread across a whole village and bodies are flying everywhere. If the style was that little bit more comic book extreme, if wire work had been liberally used, we’d probably have entered Dynasty Warriors levels of carnage. But Miike keeps the action grounded to the sort of style you’d expect of a Kurosawa samurai film. Just with a lot more people getting sliced up. The fact there’s a modern Japanese samurai film that not only showed restraint but managed to not be 90% ridiculous effects is quite an amazing thing. Japan rarely does this sort of action now, with a more Manga/Anime inspired style being the norm. I’m glad Miike stuck to the classics for inspiration for sure.
The assassins themselves are a prone to being mere numbers in the team with only half really displaying character or having a significant amount of time spent on them. That said, each one has clear motivations whether they be honour, the desire to fight or pure greed. One character, Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya) joins later on and is the teams resident thief. He provides, possibly, the film’s only Miike-eqsue idiosyncratic moment in the film’s final minutes. Whilst many characters only have minimal development the alternative would have been a much longer film that would have likely tested your patience and would have served to only provide fluff to a film that, as it is, has a tight pacing and a perfect build towards its finale.
Overall, 13 Assassins is an excellent work. A modern samurai masterpiece that can happily sit alongside Kurosawa’s classics, even if it may not exceed his more well known works. Usually we only get to see Miike’s more bizarre works in the west so seeing 13 Assassins is something that should not be passed up. Maybe one day some of his comedies will get a western release. Or that Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney film that looks brilliantly accurate to the game’s style. 13 Assassins is a superb piece of action cinema with a masterfully put together plot that builds, and delivers, on the promise of a total massacre.