13 Assassins is the new film from the prolific though controversial director Miike Takashi of Audition and Ichi the Killer fame. The Miike films available in the West are mostly bloody, shocking and confrontational. While 13 Assassins is bloody, it retains a more classical form, recalling the work of Akira Kurosawa and Kudô Eiichi, from whose 1963 film this is a remake. One of the film’s main calling cards, however, is that, in the face of a cinema saturated with post-modern self-awareness, this film refreshingly plays it straight.
Set in 1840s Japan, the sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro) is causing an outcry with his brutal acts of rape and murder against his subjects. Due to his high political standing, he is untouchable. One official, Doi (Hira Mikijiro), secretly hires outmoded samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (a very good Yakusho Kôji) to gather eleven swordsmen to assassinate Naritsugu. The samurai are eager to live out the samurai code despite it being an anachronism and are more than willing to die honourably.
13 Assassins begins with a man disembowelling himself before speeding through the exposition. Miike focuses on the various atrocities carried out by Naritsugu, making him a villain that it is very easy to hate, before introducing the film’s hero, Shinzaemon, and the other samurai. He economically sets the basic plot in motion, though in typical Miike fashion, he does linger too much on the spectacle of violence in the early part of the film, labouring the point somewhat. Once the binary oppositions are established, however, the film becomes a lot more interesting.
The film has an intriguing insight into the life of a samurai who finds himself out of place in an increasingly modern world, in which his code is outdated and his chances of an honourable death in battle are slim. Each of the samurai are perfectly willing to die in the battle, which makes for some rousing drama during the final expertly made 45-minute battle sequence. As an action film, it is exciting, though it retains an interesting undercurrent, typified in the character of Shinzaemon and his old sparring rival/ Naritsugu’s lieutenant Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika). Finding themselves on opposite sides and both unable to capitulate, the dramatic centre of the film is found in their relationship, one that fascinates the film while it criticizes it.
Unfortunately, thirteen is too many characters to be able to care about and only a few stand out during the climatic battle sequence. However, in the style of Hollywood swashbucklers and westerns, it is easy to empathize with the group rather than the individuals, especially due to the careful characterizations of their leaders and the overt villainy of their enemy. However, the film remains critical of them, emphasizing their lack of individuality in the face of orders and their almost pompous seriousness. The 13th assassin, Koyata (Iseya Yûsuke, playing the Toshiro Mifune role) is a bandit who constantly mocks the samurai and their inability to have fun.
Though a thoroughly entertaining and exciting action film made by a director who respects the material enough to keep his tongue out of his cheek, 13 Assassins chiefly stands out as a film that looks at a society finding itself on the verge of modernity, where the only future lies in a radical change of values or death. As such, the film recalls Sergei Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West, both as a pleasing formal exercise and as a moving testament to an extinct way of life.