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Prolific cult Japanese auteur Miike Takashi returns with perhaps his most ambitious work yet in “13 Assassins”, a remake of the 1963 Kodo Eiichi classic “Jusan-nin No Shikaku”. Marking his first proper foray into the period samurai genre, though one of his more commercially friendly outings, the film is still very much recognisable as a Miike work, with a script by Tengan Daisuke, with whom he previously worked on “Audition” and “Imprint”. Certainly, it sees the director working with a far bigger budget than usual, not to mention an all star cast that includes Yakusho Koji (“Shall We Dance”), Yamada Takayuki (“Crows Zero”), Iseya Yusuke (“Sukiyaki Western Django”), Hira Mikijiro (“Goemon”), Matsukata Hiroki (“Tajomaru: Avenging Blade”), and Masachika Ichimura. Thanks in no small part to a thrilling 45 minute climatic battle scene, the film has been a big hit with festivals around the world, as well as winning over the critics, claiming four grand prizes at the Japan Academy Awards and being nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice.
Set in mid-19th century Japan during a time when war and strife had all but disappeared from the land, the plot begins as the Shogun’s evil brother Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro) launches a campaign of cruelty against the populace, torturing and tormenting his subjects as he rises to power. Such is his wickedness that his own head samurai Shinzaemon (Yakusho Koji) makes the tough decision to turn against his lord, bringing together in secret a disparate gang of samurai to assassinate him during a tour of the country. Facing off against him is Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), his former comrade in arms and now Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard. Knowing that he is leading his men on a suicide mission, Shinzaemon plans an ambush in a remote village, hoping to overcome the hopeless odds through cunning strategy.
What might be surprising for anyone familiar with Miike Takashi’s back catalogue is how well “13 Assassins” is handled as a remake, treating the source material with obvious respect, and taking a straightforward approach rather than trying to appeal to his usual cult audience. At the same time, this is quite unmistakably a Miike film, with moments of shocking cruelty, grotesque perversion and even surrealism, all of which are balanced skilfully with the more serious themes of duty, brotherhood, and of course, sacrifice. As well as the original, the film does at times have the distinct feel of a Kurosawa epic, frequently recalling “Seven Samurai”, and showing the same kind of humanity that the great director was known for. The film is a gripping and surprisingly emotional experience as a result, and though inevitably some of the 13 warriors get short shift as characters, the narrative is held together by a real sense of camaraderie that pervades through to the end. Miike handles this and other aspects of the story with consummate skill and subtlety, and the film is never heavy handed or even particularly melodramatic. Amongst its blood and thunder the film has a real sense of warmth, and is all the better for its moments of earthy humour and comic relief, with Tengan Daisuke’s script making the film every bit as effective in its quiet moments as in its blood and thunder.
One of the main reasons why the film works so well is that Miike also approaches the film with a pleasing sense of economy not often seen in the genre, wasting very little time and with the events of the story seeming to be crammed into a short period of time. This works very much in its favour, generating a sense of urgency, without trying to manipulate the viewer or trying to pretend that the final battle will leave many survivors. In this respect, the film benefits from its simple but compelling three act structure, which sets up the characters, follows them on their travels to the ambush village, then sits back and allows all hell to break loose. This serves perfectly, and the film moves along at a cracking pace, its two hour running time passing all too quickly.
Special mention does have to go to the amazing action scenes, and the film is violent and brutal throughout, with flashbacks detailing the awful acts of the sadistic Naritsugu. The final battle scene is worth every word of hype, and it surely stands as one of the most awesome and epic set pieces of sword play cinema in recent memory, as bodies fall, limbs are cleaved and head roll with relentless speed. The choreography is superb, making for breathlessly exciting viewing, and for once making good use of CGI gore. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping this sequence, and it ranks amongst the best and most memorable of Miike’s career to date – high praise indeed.
The same can be said of the film as a whole, and “13 Assassins” is a modern classic of the samurai form, sitting quite comfortably amongst the Kurosawa classics. The film again shows that Miike Takashi is indeed a master film maker as well as an enfant terrible or cinematic shock jock, and that he is one of the very few directors truly comfortable and capable of working in any and every genre.
Takashi Miike (director) / Kaneo Ikegami, Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
CAST: Kôji Yakusho … Shinzaemon Shimada
Takayuki Yamada … Shinrouko
Yûsuke Iseya … Koyata
Gorô Inagaki … Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira
Masachika Ichimura … Hanbei Kitou
Mikijiro Hira … Sir Doi
Hiroki Matsukata … Kuranaga