dir. by Takashi Miike
When the name of Japanese director Takashi Miike comes up in conversation, the last words even remotely thought of to describe his style and films are “structured,” “balanced,” and “tight storytelling.” Typically, you could instead use terms to describe his films like “frenetic,” “hyper-violent,” and “just outright disturbing.”
And yet that first list of terms is absolutely applicable in the case of his latest - and clearly best - film, 13 Assassins
. It’s a bit strange if you’re a fan or even familiar with Miike’s other works to witness this film but, ultimately, he’s created here one helluva period samurai film.
The story is pretty straightforward: The younger half-brother of the current shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), is a brutal tyrant, a psychopath with full royal privileges and demanding subservience. He’s moving ever closer to a position of national power that, to seemingly everyone else in the film, would lead to utter chaos in the land. The shogun’s chief samurai Sir Doi (love that name) knows something must be done about him but, politically, he’s unable to make such a move directly. So he contacts old samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) for undertaking this task. It’s clear, however, that this is a one-way ticket for anyone involved. And, yet, given the time of relative peace in the land, the samurai feel unneeded, unused, and, ultimately, unfulfilled. With that discontent being part of their lives Shinzaemon is able to assemble a small but able team of 11 other samurai to join in this samurai suicide mission.
Shinzaemon’s old rival, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), is the chief samurai for Lord Naritsugu and is very aware of the assassination plot. The lord has to undertake a long journey across Japan and both Shinzaemon and Hanbei know that somewhere along that route will be the best opportunity to strike. Each man moves the chess pieces around carefully and Miike allows this to slowly transpire on screen, with Hanbei growing ever-frantic and Shinzaemon biding his time, lulling his opponent into a false sense of security as best he can. That plan is confusing and a bit infuriating to the other samurai but Shinzaemon makes a convincing case for playing the waiting game.
Eventually, though, their time is soon upon them and they move into position. Doing so takes this small group on a long, cross-country trek. In fact, at one point, they get lost in the forest. They discover a punished gang member, Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), who’s impertinent but playful and, while not a samurai, is definitely capable in a fight. Thus, they become the 13 on their mission.
This group finds a way to channel Naritsugu’s troupe into a particular town, one that they buy out and fit for their assassination purposes. They soon find, though, that while they played the waiting game the number of their opponents has swelled fantastically, making their task much, much more difficult. And so Miike allows for basically the final hour of the film to encompass this battle scene, to play out all the energy and weariness and bloodiness presented by the prospects of such a battle.
What that final battle scene also allows, though, is a fulfillment of each of the characters, especially the 13. Their reasons for enjoining a suicide mission are given enough depth without belaboring it all and their identities become clearer, making the point of how their lives end to define how their lives were truly lived. In this, it’s akin to parts of Seven Samurai
and The Wild Bunch
equally and deserves to be held up close in mention with those films all on its own. More than just a samurai action flick, 13 Assassins
is an exploration of man’s choices in life, the paths followed, and that ever-present nagging in the back of your mind that something greater is possible to you, that your life can have value and meaning, even in death.
As a fan of samurai movies I can say that, were it not for Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins
might just be the best samurai film ever made. Seriously.