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13 Assassins (2011)

July 5, 2011

 
written by: Daisuke Tengan
produced by: Toshiaki Nakazawa, Takashi Hirajō & Jeremy Thomas
directed by: Takashi Miike
rated R (for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity).
141 min.
U.S. release date: April 29, 2011 (limited) & March 30, 2011 (iTunes, ZUNE, VOD, & Amazon)
 
 

Fans of thrilling epics where brave men risk their lives under impossible odds, would do well to seek out “13 Assassins”. The premise has made the rounds in other genres, but director Takashii Miike makes an engrossing samurai tale here that had me glued to every beautiful and bloody frame. It’s a superbly crafted story of nobility, honor and vengeance, sliced into two powerful acts; one part slow burn of indescribable madness and the other an adrenalized rush of suicidal valor. Both equally intense on their own, but together it’s an impressive collision of blood, sweat, and tears, that will leave you catching your breath at the end.

The beginning of the film tells us that the way of the samurai is waning in Feudal Japan, . There are still noble swordsmen, but they are now left with little to do. Sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the younger brother of the current Shogun, is positioned to take on a greater role in national Japanese power, despite his barbarian methods of rape, mutilation and murder. Desperate and clandestine measures must be taken in order to ensure his ascension never happens. Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira) can’t take action himself, so he calls upon revered swordsman, Shinzaemon (Koju Yakusho) to assassinate Naritsugu.

 
 
 
 

He assembles a team of thirteen warriors, including a rogue swordsman Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who takes Shinzaemon’s young nephew Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada) under his wing, and together, along with a loony feral hunter (Yûsuke Iseya) they find along their way to ambush the cruel leader and his army of hundreds, they nobly and brazenly face their destiny. The ultimate showdown takes place in a merchant village they convert into a death trap, awaiting just the right moment to take out as many soldiers as possible, knowing full well it will likely mean their own deaths as well.

The slow-burn first half of “13 Assassins” takes some getting used to. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who initially and there are some striking and uncomfortable images of brutal violence, but it is all very involving. We’re also introduced to Hanbei (Massachika Ichimura) here, current right-hand man to Naritgugu, a former friend (and one time competitor) of Shinzaemon. It’s all contextual though (never gratuitous in any way), central to the motivation behind the rag-tag group of assassins assembled, and also serving to establish the ruthlessness of a young tyrant with a complete disregard for life.

 
 
 
 
 
The best villains are the ones that consider their actions justifiable. Miike knows this and provides us with antagonists who are far from stock stereotype, displaying a good deal of complexity with their reprehensible actions. It’s refreshing to see Hanbei portrayed as man with nuanced fear and doubt, as he contemplates two very different men, the man he follows and the former friend he pursues.

The big payoff is in the second act. After the characters are introduced, motivations revealed and a palpable foreboding is established, the bloody clash is on. It’s a warranted barrage of visceral excitement, filled with bloody (and muddy) fatal attacks in an inventive labyrinth of a trap. At no point does the final hour feel drawn out or unsatisfying, instead we witness characters we’re invested in, engage in an excellently choreographed ballet of blood. If it’s not obvious by now, this film is not for the faint of heart, but I must reiterate, never does it feel like it is violence for violence sake. There is understandable and comprehensible cause and effect in this mortal combat.

As serious as the tone is here, Miike also manages to inject some unexpected yet welcome comedic shots to the story here. In a film with such high stakes and body count, a little natural levity, allows viewers to come up for air. This is the first Miike film for me, and I now plan on catching up with his previous work. I was most impressed with his stylistic choices on display in both acts in “13 Assassins”. He starts out with many steady talking heads shots, with characters operating in the shadows, which contrasts the vulnerable stark brightness of the second act we view through an unhinged lens.

 
 

 

 

Such filmmaking decisions make sense though, deliberately showing both the noble, expendable, and tragic life of a soldier. These are courageous and honorable men that die by the sword, but it’s ultimately a demise they fully embrace. In the case of many of these men, who had felt like their way of life was waning; it is a life-affirming thrill to embark on such a mission.

One can’t help but to find all the slicing and slashing images linger well after the film is over. The sights and sounds of battle are backed by a poignant final examination of savagery, as we (and some of the characters) are left to wonder what all gore was for. It may be a thematic concern for Miike, and one in which I would love to see more of from him.

 

RATING: ***1/2  

      
            
      
    
       

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