I’ve always loved martial arts films, perhaps because I grew up when Bruce Lee was all the rage. Having seen him on TV in THE GREEN HORNET and then in a theater with the greatest martial arts film of all time, ENTER THE DRAGON, I was hooked. It wasn’t until later that I had the chance to see a film genre similar to this, the samurai film. Made popular by director Akira Kurosawa, the films were similar in that they came from an Asian country and featured action figures prone to skilled violence. But samurai films offered something else.
Instead of the usual high leaps, swinging arms and 2x4 slapping sound effects, they offered deeper stories. Two in particular caught the eyes of other directors who turned them into westerns. THE SEVEN SAMURAI was westernized into THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and YOJIMBO became A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. These then inspired people to seek out the originals and they weren’t disappointed.
From time to time more samurai films have been released, but rarely with the anticipation of Takashi Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS. The director noted for his extreme films like AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER could have gone the usual route his films do featuring buckets of blood but instead he made a more classic samurai film and it is simply amazing.
The story takes place around 1844 and revolves around a group of assassins who have determined that to save their country they must remove the heir apparent to the current Shogun. Lord Naritsugo is a cruel ruler who finds entertainment in the thing he does to his people. Be it killing a family one at a time in front of the others (including children) or slicing the limbs from a young woman, keeping her alive and then sexually abusing her when it suits him, this man feels it is his responsibility to keep his people in line by making sure they are always put in their place on the social scale.
A member of the Shogun’s staff knows something must be done but due to the way things are done can do nothing on his own. Instead he imposes on Shinzaemon Shimada to handle the situation for him. A samurai of the highest order, Shinzaemon knows what must be done and after seeing the after effects of what Naritsugo has done, elects to assassinate him. But it will require the help of a few trusted men to aid him.
There is little action in the film at the start. Shinzaemon takes his time assembling the men who will help him. Each has a reason for accompanying him on this task be it boredom in a world where samurai have little cause to find battle or to make money. In the end, each of them follows the way of the warrior, of honor, and takes on the cause of saving their country.
There is plenty of story to this film. The build up of Shinzaemon’s team is part of it but there is also the political intrigue that goes on behind the scenes as well. Losing face is an important part of the way things happened then, thus Shinzaemon’s being brought in to begin with. Then there is the situation that arises when it is learned that the leader of the guard protecting Naritsugo is Hanbei Kitou, an old rival who has always thought that Shinzaemon was the reason he was a step down on the social scale. These two warriors plot against one another, one on the attack the other protecting an evil man, and in the end only one can win.
All the build up takes time but the payoff is amazing to see. The last 50 minutes of the film is non-stop action. Shinzaemon must stop Naritsugo from reaching the Akashi domain or all is lost. He diverts him to a town he has taken over and turned into a death trap. Expecting Naritsugo and a company of perhaps 75 men, he learns too late that there is more like 300. But that doesn’t prevent him or the other 12 men from following the duty they have sworn to follow. The result is a sword swinging, blood flowing, explosive rending battle that leaves few standing by the end of the film.
The thing about samurai films is that there may be blood and violence involved, but they aren’t just tossed in for effect. These men truly believed in honor and a way of doing things, they did follow their conscience and stood for something. The battle with a blade was not one that involved going back and forth so much as seeking a finish with as few moves as possible. There was a beauty to it.
Miike has done it again, surprising many who thought his film career had reached its high point. Instead he gives us a movie that shows there is still potential in all that he does. The acting is wonderful even if it offers little visible emotion. That was the way of the samurai, not to show fear or emotion. And yet there are subtle signs visible in the way these actors play their parts.
In the end you have an amazingly satisfying film. One that tells a story, that offers plenty of action and that entertains on so many levels. 13 ASSASSINS is not a film that you’ll toss aside once it finishes. This is a movie to set on the shelf and come back to from time to time, enjoying each viewing.