AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | November 23, 2010
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer(s): Kaneo Ikegami (screenplay), Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
Starring: Gorô Inagaki, Kôji Yakusho, Yûsuke Iseya, Takayuki Yamada
13 Assassins — a remake of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film as directed by Takashi Miike — takes place in Japan during the mid-19th century. The Shogunate has known peace for many years and the Samurai have grown soft and lazy in their inactivity.
The sadistically inclined Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki), is on the fast track to power in the Shogunate. His number one priority is to instill a perpetual state of war in Japan. Lord Naritsugu’s penchant for killing and raping innocent civilians for sheer entertainment value has forced the hand of the noble advisor to the Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), to plan Lord Naritsugu’s assassination. Doi promptly recruits one of the last true samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), to establish a team for this very risky mission.
Time for a brief film history lesson: Ak ira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (with which 13 Assassins shares several similarities) was among the first films to utilize the plot element of recruiting heroes into a team to complete a specific mission (later came: The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven and countless others).
The first act of 13 Assassins focuses on Shinzaemon gathering his team. He scours the land for the few remaining competent — and trust-worthy — samurai; with a few less competent, but very dedicated and trust-worthy ones thrown in for good measure. In total, Shinzaemon finds twelve samurai who are willing to risk their lives in order to participate in Lord Naritsugu’s demise. (One non-samurai, Koyata [Yûsuke Iseya], joins the fold along their journey; the total number of assassins becomes thirteen.)
Shinzaemon finds himself face-to-face with Naritsugu’s lead samurai Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura) — Shinzaemon’s old rival from training school, now his nemesis — and the chess match begins. Shinzaemon’s twelve samurai prepare to battle Hanbei’s samurai army of hundreds. Facing impossible odds, Shinzaemon is forced to go all in with a high risk gamble. The thirteen assassins choose a small town to fortify — one which they can only pray that Hanbei will attempt to lead Lord Naritsugu through — with the hope that strategic preparation will somehow even out the odds.
As the third act commences, so does the all-out 40-some minute long slaughter fest. Surprisingly, the blood and violence never becomes gratuitous; if anything, Miike restrains himself in an effort to make a profound statement about the senselessness of war. As Lord Naritsugu revels in the bloody mayhem, his army blindly follows him. Miike skillfully highlights the moral dilemma of the film’s samurai — they must weigh obedience against justice. The battle is between the blindly obedient and the morally just. The morally just are backed into a corner; with the future of Japan at stake, they are forced to kill their foes in defense of their country.
The Koyata character offers a hefty dash of Kurosawa-esque comic relief; and besides the narrative trope of recruiting heroes into a team for a mission, Miike also co-opts Kurosawa’s anti-war stance. 13 Assassins is an unexpectedly mature and profound film for the incredibly prolific Miike, and truth be told, I never thought I would compare Akira Kurosawa with Takashi Miike. They have both traditionally been polar opposites for me: Kurosawa the formal master and Miike the guilty pleasure. Suddenly, with 13 Assassins, the two worlds have collided. 13 Assassins is dramatically more violent than anything Kurosawa ever created; but otherwise, 13 Assassins could very well be a remake of Seven Samurai.