By Mike Richardson
A bloody brilliant Eastern spectacular which, ironically, is likely to remind you of a classic Western.
Japanese auteur Takashi Miike continues to defy expectations and follows up his disparate canon of manga-inspired movies, horror films, satire dramas, comedy dramas, Yakuza thrillers and crime-comedy dramas with the powerhouse Samurai action film 13 Assassins. For pedants out there 13 Assassins can be more correctly identified as a chanbara film (from the jidaigeki genre) but it would be petty to fail to mention the obvious comparison to John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960). Miike’s film (a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name) is set towards the end of Feudal Japan and is apparently based on true events.
Due to the establishment of an age of peace, the Samurai are finding work (and the chance of a honourable death) harder to come by as the years of war and battle look to be a thing of the past. The countrywide harmony is threatened by the psychotic half-brother of the ruling Shogun, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), a blood-thirsty, spoilt and sadistic man-child who rapes, maims, taxes slaughters and, possibly even more upsetting, taxes for his own trivial amusement. A small band of the Shogun’s advisors decide in secret that, for the greater good, the half-brother should be killed.
The task is entrusted to an unemployed and semi-retired Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) who relishes both the chance to bring an end to the cruelty Naritsugu perpetuates and to fulfil his Samurai vocation. Shinzaemon duly assembles his team and they plan their attack. The 13 include the usual suspect stereotypes of this genre: the wise but war-weary soldier, the young, untested warrior, the old colleague of the leader, the widower with nothing to lose, the disgraced fighter looking for redemption, the light relief and the supremely skilled (and awe-inspiring) warrior. The plan is to force Naritsugu and his massive entourage of warriors into an ambush at an abandoned village (after the 13 buy the villagers out) where they will be able to divide and dispatch his bodyguards, irrespective of their inferior numbers, and kill the Shogun’s half brother – neatly setting up a Seven Samurai for the 21st Century.
The problems with 13 Assassins begin with the title. The audience is introduced to 11 Samurai (not counting Shinzaemon, who is allowed to establish his character, and Koyata Kiga (Yûsuke Iseya) who appears en route to the village) in swift succession. So much so that there is precious little time to learn enough about each character. In The Magnificent Seven (1960), each character has his own distinct personality that is easily identifiable and recognisable. In 13 Assassins the rate at which the characters are recruited, the minimal dialogue that Japanese cinema employs, the fact that they are all dressed similarly and all have matching chonmage (topknot) haircuts makes it difficult to distinguish and relate to each character, seven would have been a more suitable amount.
This problem is further confounded in the climatic battle scene as each samurai is soon so covered in mud and guts that it is near-impossible to discern whose demise we’re watching. This climatic battle is the heart of the film and it’s also about 30% of the entire film’s length; clocking in at a skull-splitting 45 minutes. The carnage as the 13 take on insurmountable odds with arrows, swords, knives, clubs, spears, slings, fists, feet, explosives, cattle and rocks, is a truly impressive cinematic experience that both thrills and exhausts.
The Samurai code of honour is quickly quashed in the necessity of battle, as the booby trap is sprung, and the 13 fight dirty in the mud of the abandoned village. The biggest complaint against this battle is that with odds of 200/13 against, the Assassins have to rely on the Converse Samurai Vector (aka Stormtrooper Effect or the Inverse Ninja Law) which states that while a single “Highly-Skilled” enemy is difficult to deal with, as the number of adversaries increase, the ease with which they can be dispatched also increases. This is in addition to the fact Lord Naritsugu’s troops obey the One-at-a-time Attack Rule, (at least to start with) – it takes them twenty minutes before they start attacking the 13 from behind. They also politely pause in their attack allowing the Assassins to cry out their comrades’ names as they die.
But these are small quibbles, and don’t distract from the film as a whole. Especially as the battle is choreographed and edited together with a patience that sees the camera linger (rather than shaken as if the cinematographer has grasped a live wire) and considering that events unfold in real time (rather than cut incessantly as if the editor has a 0.03 second attention span). As the death count rises and both sides suffer (proportional) losses, Shinzaemon is left with Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura) a friend and fellow Samurai who is employed as Lord Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard. Hanbei, while unhappy with his employer’s behaviour remains true to his code of Samurai honour, and is willing to defend his master (right or wrong) with his life. The two old friends face off in a one on one battle that is a welcome relief after the carnage of the main battle.
All-in-all the film is a great meditation on the concept of honour, loyalty and sacrifice coupled with a kickass mêlée, but, due to the nature of its execution, I left the cinema thinking more of The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch (1969) than Shichinin no Samurai (1954).