As the taut action thriller 13 Assassins opens, a man disembowels himself. His act draws attention to a barbaric killer who has been terrorizing the region.
Takashi Miike directs this stirring tale about the way of the samurai. This remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 original is loosely based on historic events.
Naritsugu terrorizes region
Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki as a sadist with no conscience), is the Shogun’s half brother who’s about to assume more power. Naritsugu rapes and kills for pleasure, hacking up bodies like a petulant child. He slaughters not just men, but whole families.
With uncanny calmness he slices a husband in front of his wife. A severed head rolls across the floor.
Brave warrior summoned
A council of elders convenes and strategy is plotted. Bucking tradition, they summon a samurai leader to intervene and bring about peace. Shinzaemon Shimada (calmly authoritative Koji Yakusho of Shall We Dance?) is called out of retirement.
A messenger finds Shimada fishing, lost in contemplation and one with nature. There’s a sense of renewed purpose when the widower agrees to take up his sword again. He recruits a team of samurai to help him.
Striving to recruit a worthy team, Shinzaemon visits a brothel to enlist his wayward nephew Shinrokuro (rising star Takayuki Yamada). Also joining the mission is handsome master warrior Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and explosive experts Horii (Koen Kondo) and Higuchi (Yuma Ishigaki).
It was 1844, the end of Japan’s Edo period, a relatively peaceful time when samurai activities were strictly regulated. The waning samurai era is captured in gloomy, dark tones while 13 Assassins pays homage to the honor, daring and discipline of the men eager to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause.
Limits of samurai code explored
The limits of the samurai code, especially its unbreakable code of obedience to a master, are made clear.
Melding art and pop, Miike (Audition; Ichi the Killer; The Bird People in China) is a prolific director who has made 50 feature films over 20 years. Screenwriter Daisuke Tengan crafts outstanding dialogue and action.
Pursuing a killer
Staving off an attack from Naritsugu’s supporters, the group enters the deep forest to ambush him. Along the way they rescue Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a forest hunter who had been left for dead suspended from a tree.
Koyata scoffs at the arrogance of the samurai even as he admires the fighters and itches to join them in combat.
Shinzaemon must match wits with his old sparring partner Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), Naritsugu’s lead samurai. Even though Hanbei detests his master’s crimes, he follows him without question.
Regarding his old friend as a fish to catch, Shinzaemon uses kensho, seeing nature without duality, to understand his opponent and himself.
As the 13 men ambush Naritsugu’s well-trained army of 200 in a mountain village, the 45-minute-long battle becomes a macabre dance. An excruciating, intimate bloodbath plays out with occasional lulls.
Catching the enemy off guard succeeds. Naritsugu is strangely unafraid, even titillated by the slaughter of his own men. Blood flows and heads roll with grisly realism and subtle, effective CGI.
Honor in battle
“Your samurai brawls are crazy cool!” Koyata exclaims. “This is no brawl!” answers a warrior. Koyata is a comical, tree-hugging David hurling rocks at Goliath. He relishes the excitement yet sees folly in the intense killing spree.
Iseya recalls Toshiro Mifune’s character in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Dignified camerawork by Nobuyasu Kita, lovely costumes by Kazuhiro Sawataishi and a rousing musical score from long-time Miike collaborator Koji Endo help make 13 Assassins a genre classic.
Tragedy is inevitable as the film ends with a playfully metaphysical reaffirmation of life.
Influenced by the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, the samurai code remains relevant today with its loyalty, devotion, duty, respect and self-sacrifice. (5 out of 5 stars)
If you like 13 Assassins, you might enjoy: Incendies; Winter in Wartime.
13 Assassins 2010 / R / 2 hours, 6 min
Cast Overview: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura
Director: Takashi Miike
Genre: Action, Foreign Film
Language: Japanese with English subtitles