Japan in the 1830s, the former Shogun’s son Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu treats the world as his play toy. Unfortunately young Naritsugu considers playtime to be raping and killing at will. After he kills a man and slices his wife’s limbs off a local dignitary decides that enough is enough and approaches Shinzaemon, an old samurai to deal with the young Lord.
Shinzaemon assembles a crack squad of samurai from his school. Before heading out on their quest the old samurai is visited by his former sparring partner Hanbei who is now head bodyguard to Naritsugu. He warns him off his task and promises that they will battle if it comes to it.
Damn right it will.
The gang of samurai assassins finally ambush Naritsugu in a small town only to discover that they are battling hundreds of men. The group of thirteen slowly dismantled the young Lord’s squadron before Shinzaemon and Hanbei have their final showdown. Then some other things happen but that would give away the ending.
That’s a very vague overview of 13 Assassins and makes it sound like it lasts about an hour, everything happening a breakneck pace. This time though director Takashi Miike is in Audition and Agitator mode. There’s none of the kinetic editing of Dead or Alive or the mad roving camera of Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins is allowed to flow along at a much more leisurely pace seemingly owing more to Takeshi Kitano and Yasujiro Ozu. Certainly this is one of the most straight forward films Miike has made in a longtime which isn’t to do it down. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Miike has made some very compelling, straight dramas. 13 Assassins feels like he has matured further as a filmmaker who is confident enough to allow a scene between two men talking slowly about bureaucratic policy last five minutes without cutting every two seconds. The photography is as sublime as most of Miike’s films, supplied by first time collaborator Nobyasu Kita. The blood and mud of the final battle are rendered strikingly authentic.
The final battle is worth a mention alone. Taking up a decent forty minutes of the runtime the ambush plays out with no music and little dialogue. Single samurai’s take on swathes of bodyguards all at once – none of this standing in a circle waiting to have a crack at the assassin – blades sweep through flesh and explosions are the only consistently percussive sound. It’s an amazingly well crafted sequence that is as enjoyable as it is impressive. Imagine the entire Siege on the Third Castle sequence from Ran extended to 40 minutes. By the end battles end you may feel as fatigued as the samurai’s themselves.
The acting is uniformly strong. Koji Yakusho as the head assassin is the very meaning of stoic heroism. His nobel countenance is underpinned with the knowledge that he can kill with one stroke of his sword. Much in the same vein as Seven Samurai the remaining crew of assassins have their own distinct personalities. Some stronger than others but there is an attempt to give each one separate characters traits, you wander who will come through the climatic battle alive.
The initial hour and half may disappoint viewers wanted a blade and gore action epic. Much time is dealt on introspective moments of quiet reflection and meetings delivered in hushed tones. It’s a real testament to Miike as a filmmaker that he manages to give what is essentially a drama such a compelling action packed climax. It is a truly impressive action sequence and may end up on repeat in my DVD player.
13 Assassins – ****