Review: 13 Assassins (dir. by Miike Takashi)

“…being a samurai is a burden.” – Shimada Shinzaemon

Miike Takashi (Takashi Miike to those in the West) has always been one of my favorite filmmakers and I consider him one of the most unique directors working. To say that he has an extensive body of work would be an understatement. This is a man who is quite at home at releasing 2-3 films a year. He has dabbled in all sorts of genres from drama, thrillers, horror, scifi, musicals and even children’s stories. Those who discovered him in the West mostly remember him for his more extreme films such as Audition, Ichi the Killer and his Dead or Alive epic. He’s taken extreme film-making to some unpredictable plac. While some of his films never work one could never say that they were ever boring or uninteresting.

In 2010, Miike released what I can only say is one of his best films to date with his remake of Tengan Daisuke’s 1963 film of the same name. 13 Assassins is Miike’s take on the classic jidaigeki (Japanese Edo period pieces…think of it as similar in idea to Merchant-Ivory period pieces) which incudes such great films as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Yojimbo to name a few. This film also shares some similarities to the “men on a mission” war films which were quite popular during the early 60’s which included one of my other top action films in The Dirty Dozen.

The film is loosely based on some historical characters from the Tokugawa Shogunate era mainly that of Lord Naritsugu of the Akashi clan. In this film he’s portrayed as a sadistic young noble whose familial ties to the ruling Shogun allows him to kill and rape both commoners and nobles alike with impunity. When a high government official fears for the government and the country should Naritsugo ever ascends to a higher position in the Shogunate he takes it upon himself to hire a trusted friend and veteran samurai, Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho), to plan and pull off the assassination of Lord Naritsugo.

From this moment on the film takes it’s time in introducing the men who would form the film’s title. It doesn’t linger or take too long with each man, but we learn enough of these 13 assassins to form some sort of attachment to each and everyone that the loss of each man, once the battle begins between Shinzaemon’s assassins and Naritsugu’s 200 bodyguards, has emotional impact and meaning. Even knowing that this mission ultimately becomes a suicide task still doesn’t stop the surprise when one of these men falls to the blades of their enemies.

The assassins themselves were quite a diverse group of characters that could’ve been lifted off your typical “men on a mission” film. We have the goofballs with the talent for explosives, younger samurai eager to prove themselves in battle and to their masters, veteran samurai looking to do one more last job before they retire from the life right up to the last-minute addition of a fool whose unique skill sets becomes integral to the missions success.

13 Assassins begins the final 45 minutes of its running time with a non-stop battle which rivals anything we’ve seen put out by Hollywood in the past ten years. Unlike the sturm und drang actionfests from Michael Bay and those who seem to emulate his style of action film-making, Miike takes a much more restrained approach to the proceedings. This is not to say that the action in this film was boring. He allows the audience to know exactly what’s going on with long takes and minimal amount of edits. I don’t think he ever used too many quick cuts to help simulate chaos during the fight. Instead he lets the practical stunt choreography and the inventive set design of the village turned killing field to dictate the flow of the action. It’s quite interesting to note how a filmmaker such as Miike whose reputation in the West has been built on his style of extreme visuals and imagery on film would be quite adept at such a thing as traditional filmmaking that eschews heavy-usage of CGI, quick-cut editing and unnecessary montages to help propel not just the action but the film’s narrative.

Again, unlike the Bay-fest the West has been flooded with the last decade or so this film also has as one of it’s strength’s the story all the action revolves around. The story itself is quite simple when one really boils it down to it’s most basic premise. Evil lord sows chaos around the countryside and a group of honor-bound fighting men band together for one reason or another to stop this evil. It’s a story as old as Beowulf and as recent as 2010’s trio of such films with The Losers, The A-Team and the Expendables. What this film does with it’s characters which helps it stand out from that trio is how well Miike was able to balance not just the action with the story but how to make each character in the film seem unique despite being so stereotypical of such films at first glance.

The acting by the ensemble cast (a who’s-who of performers in Japanese, but mostly unknown to Western audiences) adds just the right mix of melancholy and dark humor not to mention some rock star-like work from it’s lead antagonist. Gorô Inagaki (himself not just a talented actor but one of Japan’s more popular pop star singers) as Lord Naritsugu brings energy as the evil lord to every scene he’s in not because of being so over-the-top but the opposite. He plays this villain as a noble bored with the peaceful days enjoyed by everyone and could only enjoy what life has to offer when he brings chaos to the proceedings. The fact that this involves him raping the women of a fellow noble and cutting off the limbs of a nameless young girl just shows how much out of touch he is with reality and at the same time romanticizes the age of war hundreds of years in the past. The rest of the cast does an admirable job in their own roles. To say that it was difficult to see one of them die on-screen would be an understatement.

13 Assassins was released in 2010, but really got it’s major showing in the United States in early 2011. Despite all of that and with the eclectic group of films I was fortunate enough to have seen in 2011 that made my “best of” list it would be this film that ranks as one of the best of 2011 and also one of my favorite films of recent times. Miike Takashi has shown himself to be now just a filmmaker provocateur whose reputation for shocking audiences have bee well-earned, but also cemented the true fact that he is a filmmaker (both in and out of Hollywood) who has the skills and know-how to escape being labeled as only a filmmaker of a particular genre. His restraint and decision to remake a classic film in the jidaigeki genre shows that while he hasn’t lost his panache for extreme brutality (and this film has them to satiate action and gore fans everywhere) he can also create a film using the subtle brushstrokes of traditional, old-school filmmaking. With this film he has made one of finest and cements his place in the roll call of best filmmakers of the last quarter-century.