Theatrical Review: 13 Assassins

At the end of Japan’s feudal era, peace reigns across the land, though that is starting to be abused by the Shogun’s brother, Lord Naritsugu.  Naritsugu abuses the people for his own sport and is on the fast track to ascension within the hierarchy.  Sir Doi, the minister of law, wants to stop him but can’t overtly due to political conflict.  Doi seeks to do so through covert means, contacting a legendary samurai, Shinzaemon. to do so.  Shainzaemon puts together a group comprised of eleven other samurai and with their guide, the feisty Koyata, seek to overcome impossible odds and assassinate Naritsugu while he’s under the protection of 200 men.

13 Assassins is the latest movie from Japanese film director Takashi Miike.  Miike, has directed all sorts of different genres of film and at a prolific rate, many times directing as many as four or five films a year.  In the United States, Miike is best known for his twisted cult movies, first (at least in my mind) rising to fame with his brutal horror story of a relationship gone awry, Audition (2000).  Audition was my own personal gateway to Miike’s movies and after that I actively sought out other films like Dead or Alive, Fudoh, Gozu and of course, Ichi the Killer. More recently, he’s been part of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series with the intense episode Imprint and directed the western Sukiyaki Western Django, which I still have yet to see.  These movies are not for the faint of heart, so if you’re new to the world of Takashi Miike, consider yourself warned…

13 Assassins is a much more conventional film than those listed above, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less special.  Last year, we saw a spate of “men on a mission” movies with films like The Losers, The A-Team and The Expendables and there’s certainly varying degrees of fun to be had with all three of these, but there’s still a bit of a quality of winking at the audience with all three of them.  13 Assassins is the real deal when it comes to this sort of film having more in common with movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven. I’d take this a step further, and add that after seeing this, in my mind, it was like Miike made his version of Sam Peckinpah’s immortal classic, The Wild Bunch.

It’s a straightforward story of good versus evil.  Evil with Lord Naritsugu gets set up quickly and brutally, and right from the start we want to see this guy meet an extremely violent end.  Shinzaemon and his group of men all get their chance in the spotlight and as much as we hate Naritsugu, we grow to like and care for this group of samurai.

The first half of the movie is all set-up, not just with the characters but with the intricate set-up that Shinzaemon comes up to take out Naritsugu.  The second half of the movie is a glorious pay-off with an epic battle between these 13 men and the 200 who protect Naritsugu.  This is spectacularly played out with no special effects tricks to highlight the action.  It’s just pure and logical action and it’s just glorious to watch.

I honestly can’t say that I’m familiar with any of the cast, though I’d expect that in Japan, they’re probably all pretty big deals.  Regardless, their performances are absolutely fantastic.  Kôji Yakusho plays Shinzaemon and just by force of his character, you’re ready to follow him into glorious battle.  Amongst his men, standouts include Tsuyoshi Ihara as the heroic Hirayama, Yusuke Iseya as their guide Koyata and Takayuki Yameda as Shinzaemon’s nephew Shinrouko.  Ihara’s Hirayama commands the screen when we see him in action and you could almost imagine an entire movie made around this guy alone.  Iseya’s Koyata puts the whole thing in perspective for a common man and at the same time offers up some of the film’s comic relief.  Yamada’s Shinrouko goes through the most personal growth, starting this adventure preoccupied with losing himself in gambling and women and uniquely transformed by the film’s end.

On the other side, Gorô Inagaki plays Lord Naritsugu with an aristocratic snideness that makes him a perfect villain.  Naritsugu is protected by Hanbei who leads the 200 men.  Hanbei, played by Masachika Ichimura, is Shinzaemon’s opposite number, but just as crafty and cunning in his own right.  A final battle between Shinzaemon and Hanbei is foreshadowed early in the film and when it comes it’s fantastic and very, very satisfying.

13 Assassins is a masterpiece, it really doesn’t get any better than this.  Takashi Miike’s maturity as a filmmaker is in full evidence here.  It is an extremely violent movie though, so it’s not for everybody.  I have to confess, this is the first time that I’ve ever experienced one of Miike’s movies on the big screen and I was literally blown away by the experience.  It makes me wish that I could’ve experienced some of his other movies like Audition or Ichi The Killer on the big screen.  Oh, I was certainly impressed by them watching them at home, but I imagine the experience would’ve been amplified considerably with the theatrical experience.  Magnet Releasing is currently offering this through OnDemand viewing, so if you want to pursue this, the opportunity is surely there (and most of Magnet’s movies also eventually find their way to Netflix Instant Play, so if you have that, 13 Assassins should eventually be available).  But honestly, if you have the chance to see this on the big screen… do it.  Easily, 13 Assassins is one of the very best movies I’ve seen so far this year and obviously this is highly, highly recommended.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

29. May 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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