Feudal Japan: a time when war was a way to wisdom, loyalty was a way of life, and dishonour was punishable by death. It is during this perilous period that the prolific and often controversial director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) sets his latest project 13 Assassins; an ambitious Samurai film brimming with all the poetic dialogue and unflinching violence of the time. Loosely based on historical events and clearly inspired by the work of Miike’s legendary compatriot Akira Kurosawa, 13 Assassins is an extremely entertaining picture filled with melodramatic weight, occasional humour and sensational sword-swinging action.
After taking great — and exceedingly graphic — pains to establish young Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) as perhaps the most hedonistic and sadistic man to ever live, the film draws us into the wheelings and dealings of ancient Japanese politics, where Samurais and their masters plot and scheme by flickering candlelight. Naritsugu, the adopted brother of the Shogun, cannot so easily be disposed of. So after much deliberation, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), the man in charge of maintaining order in the kingdom, enlists the world-wearing Samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) in an off-the-books mission to assassinate the out-of-control Naritsugu.
13 Assassins is not necessarily the no-holds-barred action picture one might expect it to be. Most of the first two acts of the film are concerned with the recruitment and preparation of the titular assassins. A good nine or ten of these men are only bestowed with the loosest personality traits, and are essentially fodder to fall eventually under a sword. Nevertheless, there is a captivating quality to the code of honour these men follow; their conversations — although sometimes cliché and often a little stilted — holds your attention with its straight-faced solemnity and unflinching gravitas. It’s aided along by some strong performances from those actors playing the more three-dimensional characters (relatively speaking of course), as well as a few placed moments of wit.
Eventually, all the talk, planning and Lord of the Rings-style trekking through the wilderness leads to the film’s awe-inspiring climax – a forty five minute showdown in which our thirteen heroes take on an army of over two-hundred warriors. Mixing elements equally as reminiscent of Home Alone as they are of Seven Samurai, this extensive sequence is filled with ingenuity, theatricality and enough clashing swords to send shivers down your spine, and Miike captures it all with the confidence of a master action filmmaker. Even those who sit a little bored through the first hour and the half of this admittedly long film — give them a break, it is an epic after all — will have nothing to complain about by the credits.
While the characterisations in 13 Assassins are sometimes lacking, its swordplay never is. If you’ve got the stomach for the violence — which isn’t all that bad beyond the squeamish squelches of the sound design — then Miike’s latest is an epic adventure that won’t dishonour your patronage.
13 Assassins will be in limited Australian release this September.
Tom Clift is a web-based film journalist from Melbourne, Australia. Visit his website here: http://reviewsbytom.blogspot.com.
You can read all of Tom Clift’s coverage of MIFF 2011 here.