I went into this with a certain amount of trepidation, because I’d read that it was pretty violent, and I know that director Takashi Miike can be gory and sadistic when he wants to be. I thought I might be in for an ordeal. And it’s true that this is a brutal, violent movie at times, but then a lot of samurai films are. The samurai life is duty and loyalty till your last drop of blood, and that’s the name of this tune.
13 Assassins is a remake of a 1963 film that I’ve never seen. The comment about the 1963 film by chaos-rampant on IMDb could be my word-for-word review of this version, except for the monochrome part, and here’s his/her synopsis: “The story of Thirteen Assassins begins with a vassal of the Akashi clan committing seppuku in front of a daimyo’s house. As it turns out, it’s in protest to his lord raping and killing a girl and her samurai husband. This scandal is quickly covered up as the Akashi lord happens to be the Shogun’s younger brother. What makes matters worse is that this reckless scoundrel will be soon appointed to a higher political position which could prove to be detrimental for the entire Shogunate. In response to that, a plot is hatched: 13 assassins will undertake the suicide mission to murder him on his way back from Edo.”
The opening section of 13 Assassins sets out what an evil bastard Lord Naritsugu is, and this is the most sadistic, brutal part of the film. He is a soft-spoken, bland-faced sociopath who loves to maim, rape, and kill. The middle section is in many ways the most interesting part of the story, as the Shogun’s samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, gathers together a team of assassins and plots how they will carry out their secret, politically sensitive mission. Meanwhile his old friend, Hanbei, who is pledged to Lord Naritsugu, realizes what’s going on and begins to counterplot.
The battle of wits and plans and maps is fun. Shimada is a appealing character, with a rueful sense of humor about the game of chance that is life and war. These opening sections are also effective in laying out the social and political conundrums that have allowed this terrible situation to arise. In particular, it brings into focus how the code of the samurai, which pledges fealty to a lord rather than to a law, can have tragic consequences. The film balances a respect for the fierce dedication to duty of the samurai with a mocking contempt for the rigidity of it.
The final third of the movie is one long battle between the thirteen assassins and an army of 200 men protecting Lord Naritsugu. The assassins have spent time setting up a village as a series of boobytraps, and the opening salvos of the battle are entertaining for the ingenuity of these traps. After that, however, it becomes a long meat grinder of clashing swords and tumbling bodies that, for me, got less and less interesting. The deaths of individual characters didn’t have much impact, because the characters hadn’t been developed and because everybody started to look the same when covered with blood and mud. Or maybe that was the point: one senseless death after another.
The final confrontation between Shimada and Hanbei brings the theme of loyalty back into focus, which brings the flow of action back into focus as well. The final confrontation with Lord Naritsugu, on the other hand, seemed to waver in its attitude toward him. The film flirts with giving the devil his due, takes it back, then thinks about giving it again. It seemed a bit confused to me, and a little overdone.
It’s true that samurai films are not one of my favorite genres. I generally find them too grim and bloody. The main reason I wanted to see this one was that it was directed by Takashi Miike, who has made several movies that I absolutely love — although many others that I have no interest in seeing whatsoever. This doesn’t feel a lot like the other Miike movies I’ve seen, but it does have at least a couple of signature moments, including a grotesquely disfigured girl straight out of your worst nightmare and a surreal use of burning bulls as weapons that’s straight out of Tim Burton. (It got a big laugh from the lively crowd I saw this with.) There’s also an anarchic mountain wild man who injects some disorder into the samurai hierarchy and who disrupts narrative continuity in a major way as well. I like Miike’s fantasy films better than this, but it’s still a solid piece of work and would no doubt appeal more to fans of the samurai genre. Indeed, some of the people I watched it with applauded as the credits rolled.