Director: Takashi Miike
Stars: Kôji Yakusho (Shinzaemon Shimada), Gorô Inagaki (Lord Naritsugu), Tsuyoshi Ihara (Hirayama), Takayuki Yamada (Shinrouko), Yûsuke Iseya (Koyata Kiga)
Genre: Action / Drama / Martial Arts
Takashi Miike’s body of work as a director is intimidating. He is ruthlessly prolific, and as one might expect from such frequent output, consistency is not his strong suit. Indeed the work varies staggeringly from chaotic, trashy video nasties, through sombre mood pieces to garishly happy children’s musicals. Taken overall, it makes for a mad collage of styles, tonally adrift, like someone restlessly switching channels.
For me personally, I am most drawn to his work when he calms things down and focuses on tone. Audition has become not just one of my favourite horror films, but one of my favourite films of any kind (see Why I Love… #10). 13 Assassins shares little in common with Audition in terms of plot, but there are similarities when it comes to pacing and mood.
Both films take their time to get their ducks in a row before all hell is let loose. They are patient, methodical pictures, ones which ask the audience to engage with them, promising a return for such an investment. And whilst the payoff in both instances is unforgettable, there are – crucially – many, many pleasure to be found along the road. This isn’t simply about waiting.
13 Assassins, then, takes place in the dying days of Shogun-era Japan. Tyrannical Lord Naritsugu is causing controversy with his sadistic temperament. In defiance to this the film opens with an elder named Mamiya performing hari-kari. This short sequence will set the tone for much of what will follow. It is quiet, precise, not explicit, but intense and attention-grabbing. In other pictures Miike would have gone down the splatter route, and we’d have seen jets of blood. That is not the intent here. Miike goes for gravitas, and thus a certain mood is captured. A venerated importance.
Mamiya’s suicide prompts council elder Sir Doi to act, and a pact is made to assassinate Naritsugu for the betterment of Japan, and so we follow the route by which a group of honourable men come together to accomplish the act, plotting a colossal showdown that involves capturing Naritsugu in a booby-trapped town, and laying waste to him and his men in an orgy of sustained carnage that makes up the last 45 minutes of the film.
Doi enlists Shinzaemon Shimada to head up the assassination. In order to persuade Shinzaemon (as well as us, the audience) we are related an example of Naritsugu’s horrific behaviour, and shown the deformed results of his actions. It’s an unsettling start, but more than anything these early sequences set in place a respectful elegance. 13 Assassins is a phenomenally beautiful film, imbued with the grace of nature and the darkness of man. Night conversations lit by lantern have an intense intimacy as the machinations of mutiny turn.
To suggest however that 13 Assassins is a joyless exercise would be misdirection. As Shinzaemon puts together his team, there is a potent feeling of camaraderie between the men, cementing them for the viewer as a force to root for, and, in the eleventh-hour inclusion of wandering rascal Koyata Kiga, a welcome slice of comic relief. Not that the film is without laughs previous to this. There are many to be had. In fact what is less often written about 13 Assassins is its warmth and charm.
This, backed against the uneasy suggestion that they will be outmatched, coupled with the threat that their plan will come undone before it’s even carried out, makes for a terrific brood, one which Miike sustains until the film’s breath-taking climax.
Miike being Miike, this involves herds of flaming cattle.
Let’s not get too carried away here. Miike doesn’t reinvent the wheel with 13 Assassins. The film does little that hasn’t been done before elsewhere, and, overall, follows an almost a-typical through-line of what would be expected of this kind of action film. This is, after all, a remake. Yet what raises 13 Assassins up is the quality of the work. When it comes, the battle in the town is masterful, not least for (computer generated flaming cattle aside) the dogged physicality of it. Swords stick awkwardly in victims lending the violence weight. Better to have spares than waste time prying them out again.
The carnage is also wisely broken down into episodic pieces, making 45 minutes seem like less of an unreasonable ask for such a sequence. Like the best action set-pieces, it tells a story (several in fact), moving from arena to arena, pursuing the different characters and even taking the time for a few splendid stylistic experiments. One memorable sequence takes place in part from the P.O.V of a dying man on his side.
Are many of the thirteen assassins underwritten? Definitely. But how long do you want this movie to be? Miike sensibly allows focus to remain on a key handful, and whilst this can make some of their fates seem impersonal, it is a necessary expenditure to retain pace. And whilst the young actors are all spirited and enjoyable, it is Kôji Yakusho’s cerebral intensity as Shinzaemon that leaves the greatest impression. Also of note is Gorô Inagaki as Lord Naritsugu, clearly relishing the chance to play such a wryly terrifying brute. Check the cool madness in his eyes when he decides to take a longer route simply to make life more interesting.
13 Assassins has its detractors and many of them make valid points, yet in spite of these debatable weaknesses the film remains, to me, one of the most masterfully constructed of the decade thus far. Direction, acting, music, sound and production design, photography – all are superb. I missed it in the cinema, and feel entirely regretful for that. One of the few films of the last few years that feels immediately like a classic.