Film Review – 13 Assassins
Set towards the end of the Shogunate, 13 Assassins focuses on the rise to power of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). Half-brother to the Shogun, corrupt, sadistic and above the law, Naritsugu threatens to bring about upheaval in peaceful Japan. Appalled by Naritsugu’s behaviour, but unable to do anything officially, the top Shogun official Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hiro) calls on samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to assasinate the evil lord. Shinzaemon accepts the mission and gathers together a band of elite shogun and ronin for a mission with seemingly impossible odds.
A remake of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white classic of the same name (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), this version directed by Takeshi Miike is destined to become a modern classic. If you only know Miike from films like Audition and Ichi the Killer, then the tone, pace and story may come as something of a surprise. However this is not Miike’s first Jidageiki (samurai period drama), although arguably it is his finest.
As with Kudo’s original, Miike takes plenty of time to set up the premise without rushing. While there is an element of Miike’s extreme violence, this is tempered with restraint and smart editing. Miike not only takes his time with the recruitment of Shinzaemon by Sir Doi, but also Shinzaemon’s recriutment of the assassins. Focusing mainly on loyal ronin Hirayama and Shinzaemon’s gambler nephew Shinrokuro, Miike manages by deft shorthand to ensure that as an audience we have clear idea of the personalities of all 13 of the assassins, without extraneous backstories. The first half of the film is a skillfull blend of Naritsugu’s atrocities, Shinzaemon’s recruiting and Naritsugu’s head samurai, Hanbei, trying to discover if there is indeed a plot against his master.
Henbei (Masachika Ichimura) is indeed one of the most complex characters within the film, as a man clearly appalled by the actions of his master, but bound by his samurai oath to protect him at all costs. With superb characterisation and a distinctly muted colour palette, Miike draws the audience in. When the assassins finally encounter Naritsugu and his men a fight with ridiculous odds, the film lights up with some audacious and breath-taking set pieces. The time and dedication spent in the initial set-up is repaid in spades as the audience watches every encounter between the assassins and Naritsugu’s army with bated breath, willing them to be sucessful.
Furthermore, the performances are pitch perfect, Koji Yakusho is eminently watchable throughout the film, wise, noble, driven by the need to honour and save Japan rather than serve just one master, he is the absolute steel core of the movie. Ichimura as Henbei, is a perfect foil, the two men very aware that had their lives been just a little different they would fighting on the same side, rather than pitting their wits against each other.
There are also wonderfully light touches, in the character of Koyata, a hunter who helps the group and Horii and Hihuchi who a lightly drawn but so well acted that as an audience we can see the double act they must present to the group.
This is an incredibly smart, beautiful, moving film. Although it runs at over 2 hours, it never feels like time wasted. Miike takes us on a superb journey and while the trope (small band of men against huge odds) is well-worn it is immensely satisfying to see it so beautifully realised.
13 Assassins opens in the UK on 6th May