13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku), 2010.
Directed by Takashi Miike.
Starring Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada and Yuseke Iseya.
The sadistic Lord Naritsugu, brother of the Shogun and therefore above the law, commits a string of atrocities across feudal Japan. The samurai Shinzaemon Shimada is hired to assassinate him, hiring a team of samurai assassins to assist him, ending in a final bloody showdown.
With some eighty films to his name, Takashi Miike is every bit the prolific director, hopping and mashing up genres to his hearts content. While Western audiences best know him for gruesome thrillers (Audition) and crime dramas (Dead or Alive) he’s also dabbled in melodramas, period films and even (believe it or not) children’s features. So it’s with expert hands that Miike approaches 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 film of the same name.
Those expecting Miike’s infamously violent scenes will not be disappointed, but it’s not in an exploitative manner that Miike approaches his violence. Much violence appears offscreen, with the fantastic sound effects aiding our imagination, such as the Seppuku (Harakiri) incidence in the opening of the film. Miike skilfully uses violence as a device with which to grab the attention of the viewer or to brutally illustrate a specific character and it’s the latter most liberally employed in the first act of 13 Assassins, as the callously sadistic Lord Naritsugu massacres whole families and removes the limbs and tongue of a peasant girl. The peasant girl in particular, revealed to the audience and protagonist Shinzaemon in a powerfully shocking scene, truly succeeds in conveying the sickening depravity of Naritsugu, his demise being the narrative aim of the film. Coincidentally, theres something almost cartoonish about Lord Naritsugu, as he smirks through his scenes almost in the manner of a pantomime villain, smug and detestable to the very end.
While the first and second acts are enjoyable enough, they are mere precursors to the explosive third act, an extended cacophony of balletic hyper-violence. Much like Takeshi Kitano’s masterful update of Zatoichi, Miike handles the swordplay and fight scenes with an incredible stillness and grace, acting as a stunning counterpoint to the bloody violence actually present in the scenes. The swordplay becomes ethereally poetic, veering between calm and composed moments of balance and wild, hacking and kinetic sword-fights.
The fight choreography is grittily realistic; theres no wire-work or characters flying through the air here. The most unrealistic we get is characters jumping from rooftop to ground rather easily, but we’ll forgive Miike here, they are warrior assassins after all. People die after just one slash of a sword, or at the very least visibly sustain wounds, with the exception of Koyata (the wild mountain man) who gets a dagger through the neck but pops up, to another characters disbelief, alive and well in the next scene. However his survival and the reaction, “Are you immortal?!” works well as a comedic device without breaking the realism of the film too much.
Something must also be said for the beautiful cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita, which utilises wide angle shots in two amazingly contrasting ways. The first is the stunning landscape shots, framing the characters against the huge backdrop of the forest or the landscape, the vastness of nature acting as a metaphor for the humungous task this tiny group of thirteen must accomplish. The second is during the incredible fight scenes, when Kita separates out the manic close-ups with wide shots of absolute pandemonium, a great writhing, tangled mess of limbs and swords, twenty or thirty characters in a single frame all locked in their own individual skirmishes, yet only making up a tiny portion of the battle itself.
13 Assassins is a triumph, as smart and composed as it is bloody, Miike bringing directorial skill and confidence to an already riveting story. The third act is worthy of the ticket price alone, featuring some the best sword-play battle scenes recently committed to celluloid (or a hard-drive, but hey, same sentiment). I strongly urge any fans of samurai Jidaigeki features, world cinema or simply quality films to seek it out upon its release.
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