Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews 13 Assassins
Takashi Miike has become something of a international cult movie icon thanks to his vision of the strange, grotesque and terrible in movies like Audition and Ichi the Killer. However, like Sam Raimi (who is also first and foremost defined by his pulpy offbeat signatures), beyond the uniqueness of his style, Miike has always been a clearly competent, gifted, visionary filmmaker.
With 13 Assassins, his most restrained and mature work to date, Miike has evolved in his storytelling ability and simultaneously struck a balance in his style that might just make him a truly masterful director by the time his career is done.
Based on true events, the premise of the film is wonderfully simple: In Feudal Japan, an esteemed clan suffers under the reign of the cruel young Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), who commits whatever unspeakable act - rape, torture, murder - that pops into his sociopathic mind at any given moment. Unable to break their sworn oaths, the young lord's army of samurai are forced to watch dark times fall upon the clan as Naritsugu ascends, unopposed, towards the height of Shogun. Some of the most revered samurai masters in the clan even go so far as to commit Seppuku (ritual suicide) in protest of this calamity.
Unable to stomach the horror any longer, an aging warlord reaches out to another seasoned master named Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) with a special mission: gather a small team of the most deadly samurai left in the clan and find a way to kill Lord Naritsugu while he is traveling between clan territories. After baring witness to the atrocities that have been committed by Naritsugu, Shimada agrees to the suicide mission and gathers a team of noble samurai (including his disenchanted young nephew, Shinrouko), to hatch an unthinkable plan: send twelve men to kill more than a hundred.
However, though his men are brave and his strategies sound, Shimada knows there is one threat standing between them and victory: Lord Naritsugu's personal bodyguard (and Shimada's former rival) master samurai Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). Even with the addition of a final accomplice (a wily half-crazy bandit from the forest), the odds against the noble assassins seem insurmountable.
The narrative structure of 13 Assassins plays to the strengths of both its director, and the attention span of the audience. The movie opens with ritual disembowelment, rape, mutilation, and the sadistic murders of men, women and children by Lord Naritsugu - which is a perfect playground for Miike to exercise that fascination with the grotesque which has made him such an international cult icon. Once that rude introduction is out of the way, the movie settles into a more relaxed (at times grimly funny) second act, which involves the gathering of the 13 titular warriors, as well as the planning and execution of their assassination plot. The third and final act is an epic battle scene that I would claim is the best work that Miike (or just about any director) has ever filmed.
To put it in the context of raw figures: 13 Assassins clocks in at just under two hours. The epic third-act battle eats up a whopping 45 minutes of that time (!) - the gruesome intro about 20 min. That means the second act - where we do get actual plot and character development, thank goodness - is handled about as efficiently as efficient gets. Younger film buffs who want to love Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but find themselves dozing off every time they try to watch that three-hour-plus film, your prayers for a faster-paced samurai epic have been answered.
Miike's direction is, as stated, the most mature work he's done to date. The cinematography is gorgeous - the lush Japanese countryside will either seem ironic or bittersweet now. Though Miike has moved far away from the pulpy B-movie look of some of his earlier films, he's still not working on the same level as, say, The Coen Bros., who are able to seamlessly mix offbeat moments, thrilling sequences and stunning picturesque photography. However, let it be noted: I doubt even the Coens could construct something like Miike's epic final battle sequence in 13 Assassins.
In an age where even the practical effects of corn syrup blood spatter have been traded for CGI (Ninja Assassin, looking at you), it's unthinkable that a director would film a fight sequence which relies almost exclusively on practical effects, choreography and (gasp!) good old fashioned acting. The fact that this same fight sequence goes on for 45 minutes is just plain mind-blowing - and that's exactly how it feels when you watch it. 13 guys with swords versus 200 guys with swords, set in the streets of a small village: you watch the entire thing play out from the first slice to the last cut. It's bloody spectacular, and spectacularly bloody.
The actors won't be all that recognizable to American audiences, but they're a strong ensemble who all have the requisite badass look in their eye. Some characters are more memorable than others (the walking death machine and his teenage protege), some may bleed together (the four disciples of one master), but the film allots enough time for all the major characters (Shimada, Hanbei, Shinrouko, Naritsugu) to get the appropriate amounts of development, so that the end showdown is especially satisfying.
Had there been some deeper themes about the nature of the samurai code, or more sweeping and picturesque shots of the gorgeous Japanese topography, I would've called this film a masterpiece. As it stands, it's just a really, really, good samurai action flick, with hands down one of the best extended action sequences you will ever watch.
13 Assassins has already been released in Japan and is now available in the U.S., exclusively in the Video On Demand "Early Screenings" section. It will be given a limited release in U.S. theaters on April 29th.
Check out the latest trailer for the film: