Edo period Japan and the untouchable brother of the Shogun, the villainous Lord Naritsugu (played wonderfully by SMAP member Goro Inagaki), is out of control and a group of samurai (and a wandering bandit) set out to assassinate Naritsugu before he rises too high and things get far worse. Laying a trap for him and his guards the group of assassins must fight through hundreds of of men in order to get to him. In their efforts to kill him they employ complex tactics and ingenious contraptions but it is their tenacity that is perhaps their greatest strength.
13 Assassins is based on a true story and is also a remake of an under-seen but exceptional 1963 film of the same name by Eiichi Kudo. Kudo’s original was the first film in a loose trilogy with The Great Killing and 11 Assassins. Although The Great Killing is often considered his masterpiece, perhaps due to it drawing the most on the political unrest of the time, the 13 Assassins is still a film well worth tracking down. With beautiful cinematography and expert plotting it is an excellent example of the jidaigeki of the time and the lengthy battle sequence is utterly gripping.
With this remake Takashi Miike has, perhaps unsurprisingly given his previous work, upped the ante in every area including the lengthy battle sequence. Here the action accounts for almost half the film’s running time and is as gripping if not more so than in Kudo’s film. Thankfully Miike never exaggerates elements of the chanbara genre too far though avoiding slipping into the cartoonish excess that could have wrecked the compelling story. That said there are moments in 13 Assassins that are incredibly audacious and in the action Miike pushes the violence very far. Decapitations, seppuku and arrows fired at children are all present but these feel part of the ugly world the story inhabits rather than excessive flourishes.
Miike also expertly orchestrates the tension in the violent and more action heavy scenes, often building the tension only to break for a moment (a sequence where a child is urinating is one novel example) before returning to intense and dramatic action. This approach to the action is present in Miike’s previous work but few films of his have achieved this level of tension so well. One notable film of his that dealt in tension building though is Audition which, like 13 Assassins, was scripted by Daisuke Tengan (son of the legendary Shohei Imamura). The tension is clearly not all in the script and Miike’s directing and Kenji Yamashita’s editing add greatly but the partnership of Miike and Daisuke is obviously a very fruitful one and hopefully they will work together again.
One of the most striking things about 13 Assassins though is the way in which it harks back to another period in Japanese cinema. Not just a remake of a classic samurai film, 13 Assassins is almost a tribute to the chanbara film genre and a lament for its decline. In recruiting his band of assassins Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) points out that it has been a long time since they have used their swords and one character mentions how many samurai have pawned their swords away. The characters appear to hold a yearning for a time when they could be samurai and use their swords for their intended purpose. As Naritsugu also utters at one point “Who would have thought the age of war would be like this? It’s magnificent.” The brutal violence of the battle may be ugly in many ways but Miike finds the magnificence in it and the bored and sadistic Naritsugu finally finds his place on the battlefield.
This yearning of the characters and the way this theme runs through the film appears to follow through in Miike’s choice to direct 13 Assassins and his choice of future projects. Although he has previously directed historical films and ‘samurai’ films (see Kumamoto Monogatari for instance) and the chanbara is far from dead, 13 Assassins is probably the closest Miike has come to a 60s/70s samurai film and it is a wonderful modern example. It is also a trend that he may be continuing, with the decision to remake Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri (apparently in 3D this time). If Miike can deliver as satisfyingly with Harakiri as he has done here then we can look forward to this trend continuing.
13 Assassins will be distributed in the UK by Artificial Eye although the release date has yet to be set.