Many reviewers will contend that the summer movie season kicks off in a week with the debut of Paramount’s big budget Thor. There will be enough capes, shields and glowing rings to boost the sales of Happy Meals worldwide; however, one brave filmmaker may contest that claim. Japan’s Takeshi Miike debuts 13 Assassins, a samurai war movie where 13 brave warriors set out to prevent war.
Warriors out to prevent war? If there’s a clear definition of good versus evil, then you know this is a period piece. The year is 1844 and peace has invaded feudal Japan. Once proud samurai struggles to adapt to a world more about commerce than swords. Lord Naritsugu (played by rocker Goro Inagaki) is the brother of the Shogun and wants to return Japan back to its warlike days and sets out on a one man crusade to bring chaos back to order. Naritsugu doles out cruelty as if it were pez. When an opposing nobleman commits hara-kiri to protest Naritsugu’s crimes, he decides to send a message by filling up the nobleman’s wife and children full of arrows.
Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hara) recruits samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to perform a preemptive strike to stop Naritsugu from ascending to power. What sways Shinzaemon is a particular act of Naritsugu’s handiwork, a tongueless limbless woman that Naritsugu used as his pet. Her only crime was that being the daughter of a “peasant leader”. Shinzaemon is spurred to action and embarks on a suicide mission along with 12 other comrades, equally driven to stopping Naritsugu’s rampage.
Miike’s remake of the 1963 classic by Eiichi Kudo is not only an homage to the original and other pictures of its genre, but also a template to how future action movies should be made on both sides of the Pacific. The director’s limited, but potent use of CGI is definitely a lesson in how less is more. The women in 13 Assassins often have scleras as black as onyx, making them appear as haunting sirens awaiting the next soul or savior to pass through.
Juggling the personalities of twelve warriors couldn’t have been an easy task. Although one of the shortcomings is that you don’t get to know many of the characters as individuals, there are moments of humor to remind you that they’re human beings and not just toy soldiers. Comic relief is also embodied in the 13th assassin Koyata (Yusuke Iseya), a drunken ne’er do well who takes up the fight not over a moral calling, but just because he loves a good fight.
Despite the swordplay, conflicts both moral and personal are the engine that drives 13 Assassins. The samurai code is challenged from both ends. Shinzaemon’s adherence to the belief that the samurai must do what’s best for the people versus his former friend Hanbei’s (Masachika Ichimura) insistence in blind loyalty to his lord despite objecting to his atrocities. This clash is handled brilliantly as Miike causes the audience to mirror that with today’s soldier.
And then there’s the action….
For most of the last half of the film, it’s an endless series of swordfights and elaborately planned booby traps in the sleepy village that Shinzaemon traps Naritsugu’s soldier’s in to even up the odds. These are more than A-Team choreographed explosions where no one gets hurt. No, these are flaming bulls setting out to gore the bad guys and sliding walls of branches that serve as a cage where soldiers are picked off one by one. The use of blood comes off as more symbolic than a gorefest, even when heads are lost.
13 Assassins won’t have cute action figures with every Happy Meal, but it is quality filmmaking filmed with the drama, action and humor to appeal to a large audience of an adult age. It’s poignant in telling the loss of a way of life and how peace leaves behind its own casualties as warriors struggle to find a purpose when there’s no one left to fight.
Non-stop action, tons of swordplay and great performances make for a very fun ride.