SXSW 2011: 13 ASSASSINS Review

Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
SXSW 2011: 13 ASSASSINS Review
[With 13 Assassins now screening at SXSW we revisit James Marsh's previous review.]

For his latest film, prolific Japanese director Miike Takashi has taken Kudo Eiichi's 1966 tale of a villainous shogun and the disillusioned samurai sent to assassinate him, and spun it into a sweeping, blood drenched epic that is destined to become a genuine classic of the genre.

In the mid-18th century, feudal Japan is a fractured nation and the current Shogun is in poor health. His likely successor is younger brother Naritsugu (Inagakai Goro), a despicable sadist who happily slices and dices servants and subordinates to quench his insatiable bloodlust. He dreams of returning the country to an era of murderous anarchy and the appeals of his advisors to maintain order are met with deaf ears and silenced by the business end of his katana.

Fearing for the well-being of the entire country, Naritsugu's second-in-command enlists Shinzaemon (Yakusho Koji), a veteran samurai who previously served under the Shogun, to assemble a band of assassins to take Naritsugu out. The first half of the film follows Shinza as he recruits a varied assortment of washed up ronin, eager, inexperienced novices and trusted friends to make up his baker's dozen of erstwhile warriors. These include the ruthless Hirayama (Ihara Tsuyoshi), fresh-faced Oguru (Kubota Masataka) and Shinza's own womanizing playboy nephew, Shinrukuro (Yamada Takayuki). He even allows Koyata (Iseya Yusuke) to tag along, a mountain-dwelling bandit with a good heart but a dismissive lack of respect for samurai.

Once the characters are all in place, Shinza has his band of killers hold-up in a small roadside town and await Naritsugu and his heavily armed entourage as they make their way to join the Shogun council. When their paths eventually cross, the film explodes in an elegantly executed and hugely exciting parade of swordsmanship, nobility and plentiful bloodletting. It's almost as if Miike indulged in the non-stop brawling of two CROWS: ZERO movies solely as a dress rehearsal for the beautifully orchestrated carnage that is the second half of 13 ASSASSINS.

Judging by Miike's track record for over-the-top death and destruction, the prospect of him directing a samurai film no doubt had fans of the Lone Wolf & Cub series and its contemporaries gleefully expecting a revival of that kind of artful violence. And while the director does stop short of the grand guignol excesses he has delivered in the past, 13 ASSASSINS nevertheless features a parade of beheadings, disembowelings and even bisectings as cold steel meets soft flesh that leaves hundreds of corpses in its wake.

But 13 ASSASSINS is so much more than merely another violent Miike gang film transported back in time a couple of centuries. Miike is deeply respectful of the jidaigeki genre, recreating the period in exquisite detail in an atmosphere of austere restraint. Comparisons to Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI are inevitable due to the film's story structure, but Miike's influences extend far beyond that and he recaptures a tone and elegance that only Yamada Yoji has managed to muster in recent years. The performances are reined in perfectly, which only serves to underpin the samurais' stoic sensibility and add a chilling sense of devilish entitlement to Inagakai's despicable Naritsugu.

Once the action kicks in, Miike allows himself more creative freedom and stages a number of magnificent standoffs. The assassins essentially rig an entire town with an assortment of booby traps and hidden weapons to ensnare and slaughter the vast numbers of Naritsugu's forces, at one point releasing spring loaded fences to corner their enemies before sending a herd of immolating bulls charging towards them. One entire fight sequence is shot with the camera at a 90 degree angle, as a dying pupil watches helpless from the mud as his samurai master finally succumbs to Naritsugu's forces. But there are many such moments throughout the entire film which display the sure and steady hand of a master craftsman at the very height of his powers.  

13 ASSASSINS should delight fans of Miike's work, samurai aficionados and lovers of Japanese Cinema in general as it consistently delivers expertly crafted thrills and resonating pathos from the opening ritual hara-kiri to the closing shot of pyrrhic victory. This is not only Miike's best work in quite some time but almost certainly the best samurai film to emerge in the last decade. Simply put, it is a masterpiece.

13 Assassins

  • Takashi Miike
  • Kaneo Ikegami (based on a screenplay by)
  • Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
  • Kôji Yakusho
  • Takayuki Yamada
  • Yûsuke Iseya
  • Ikki Sawamura
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Takashi MiikeKaneo IkegamiDaisuke TenganKôji YakushoTakayuki YamadaYûsuke IseyaIkki SawamuraActionAdventureDrama

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