Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Takeshi Miike
Stars: Goro Inagaki, Koji Yakusho, Yusuke Iseya.
The Dirty Baker’s Dozen?
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, etc) leaves behind his preferred milieu of gangster thrillers and horror movies to venture confidently into Kurosawa territory with this sword and samurai action film, set in mid-19th century feudal Japan. 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white samurai movie of the same name, but infused with Miike’s distinctive brand of graphic violence and carnage.
Set in 1844, the film tells of a band of thirteen mercenary warriors and samurai who set off on a suicide mission to kill the sadistic and bloodthirsty Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). He is raping and pillaging his way across Japan, and his actions threaten to undo the years of peace that Japan has enjoyed. Samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho, from Shall We Dance?, etc) is charged with killing the renegade Naritsugu. He recruits eleven fellow samurai for the task. Along the way they are joined by the outlaw Koyata Kiga (Yusuke Iseya, from the Japanese spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, etc).
The film is slow to start as it spends a bit of time delving into the political machinations of Japan under the rule of the shogun. But once the film gets down to action it is full on as Naritsugu’s army is lured into a booby-trapped village of Ochia. Although hopeless outnumbered by Naritsugu’s army, the thirteen bravely fight against overwhelming odds. Cue plenty of swordplay, bloody action, mayhem, decapitations, and a body count that would make the likes of Tarantino envious.
The spirit of Kurosawa flows through the climactic epic battle sequence, which is spectacular in scale, and occupies much of the film’s generous running time. Miike directs these exhilarating scenes with gusto, and revels in the carnage. His action scenes make films like 300, with its CGI armies, pale by comparison. Like Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch, which echoed the death of the old west, so too does 13 Assassins reflect the death of the samurai code and way of life in Japan.
Characterisation is fairly slim, especially given so many characters, and Miike doesn’t give us enough detail about many of the characters to allow us the engage fully with them or empathise with their fate. Veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho (Babel, Memoirs Of A Geisha, etc), brings a sense of gravitas to his role as Shinzaemon, the veteran and principled samurai leading the gang of mercenaries.
13 Assassins is a formulaic film for sure, but it also succeeds as a wonderful homage to the samurai cinema of yesteryear and classics like The Seven Samurai.