The promise of 13 Assassins is a final act that showcases some of the best, most innovative, most brutal fighting that the screen has seen. Everything leads up to it – from the introduction of the 13, to the steel-headed conversations between former allies turned enemies, to the preparation of a small town that the assassin’s leader vows to turn into a killing field.
Everything leads up to it, and it delivers.
It delivers with such intensity that it’s hard to breath, that it’s difficult not to stand up and cheer, that a little bad CGI doesn’t ruin the ridiculous flaming weapon that the CGI is meant to create. Fortunately, the build up to the final act is beautiful in its own right. The whole experience is brilliant and deadly.
In the waning days of the samurai, an evil lord rapes young women, kills on a whim, and plans on delivering war back to the peaceful nation. Since he’s the Shogun’s younger brother, he’s above the law. However, he’s not above being killed by a band of assassins hired by a senior government official to take out the lord and leave his head somewhere in the dirt of the Japanese countryside.
Takashi Miike is a complete mystery. The same man that directed Audition, that directed Ichi the Killer, that directed Visitor Q. This is somehow the same man that directed the comedy Yatterman, the strange Western throwback Sukiyaki Western Django and now his attempt at channeling Akira Kurosawa with 13 Assassins.
He pulls off the Kurosawa-style flawlessly, displaying the calm and care needed to deliver situations so delicate to the screen before unleashing hell all over it. The main story of the film is an introduction to each of the assassins, their skill, and a connection between the honor that they all so willfully deliver in the service of dying for this cause. Some are old, some are young. Some are stern, some are funny. Slowly, the team is built while simultaneously we’re introduced to Lord Naritsugu – the man they are charged with killing. Few films have so quickly marked a character for death and then proven exactly why he needs to die. There’s no question of his vileness. It’s something in the slick candor with which he kills a man after raping his wife or in his complete lack of regard for the lives of his bodyguards. One thing is clear – Naritsugu is an evil man who deserves a slow, torturous death.
There is a deliberate pace to the film that follows in the tradition of other samurai flicks. There’s a sort of ceremonial feel to everything as each character falls into place and stick to the role they’ve built for themselves.
This culminates in a tense scene between Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) and Naritsugu’s head bodyguard Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura). Once fellow students in martial arts, now they find themselves on opposing sides. As they speak with utter politeness to each other, there’s an underlying understanding that the next time they see each other, each will be trying to carve out the other’s heart. Along with the introduction of the assassins, and the group setting out into the forest and mountains to head off Naritsugu on his way back from Edo – this scene stands on a pedestal of its own to show the contract Miike is signing with the audience. It’s a promise that there will be blood.
13 Assassins is really made up of 2 sections split in half by the eye of the hurricane. The threat of violence builds in the beginning, there’s a protracted period of waiting for the mousetrap to spring shut, and then the explosion of swordsmanship and viscera that comes with the raw way in which Miike shoots the battle. It’s 13 vs 300, and by the end, the earth is painted with bodily fluids.
There are few samurai films (classic or modern) that are as satisfying as this one. The entire thing is like someone reading you a poem and then handing you a live grenade. Miike has painstakingly crafted a movie that brings honorable characters to life and places them as the last option on the table to stop a truly callous individual. In the end, the most surprising thing is the film’s obvious belief in the sanctity of life. Even with scores of bodies shuffling off their mortal coil at the end of a blade or bull or bomb, 13 Assassins is miles away from a mindless action film that populates the screen with the equivalent of breathing gore fodder. There’s a heroism at the bottom of the mass grave.
Over all, Miike has built a gorgeous film that includes some stalwart performances all leading to a last half hour that is unforgettable in its scope and violence. Imagine if Saving Private Ryan had placed the beach storming at the end, and you’re part of the way there. It’s a ridiculously incredible film, and Miike has once again proven himself as a master craftsman.