13 Assassins, Japan / UK, 2010
Directed by Takashi Miike
This movie kicks mountains of ass! From the opening scene, which depicts the ancient Japanese ritual suicide method known as harakiri or seppuku, Japanese provocateur Takashi Miike’s latest film is clearly not screwing around. The opening scene is a textbook case of the effectiveness of sound design in film: we are mercifully spared the visual details of the disgraced samurai slicing open his own belly with his sword, instead focusing on a long take of his agonized face with the hideous squelching sounds of the violent act filling the soundtrack, an effect that is arguably even worse than onscreen violence. I remember being surprised to hear that the latest film from Miike (Audition, Gozu) managed to get an R-rating, and the fifteen minutes cut from the original Japanese release for the international version probably accounts for this, but I have little doubt that this scene has been presented exactly as Miike intended. It is a brutal beginning to an extremely violent film, a scene that really lets the audience know what it is in for.
In the unblinkingly sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) we have perhaps the most compelling screen villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, a creation that, when that film came out in 2008, immediately brought to my mind Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Miike’s 2001 film Ichi the Killer. Naritsugu is the younger brother of the Shogun and is therefore above the law, which he uses to rape and murder the so-called â€œservant classâ€ at will, committing unspeakably brutal acts of violence with either a smirk or no expression at all. He is bored with the current state of affairs, the era of the samurai class and the â€œtime of warâ€ at an end in feudal Japan, so he finds excitement in the only way of which his vicious mind can conceive. This reflects a sense throughout the film of the end of an era, the kind of feeling found at the heart of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) or Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969); it is a feeling shared by the remaining samurai, but reflected much more darkly in Naritsugu.
Still, even the â€œgood guysâ€ in the film have a significant streak of blood-lust at their very core, as shown when the leader of the titular band of assassins, Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), is entrusted with the duty of killing Naritsugu for the greater good of the Japanese empire: witnessing the horrific sight of a nude quadruple-amputee servant girl whose tongue has also been severed by Naritsugu, Shinzaemon’s expression abruptly changes from one of profound disturbance and pity (I felt my own face contorted in much the same way during this scene) to a surprising smile, with even a giggle making its way out. He is excited, not by the misfortune of the young woman and her family, whose fate at the hands of Naritsugu is described as â€œtotal massacre,â€ but at the prospect of a worthy cause for which to sacrifice his life. This is the essence of the way of the samurai; as Shinzaemon later tells his assembled warriors, â€œHe who values his life dies a dog’s death.â€ All of the assassins know that there is a very good chance not one of them will survive the mission, and this is precisely why they undertake it. When Shinzaemon accepts the mission by saying, â€œI shall accomplish your task â€¦ with magnificence,â€ I felt a huge fanboy grin spread across my face, and not for the last time during the film.
This is, to me, an instant classic of a film, the kind of epic Kurosawa might make if he were alive today, but with Miike’s distinctive touch throughout, especially in the aforementioned quadruple-amputee scene and in various moments during the huge third-act battle sequence. The characters are even similar to those found in films like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress (1958), particularly the comic relief, a lowly hunter named Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) who proves to be one of the fiercest fighters of the thirteen, as well as extremely resourceful and seemingly invincible. There is also Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), Shinzaemon’s nephew, who is introduced as a drunken gambler and womanizer but who sees this mission as a way to redeem himself and live up to his uncle’s noble heritage â€“ shades of Seven Samurai‘s Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) â€“ and Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an impeccable swordsman who recalls Seven Samurai‘s equivalent bad-ass, Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi).
The entire third act of 13 Assassins is one enormous, epic battle sequence, which probably should get boring after awhile, but never does, due to a number of factors: the aforementioned comic relief, the sheer amazing spectacle of it all, and the perfectly structured buildup of the first two acts. In this final battle, we have the thirteen warriors up against over 200 of Naritsugu’s men, meaning each of the thirteen must kill 15 to 20 enemies, and boy, how they do. While the film frequently revels in wonderfully over-the-top violence (including a great moment involving explosives that causes a torrent of blood last scene in the famous elevator sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to rain down onto the battlefield), it also doesn’t shy away from the grotesque ugliness of it all, employing excellent point-of-view cinematography and gut-wrenching performances to ground appropriate moments in nasty, grimy realism before returning to awesome moments of bravado and swordsmanship. Sometimes in the midst of ten or twenty opponents, Hirayama or one of the others will pause and give the camera a crazy warrior-face, or the simple act of wiping blood from a sword will become a moment that makes you want to stand up and cheer. I could rave about this film for another ten paragraphs, but that would require one of those pesky â€œspoilerâ€ warnings, and anyway, there’s no need; you already know if this is your kind of movie or not, and if it is, let me assure you it is one of the best.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor forÂ MoviesIDidnâ€™tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features.Â A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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