Takeshi Miike goes classical for 13 Assassins, a Seven Samurai-indebted swordfighting epic delivered with a blockbuster scope and sincerity free of his trademark gonzo insanity. Set in 1884 feudal Japan, where an age of peace has made its once-glorious samurai superfluous, Miike’s latest (a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film) begins and ends with an act of sacrificial suicide, both deaths directly related to Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the adopted son of the shogun whose madman reign of terror is soon to be rewarded with a political post that will allow him to fully plunge the country into chaos. Such a move is opposed, with a heart heavy over disobeying customary power hierarchies, by Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), who—unwilling to stand by and allow the cruel Naritsugu to achieve power—secretly commissions samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to enlist the help of whatever remaining swordsmen can be found for a mission to assassinate Naritsugu. That motley crew includes Shinzaemon’s drunken nephew, a devoted apprentice, as well as a wildlife hunter looking for some action, a gang of warriors whose task pits them directly against Naritsugu’s own chief samurai—and Shinzaemon’s lifelong rival—Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who professes that the greatest virtue is loyalty to one’s master.
That tension between a servant’s duty and moral responsibility forms the crux of 13 Assassins, and proves a standard dynamic that Miike handles without subversive humor or irony. His film is a conventional few-against-many adventure between the noble and the nefarious in which the first two-thirds is spent stacking the deck in favor of its protagonists’ goodness and its villains’ malevolence. The latter is solidified during a hauntingly intense sequence that finds Shinzaemon becoming acquainted with a woman whose arms, legs, and tongue were dismembered by Naritsugu for sport, and who—with a brush between her teeth—scrawls on parchment that her family’s fate was “Total Massacre.” Working from Daisuke Tengan’s well-paced script, Miike isn’t interested in shades of gray, but rather in celebrating the dignity of forfeiting one’s comfort and livelihood (if not life itself) for a worthy cause. His direction thus initially assumes a stately grandness—suspenseful and reverential framing, immaculate camera movements—that ably establishes his characters’ righteousness and wretchedness, all while swiftly sketching out most of his thirteen protagonists’ individual personalities and motivations and, more important still, building inexorably mounting tension for the warfare to come.
Come it does, in a prolonged sequence that’s one of Miike’s finest, a beautifully orchestrated ballet of bloodshed that rises and falls with musical grace, and ultimately builds to a crimson-stained crescendo of triumph and failure. 13 Assassins’s extended finale is a thing of samurai slaughterhouse beauty, with Shinzaemon and his heroic comrades risking everything by ambushing Naritsugu, Hanbei, and their 200 foot soldiers in a small village where they aim to have the element of surprise. Beginning with a series of traps before escalating into sword-to-sword skirmishes, Miike’s centerpiece boasts sharp momentum and nasty muscularity. And as the death toll mounts, the director refuses to indulge in self-reflexive winks at his audience, instead earnestly lionizing Shinzaemon’s principled stand against monstrousness and, in doing so, celebrating—via his story’s swan-song lamentation over the passing of an age—the defining decency and integrity of the samurai code. It’s a strategy that’s ultimately more fruitful than his concurrent attempts to posit the climactic carnage as proof of warfare’s fundamental horridness, a thematically sound objective that’s nonetheless ultimately undercut by combat choreography that is, as the sadistic Naritsugu rightly puts it, “magnificent.”
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