[This post is cross-published at Parallax View.]
The rumors are true: Miike Takashi’s 13 Assassins, a kind of outlaw The Seven Samurai by way of The Dirty Dozen set at the sunset of the Shogunate and the samurai era, is a startlingly tradition samurai action piece that shows that Miike can indeed color between the lines. Which makes me wonder if that was indeed his project. With the exception of one signature Miike image (a woman who has been cruelly disfigured by our royal villain, writhing naked on the screen like some science experiment gone displayed as a piece of evidence), this is a straightforward piece, a men on a mission film where the increasingly outmoded ideals of duty and honor and meaning through sacrifice are at the heart of the matter. As a matter of face, the Shogun’s advisor can’t challenge the depraved Lord Naritsugo (Inagaki Goro), a monster that makes Caligula look restrained, and who just happens to be the Shogun’s half brother, without bringing disgrace upon his master, so he calls upon the honorable retired samurai Shinzaemon (Kurosawa Kiyoshi regular Yakusho Koji) to assassinate Naritsugo before he is promoted to the cabinet. A surgical strike, one might call it, all in the name of preserving the country and the honor of the Shogunate.
Anyone coming to this film without knowing Miike’s legacy would find an efficiently-made piece of commercial filmmaking, crisply set up in the first half with introductions and justifications laid out, non-stop action in a town turned into one giant deathtrap in the final act. What little humor there is comes from a peasant forest hunter and guide, the ringer who makes up the thirteenth member and jumps into the fray with stones, sticks, slings and fists: “Your samurai brawls are crazy fun,” the unkempt but energetic eccentric smiles in the midst of battle, getting nothing but scowls from his samurai teammate, a man in it for honor and a worthy death. But so is Shinzaemon’s opposite Hanbei (Ichimura Masachika), a man obligated to protect his Lord no matter how much he despises his dishonorable conduct.
It’s a good death, I suppose, and Miike finds little irony in any of it. He takes it all at face value—the codes of honor, the contradictions of the code, the idea that life is defined by the mode of one’s death—and delivers a film that mourns the men and the end of the era with obligatory regret and acknowledges the ironies without pushing them to the extremes that one expects. What’s the difference between Shinzaemon’s fascination with violence and his nostalgia for the era of war that he never experienced, and the samurai who yearn for an opportunity to actually ply their profession in a meaningful battle and earn their honor by a good death? One of respect for life in the first place, I suppose, but it’s really a matter of degree: Shinzaemon pushes the glorification of violence into sadism against powerless victims, but he’s happy as can be in the midst of the ambush, like a kid playing war for real, certain that he can’t be touched. The samurai never smile, but they too take a certain satisfaction in battle.
There’s not a trace of satire or even a question of the concepts of honor in the fatal justice on display. But Miike does deliver a fluid and flashy piece of furious samurai action and he constructs a terrific set of tricks and traps, barbed walls that shoot out of buildings to divide and confuse, openings to channel them into constricted spaces (the better for individuals to take on platoons of swordsmen) and weapons cached everywhere for the 13 heroes to take on an army of 200. But it’s also anonymous, not just because it lacks any of his weirdness and wild visuals, but because it lacks a sensibility of any kind.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.