13 Assassins (2010)

With over 80 features to his name, director Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins certainly feels like a film from a very experienced director. Given a bigger budget by a British producer in order to appeal more to an international market, Miike delivers a remarkably polished piece which is in fact a remake of a 1963 film of the same name. It would be unfair to make comparisons with the original having not seen it, but what can be comfortably said is that this version is a triumph in storytelling and visual style, making use of the many skills acquired by the director over years as one of Japan’s top film makers.

It’s 1844, and Japan is under shogunate rule. Sir Doi has a sadistic half-brother in Lord Naritsugu, which, given the fact that Doi is the current shogun, could pose a threat to Japan should he be succeeded by him. Naritsugu sees himself as untouchable: raping, maiming and killing from one side of Japan to another. When a dignified official commits public Hara-Kari (ritual suicide by disemboweling oneself) at the thought of Naritsugu coming to power, Doi secretly hires highly respected samurai Shinzaemon to assassinate his evil brother. Accepting the true scale of the task, Shinzaemon gathers a group of 11 more samurai to assist in the mission, knowing that they will come up against heavy opposition from Naritsugu’s army led by his personal bodyguard and Shinzaemon’s old sparring partner Hanbei – a formidable opponent. Acquiring the 13th assassin of the title en-route to their chosen attack point, the warriors must use their combined skills (spears, swords, explosives and even rocks) to defeat an incredibly strong army before they even consider confronting the unruly Lord.

With so many characters to introduce, the first part of the film contains much more narrative than one would expect from a samurai picture and I expect some would deem it as a slow-starter. However, the principal characters are provided with adequate screen time to convey their reasoning for joining Shinzaemon’s mission and the few insights into Naritsugu’s unfathomably cruel ways instil such a true hatred for the man that you can’t help but long for his demise at the hands of these righteously skilled warriors. The visual set pieces are stunning; the setting of 19th Century Japan very rarely fails to be impressive despite its relative simplicity of expansive green fields and mountains interspersed with typically modest townships. The final – almost hour-long – battle sequence takes place in a wonderfully realised village, believable as a real location from the era. The music complements the film fantastically, managing to remain true to the time period and allowing the admittedly gruesome sound effects to contribute to the audio experience. Whilst certainly not a film for the squeamish, there’s little hand-to-hand combat in the film which would typically result in a deluge of bone-crushing and neck-breaking – given the nature of the samurai’s weapon of choice there’s just an extensive amount of crimson to get accustomed to. Coming out over here officially in May, I’d certainly recommend it to those who can appreciate the experience that subtitled international cinema has to offer.

13 Assassins (2010) frame

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