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13 Assassins

13 Assassins

By Arpad Lukacs • May 3rd, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Artificial Eye 

Original release: 6th May 2011
Certificate (UK): 15

Running time: 126 min

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese with English subtitles

Director: Takashi Miike
Writers: Daisuke Tengan, Kaneo Ikegami

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Hiroki Matsukata, Kazuki Namioka, Yûsuke Iseya, Gorô Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira

If you want to become a leader in most of today’s civilised world, you have to go through a vetting process. This process has different names in different countries – it is called a Presidential run in the United States for instance – but it is essentially nothing more than a job application. While hereditary privilege lingers on in some shape or form (the British royal family being a well-known example), real power in the centralised leadership of the western world can no longer be inherited by virtue of birth.

In the middle of the awesome battle scenes in Takashi Miike’s latest period drama 13 Assassins, there is a central theme of hereditary privilege and its potential consequences.

Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the ruling Shogun’s younger brother rapes, tortures and murders for fun. Nothing is one step too far for the Lord, his psychopathic self-gratification is reminiscent of a Ted Bundy who is above the law. And as such, no one can touch him; the only response allowed is committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in public as a form of protest against the evil Lord.

13 Assassins

Fearing Naritsugu’s rise to power, a senior government official secretly hires experienced samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) to assassinate him. The sight of a young girl who had been raped and mutilated by the lord gives Shinzaemon the final push to accept the mission. He then begins to recruit a group of samurai to go on what is almost certainly a suicide mission in defense of an innate sense of justice.

This innate sense of justice is what drives the film’s core theme. The samurai who choose to become outlaws have to deal with their commitment to the samurai code. The oath to serve and protect the Shogun prohibits them from turning against Lord Naritsugu. Watching the film, I was fascinated. I felt morally superior to the characters that stood by and watched in horror as the Lord committed horrendous acts against the innocent. I thought to myself: if it were me and if I was there, I would do something, I wouldn’t let this go on. But growing up in a culture where the Shogun is regarded as a semi-god makes people think and act differently.

Once my mind adjusted to a much more rigid cultural hierarchy, I began to feel the weight of the samurai’s undertaking which could be compared to blasphemy in religious context. Their almost unimaginable mission represents a rebellion against the very concept of hereditary privilege and the beginning of the end of the samurai era in Japan. A flawed, corrupted system begins to break down from the inside.

13 Assassins

There are essentially three acts in 13 Assassins. The first act is where most of the moral debate takes place; scenes of rape, torture and murder are juxtaposed with the samurai’s struggle to break their sacred code. In the second act they make their way to a village they chose as the location to ambush Naritsugu and his men.

Director Takashi Miike shows a different side of the samurai here: traveling through the mountains, these noble warriors become comically inept. They struggle to get through lush nature, they are tormented by blood-sucking leeches and eventually they lose their sense of direction. Fierce elite soldiers on a righteous mission are reduced to a group of vulnerable children as Miike tells us: the samurai is obsolete.

They finally stumble upon Kiga Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya) a hunter who leads them out of the jungle and to the village. This highly odd character is implied to have supernatural powers and is later accepted by the samurai as the thirteenth assassin.

13 Assassins

The third act is a flawlessly crafted battle scene taking place in the village that the assassins transformed into an elaborate trap for Lord Naritsugu and his men. They are heavily outnumbered by 200 against 13; the samurai’s advantage is the element of surprise and their choice of location.

As the mayhem begins, action fans are in for a treat; huge explosions, collapsing buildings, deadly rain of arrows, animal stampede and of course excellent close combat choreography involving what is perhaps the most beautifully elegant weapon ever made by man: the samurai sword. While the overwhelming climax in 13 Assassins is longer than I would have expected, it never lets down with its wide variety of clashes between the samurai and Naritsugu’s men.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins ticks all the boxes: a great engaging story, superb action and serious political context should speak to and satisfy a range of audiences. Lord Naritsugu is an intriguing character study of what can happen when the unqualified, immature and psychopathic are given power they don’t deserve.

The breathtaking landscapes filmed in the Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan are truly magnificent. And of course the puzzling and evidently immortal character of Koyata, the hunter, gives us film buffs some homework to do: after watching the film, we can try to find answers as to what the inspiration was for this mysterious oddity in 13 Assassins.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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