13 Assassins

13 Assassins

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Artificial Eye

Release date: September 5th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 125 minutes

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

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan

Cast: Gorô Inagaki, Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata

All good things come to an end, so it goes. But what would you do if your way of life came to an end before you did? If the principle that you lived your life by became irrelevant, if what you were living for no longer existed? There is fine line between living and existing, and without a meaning to clutch onto, just being alive can seem a daunting, exhausting, terrifyingly pointless task.

In a remake from the 1963 picture of the same name, Takeshi Miike brings a big budget to a big idea and gives us a sprawling epic set in 1844, a time when true samurai warriors were growing rarer. These men had lived their lives to such strict codes, that to assimilate into regular life would seem absurd. But as the general populous didn’t care much for samurai’s, didn’t have the same need for samurai’s, their way of life became less and less relevant, and the men became obsolete in a more modern society.

Until, that is, a good old-fashioned villain comes along, and no else knows quite how to deal with him.

13 Assassins

Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) is a worthy cause to gather 13 of the remaining warriors together, however, threatening the peace of the entire nation with his barbaric, likely insane, rule. In the opening scene, his half-brother commits seppuku, disembowelling himself, in protest to the shogun’s horrific actions. If anyone can stop Naritsugu, it is Shinzaemon Shimada (Yakusho), a samurai in the twilight of his life, who is content with fishing rather than fighting. In assembling his twelve fellow men and taking on the full force of Naritsugu’s army, Shinzaemon takes us on a thrilling journey of brotherhood, sacrifice and justice.

Victory and survival are two very different things.

Each of the 13 assassins have a back story and a personality, although they are essentially interchangeable. Thirteen is too big a number to develop the cast fully, and yet rather than this being detrimental to the picture, it adds to the dedication that these men have already shown. Their actions, and the film, are not about them as individuals, but about doing what is right in the name of honour.

The 13th assassin, Koyata, is the comic relief, if any is to be had from this film. He’s rubber limbed and provides the easier laughs, found by the first 12 trapped in a basket dangling from a tree deep in the forest. Though on the battlefield, even he is serious and poetic with his philosophy.

The colours used in 13 Assassins are very muted, with a lot of greys, navy blues, dark greens and blacks in play. Whilst obviously reflecting the dark times that the film is set in, it also made the picture much more realistic and submersive for me.

13 Assassins

The philosophy will be well known to anyone familiar with samurai films. The timing makes 13 Assassins all the more interesting though, as modern times are encroaching, and we are witness to the traditional way of life that is beginning to disappear. In one scene, Shinzaemon explains ruefully how he had given up hope of having an noble death, as the call for samurais no longer existed in the same way.

Miike is well known, especially in the West, for his more shocking and gory movies, like Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001). With 13 Assassins, he seems much more restrained. In the opening scene, the camera focuses tight on the face, conveying the action through emotion rather than a shock-factor. That’s not to say that the following minutes aren’t violent; they certainly are, but it fits in seamlessly with the tradition. The action scenes are exquisitely choreographed, even the 45-minute finale. He could certainly teach a thing or two to the Hollywood blockbuster actioneers. The discipline does not lessen the fight’s impact though, and it really is a sight to behold; I can only imagine how much more impressive it would have been on the big screen.

13 Assassins has inevitably been compared to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). But whilst Kurosawa created a rich social tapestry for his piece to be painted on, Miike keeps a narrow, but detailed nevertheless, view, concentrating on samurai, politicians and noblemen.

The life of the samurai is not romanticised, as in The Last Samurai (2003), instead Miike shows a dramatic picture, illustrating the brutal and bloody nature of their lives. It feels much more realistic, and adds an honest depth to the story that Cruise did not portray. The Last Samurai felt much smoother and cleaner, almost like a fairytale version of the samurai legends, whereas 13 Assassins gives us the highs as well as the lows, owing for a more satisfying film experience.

About Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.