13 Assassins ✮✮✮✮
Miike’s Town of Death
by Glenn Lovell
It doesn’t happen often, but once in a blue moon an action adventure comes along that upends staid conventions and leaves us panting thirstily for “More, please.” David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” proved such a departure. So too did Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
Now you can add to this hallowed roll “13 Assassins,” a post-modern samurai adventure that can stand proud beside the best of the genre while at the same time openly ridiculing the idea of sacrificing one’s life in a “senseless war of power and politics.”
The latest from Japan’s prolific Takashi Miike, “13 Assassins” is, not surprisingly, an anachronistic, action-packed, beautifully crafted samurai revenge epic set in the mid-19th Century, during the waning days of the Shogunate when the code of the samurai was but a hollow reminder of past (foolhardy?) glories.
The increasingly sadistic behavior of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), the Shogun’s half-brother, could topple the dynasty. Naritsugu, we’re warned, has “a vicious nature” and a “lust for flesh and dishonorable conduct.” This hardly describes what we see in flashback: moments of sub-human debauchery and barbarism that include rape, murder and ‒ in a scene reminiscent of Miike’s bag-man in “Audition” ‒ mutilation. Obviously this is one evil guy, a foul stain on the honor of Japan’s ruling clan.
Behind closed doors, the Shogun’s senior adviser orders Naritsugu’s assassination, to be executed “quietly” by Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho), a member of the elite guard. Shinza, as he’s called, is a warrior without a war. When finally called to action, he laughs in disbelief: “How fate smiles on me, a samurai in time of peace hoping for a noble death.”
But who can Shinza recruit for what amounts to a suicide mission? He starts with an old friend and a disciplined disciple and soon adds a wastrel nephew, a snot-nosed orphan, a jovial type handy with a spear, a couple of munitions experts and a few other even more unlikely candidates. The fellow they meet on the road makes it a lucky 13. This lowly woodsman (Yusuke Iseya) is contemptuous of the samurai code and, like Toshiro Mifune in “The Seven Samurai,” can be counted upon for spirited comedy relief.
“Let’s ride!” shouts Shinza, sounding very much like William Holden in “The Wild Bunch.” The plan is to outflank Lord Naritsugu and then separate him from his guard and royal entourage. Their Thermopylae is the sleepy mountain village of Ochiai. Once fortified in a montage reminiscent of “The Seven Samurai” and its Western variant, “The Magnificent Seven,” this “town of death” becomes the site of an amazing 40-minute pitched battle that utilizes sword, arrow, spear, explosive, slingshot and ‒ here’s a new one ‒ burning bull.
Somehow, Miike — who’s as versatile as he is prolific (everything from yakuza crime thrillers to horror melodramas to a children’s fantasy and a western) — has reined in some of his usual excesses and delivered, relatively speaking, an almost stately tribute to Kurosawa and the samurai film.
If that sounds equivocal, it’s meant to. While applauding their master’s new restraint, Miike fans won’t feel slighted. The intricate expository plotting and government skullduggery give way periodically to moments of pure, unadulterated savagery by Inagaki’s seriously demented villain. In context, the bloodletting does what’s required: it raises the stakes and makes the climactic battle worth fighting, and dying for.
At 126 minutes, this “13 Assassins” — which can trace its lineage to a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo — is 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. We’re getting what’s called the “international cut.” Oh, well. It’s still one helluva ride — at once mesmerizing, subversive, bloody and cathartic.
In short, definitive Miike.
13 ASSASSINS ✮✮✮✮ With Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Masachika Ichimura. Directed by Takashi Miike; scripted by Daisuke Tengan (based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami). 126 min. Rated R (for nonstop violence, gruesome makeup effects)