13 Assassins

I’d actually already seen this one after reading some very high critical praise for it.  Combine that with the fact that it’s directed my one of my favorite Japanese director’s Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition, Visitor Q, Dead or Alive, etc) and I was sold.  This movie is an absolute MUST SEE by all action and historical epic fans out there, to say nothing of it being mandatory viewing for all samurai fans in particular.

The premise of the movie is that the Shogun’s sadistic half brother, Lord Naritsuga is set to be elevated to political power within the Shogunate even though it is clear to the Shogun’s advisor that this will result in misery and suffering for the people, and a return to chaos and war being the inevitable final result.  So to stop this from happening (after repeated appeals to the Shogun fail) he hires Shinzaemon, one of the last true Samurai warriors, who’s now in retirement, to assassinate the evil Lord before he can be put into more power. 

Shinzaemon assembles a team of 12 samurai and they set out to ambush and kill Naritsuga and his envoy, lead by Shinzaemon’s old school rival Hanbei.  Of course things go wrong along the way, and the envoy ends up being a small army of over 200 men and the 12 samurai, along with a strange bandit they find in the woods must fight the entire army in a fortified town.

The majority of the movie is the set up for the final climactic battle, but the characters are all interesting (the acting is extremely good) and there’s enough of Miike’s trademark nastiness along the way (Naritsuga is definitely one sick son of a bitch) that the movie never once drags. The story is interesting in how it jumps between Shinzaemon and Hanbei who both believe that they are right, but both take an opposing view of the purpose of the samurai.  Shinzaemon believes the samurai are there to defend justice for the people, whereas Hanbei believes a samurai must serve and die for his lord without question, as a Samurai has no place in politics, his only purpose is an instrument of war. 

And speaking of war: Holy.  Fucking.  Shit.  The final climactic battle is nearly an hour long slash fest that instantly vaults this movie into the all time classic pantheon of action movies.  This is some fucking amazing shit here people that everyone who is a fan of medieval style warfare NEEDS to see ASAP.  I really liked how the use of CG was kept to a minimum and unlike a lot of recent war movies, when the camera pulls up to show the battlefield carnage there’s blood splattered and pooled up everywhere (an example of the opposite that most people will recognize would be 300 where blood is spraying everywhere yet not a drop ever splatters on the ground or any of the warriors in the battle).  I appreciate the attention to the grisly details.  Plus, like most Asian action films, the camera work is pulled back so you can actually tell what is happening, with no shaking around in over-tight close-ups needed to compensate for a lack of fighting talent from the cast.  You 100% believe every actor in this movie is a trained Samurai. 

A lot of movies tend to look a bit hokey in the sword fighting department, but not this one.  I’ve found that a lot of Samurai sword fights in movies make them look slow and much less impressive than their Chinese kung fu counterparts, but in this one the sword play is so incredibly fast and fierce, but never over the top, that you really get a sense of the incredible amount of training and discipline that would be required to sword fight in this style.  One mistake and death is a guarantee.

Even though the movie was shot digitally, the cinematography is really excellent, and in some ways the more washed out look it lends the movie works in its favor as it gives the film a feeling of bleakness that works not only within the framework of the surface theme of the movie, the incredible long shot odds of 13 warriors against an army, but also in how the world of the samurai is dying and for the few that remain the only hope is to be able to die an honorable death in battle before there are no more battles to be fought.  No happy endings here.

I imagine some people will find one event at the end of the film a bit absurd considering how straight the rest of the film is played, but considering Miike's ongoing use of bizarre left field endings it felt to me like a little "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" for the fans of his cult stuff so I actually didn't mind it at all despite the ridiculousness in terms of the narrative's logic.

13 Assassins gets my highest recommendation.