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13 Assassins

A movie directed by Takashi Miike

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"Some call it elegance. Some call it cruel. I like it," says Lord Matsudaira, kicking a head.

  • Feb 26, 2012
It’s the old, old story…a small group of men we come to know are willing to die for a noble cause, and die they do, fighting against the odds, sacrificing themselves for honor and justice. Just as we probably wouldn’t do. They still make us tear up. Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins owes much to the story of the 47 ronin. The story still works, whether it’s the 47 ronin, those seven samurai or Robert Taylor and his 13 buddies on Bataan.
Look upon 13 Assassins as a movie with four acts, set in Japan in the middle of the 19th century. The Tokugawa shogunate is decaying, falling apart because of outdated customs, calcified hereditary government, corruption and too many armed warriors with sharp swords and nothing much to do after nearly three centuries of peace. There’s a weak, disengaged shogun; his ambitious, cruel and probably psychopathic younger half brother who pushes the envelope when it comes to other men’s wives and his own servants, who soon will move into a position of power; a samurai of honor and bravery who is recruited to end the young man’s career permanently; the 12 men he recruits to assist him; and how it all ends. No love stories, no sex.
Act one: We see what a monster Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu is. For an attractive-looking and privileged young man, even Jack the Ripper might find off-putting his ways of relaxing through rape and murder. He gives sadism a bad name.
Act two: We meet Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho), an experienced, tired and trusted samurai. We follow how he is recruited by those high in the government, how he recruits 11 others (along the way a mountain peasant will join them), and how he sets his traps to attack the young psycho as Naritsugu and his warriors travel from Edo to Naritsugu’s clan province.
Act three: A 50-minute battle that leaves just about everyone in sight slashed, burned or exploded to death.
Act four: A better world…maybe.
Yes, the story is a cliché. Miike, however, has delivered a movie of excellent craftsmanship. He immediately sets the point of the movie with a scene of queasy but not gory seppuku, and develops why this act leads to the assassination plot. For the most part, the 13 assassins are well-defined enough that the audience is drawn to them, and is saddened at their inevitable and noble deaths. Miike presents a vision of feudal Japan, its leadership, the county and its life that is realistic as well as beautifully photographed. The action may be brutal but the views are first-rate. He handles the long, climactic battle with mastery. This action is set in the village of Ochiai, a village of death Shinzaemon calls it, where he and his 12 fellows meet head on Matsudaira and his 200 retainers, considerably more than they expected. Shinzaemon and his men have laced the village with deathly, unexpected traps that surprise the opposing samurai as much as they surprise the audience. It’s 50 minutes of rousing sword-slashing action, the few against the many, with each assassin having his moment of bravery while he cuts down or blows up dozens.  Miike hurtles the action along and he is skilled enough not to lose the clarity of how the long battle proceeds.
Two quibbles, one serious. Whoever wrote the subtitles did a disservice to the movie by using American vernacular far too often. Informal phrases that we wouldn’t notice in a contemporary American film are jarring when supposedly coming from the mouths of samurai in the 1840s. “Listen up” is only one of several examples.
At the end we’re also faced with the question, is one of the 13 a ghost or simply a hardy survivor of a sword thrust through the neck and abdomen? Miike says it could be either, and either way a viewer might take it is fine with him. I feel like it’s either sloppy or pretentious directing, bringing in an unneeded question at the end of a very good movie.
For those who admire and have enjoyed this movie, I recommend they watch Chushingura (1962), a nearly 3-1/2 hour telling of the story of the 47 ronin.
The DVD of 13 Assassins includes an interview with Miike by a constantly smiling and deferential young woman who lobs easy questions. Miike at one point says, “This is not an action film, but a drama.” He’s right. For all the action, the movie has a pervasive feeling of something like sadness and inevitability. But then later Miike says, “When a sword hits another sword, it’s not about metal hitting against metal. It’s someone’s soul battling another soul.” Shades of Mishima. The truth probably lies among Lord Matsudaira’s last words. As he says, “It hurts.”   

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February 29, 2012
Looks good like the 7 Samauri or The Magnificent 7.
February 29, 2012
I really liked this film! Very detailed breakdown. I think this is one of Miike's best movies. I agree with Chushingura....have you seen the uncut version?
February 29, 2012
Yes, in fact I have it.
More 13 Assassins reviews
review by . May 16, 2011
posted in ASIANatomy
Takashi Miike's Remake of The 1963 Samurai Classic Film is Spectacular!!
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review by . August 22, 2011
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**** out of ****     You can't have an epic battle sequence accounting for more than twenty minutes of a film's running-time if you don't have believable characters built up and a story to tell, or better yet, one that was told in the moments before the grand finale. Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" has a great prolonged action sequence that sends the film on its merry way, but the big surprise that I was greeted with was what came attached and before.    I …
review by . June 29, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
15 - 141mins - Action/Adventure/Drama - 6th May 2011   Being the film buff that I like to pretend I am, I am still yet to see Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai- a work that has supposedly spawned many films since and is widely regarded as one of the first films to introduce plot structures such as recruiting a group of characters to to accomplish a specific goal and having a main hero undertake a task unrelated to the main plot. 13 Assassins leans on this movie which it has clearly been …
About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #16
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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