Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins was the last film I saw at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, and what an absolutely badass way to end the journey. With some of the most dazzling battle sequences you will ever witness accounting for nearly half of the film’s running time, it is nothing short of epic. As a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, Miike’s film is a brutally intense, relentless, bloody assault on the senses. With a heartfelt tale of justice, revenge, honor and redemption amidst the waning era of the Samurai in Feudal Japan at the core of the story, the battle choreography is near-unfathomable and the meticulous intricacies taken into account to maintain continuity within the roaring chaos is astounding.
Set during Feudal Japan, the nation is terrorized by the sadistic Lord Naritsugu who rapes, tortures and kills at will. He is the former Shogun’s son and the current Shogun’s younger brother, so his political connections dictate him as being untouchable. When news of his heinous crimes spread, a senior government official fears Naritsugu’s rise to a higher political position and secretly hires master samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yajusho) to assassinate him.
Shinzaemon gathers eleven more samurai, including Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukata), another veteran who selects his best students to also join, Shimada (Takayuki Yamada), Shinzaemon’s nephew who has strayed from the samurai way and joins the mission to redeem himself, Hirayama, a samurai of unmatched skill and Sahara, an elder Ronin. They plan to ambush Naritsugu on his road home from Edo.
Taking a shortcut through the mountains, they becomes lost and meet a hunter named Kiga Koyata. Claiming to be of samurai lineage, he leads them through the dense jungle to the town they have chosen to stage the battle and joins them. Equipped with camouflaged fortifications, and with part of their posse trained in explosives, the stronghold is prepared to blockade the approaching Naritsugu party. But instead of the 70 guards they were expecting, they soon realize they are outnumbered 200 to just 13.
Miike is at his bloody best here. A prolific and controversial filmmaker over his 20 year career, he has directed titles such as the terrifying Audition and sickening Ichi the Killer. At a modest 126 minutes, the story is relatively simple and it is delivered in a concise, direct but effective manner. Adequately addressing the context of feudal Japan, Miike presents us with a sickening antagonist, outlines the motivations of his key characters for desiring the man’s extinction and then manages to develop the thirteen assembled warriors as individual characters, within the first half of the film.
Some of the photography during the battle sequences is really exceptional. For such a lengthy sequence and with such uneven odds, it does run the risk of becoming implausible and monotonous. But there are different layers to the battle. Raging from the ground to the rooftops, the samurai utilize bows and arrows, explosives, wooden traps, burning bulls and boulders in addition to their swords, to spectacularly take down their enemies.
Some clever shooting techniques including one from the hanging head of a near-death samurai, endow the film with a heart pounding intensity. Miike does honor Kurosawa, whose classic film The Seven Samurai is widely touted as the pinnacle of samurai films. The way the samurai paired up and fought together balances their screen time and gives us every opportunity to watch their very different fighting techniques. A predictable, but inevitable ending left me a little disappointed, but this is forgivable considering what transpires beforehand. It’s extremely violent, to an often unsettling extent, but fantastic all the same.