Directed by: Takashi Miike
Written by: Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Garô Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, and Takayuki Yamada
It turns out the man behind the gruesome yet oddly beautiful Japanese horror film Audition has the blood for hard-boiled samurai action. 13 Assassins has perhaps the most gloriously choreographed battle sequence since Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings. Yes, it is that good.
Outside of that nearly 45 minute slice of cinematic glory is a fairly standard if beautifully shot good vs. evil story. The aging samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) is taken from his quiet days of fishing and secretly tasked by an official in the Japanese Shogun regime to kill the tyrant Naritsugu (Garô Inagaki), who will take a spot on the council and inevitably disrupt the peace with his war-craving lunacy.
Shinzaemon assembles a team of 11 other samurai and is joined by another outsider on his journey to the city where they hope to ambush Naritsugu and his 200 men. They buy off the help of town officials and are given time to turn the town into a booby trapped nightmare for a large group of soldiers.
Miike uses the whole movie to build up to this battle from the bare-bones screenplay by Daisuke Tengan. We’re given ample material to hate Naritsugu as we watch him shoot an entire bound family with a bow and arrow. What’s important is that Miike does not explicitly show this carnage. The sadism of his antagonist in Audition was shocking, but brief in comparison to other American gore fests.
By comparison, 13 Assassins shames American counterparts like 300 that take on a similar story. He relies on glorious set pieces (those booby traps) instead of reveling in slow motion violence and gore. Yes, this is a bloody movie, but it is done by a sophisticated director who tells his story with terrific narrative economy instead of slowing it down to watch the penetrated flesh.
This battle works gloriously on a technical level, but it works as a whole because the story, however simple, makes us care about Shinzaemon and a few of the other assassins. His young nephew Shimada (Takayuki Yamada) becomes a watchful participant in the battle, seeing the corruption violence has on the soul of these men and then faced with the decision of accepting or rejecting it.
Moral grappling like that is what gives 13 Assassins appeal outside of a “Wow!” battle. Another aging samurai, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), refuses to break from protecting the Shogun’s disgusting son. The movie is a fairly straightforward good/evil story, but that adds a welcome shade of gray, especially at the inevitable duel between him and Shinzaemon.
13 Assassins would be a perfect movie to get a mainstream American audience interested in something foreign. It’s bravura technique carries the familiar story in an exciting way without being dull. The characters and the actors who play them are engaging but still in a story that isn’t really about them as much as it is the filmmaking. Miike has crafted a samurai movie that could be a crossover hit.
The scale of the battle is not over the top, and it doesn’t need to be for it to be epic. 300 pitted its 300 macho Spartans against an army of thousands in a special effects-laden battlefield. In a battle of 13 versus 200, you’ll be surprised how much bigger and more intense this movie feels. That’s because Miike did away with a green screen and decided to do something innovative before he got to the editing room.