In 1844, the peace of Feudal Japan is threatened by cruel Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, who is politically rising and getting closer to his half-brother, the shogun. After the harakiri of the Namiya clan leader, samurai Shinzaemon Shimada is summoned by the shogun’s advisor Sir Doi of the Akashi Clan to listen to the tragedy of Makino Uneme, whose son and daughter-in-law have been murdered by Naritsugu. Then Sir Doi shows a woman with arms, legs and tongue severed by Naritsugu and she writes with her forearm a request to Shinza to slaughter Naritsugu and his samurai. Shinza promises to kill Naritsugu and he gathers eleven other samurais and plots a plan to attack Naritsugu in his trip back to the Akashi land. But the cunning samurai Hanbei Kitou that is responsible for the security of his master foresees Shinza’s intent. Shinza decides to go with his samurai through the mountain, where they find the hunter Koyata that guides them off the mountain and joins the group. Now the thirteen men…
Takashi Miike, like so many other Japanese artists, is a pervert swine. He shows so in many of his other movies. But that doesn’t bother us, as he’s also a great filmmaker. And in 13 Assassins he’s doing a fairly classical adventure movie, and does so greatly.
Indeed does the structure and the way in which 13 Assassins was made reminds us of some of the great and cheesy adventure movie of the 50s and 60s. Think Lawrence of Arabia, 20.000 Miles Below the Sea and similar schlocks.
No idea what went on in Takashi Miike’s mind when he made 13 Assassins. This movie stands out in his very modern oeuvre with its oldfashioned twang. But as I said already, Miike handles that classic style with aplomb and totally believable.
The action is hard and real. No fast cuts and wobbly camera and any of those tricks used by Hollywood to not show us anything but an illusion of action. In 13 Assassins the action has weight and impact.
13 Assassins is great oldfashioned adventure cinema like from the 50s and 60s. We get to see strongwilled men, giving us the hero stance, great stuntwork. brave faces, not too much of talking but great pathos. And by adding the 13th assassin, a lowlife hunter, to the noble samurai fighting a noble cause, we even get a kinda comic relief.
And while the buildup is slow and full of dialogue by people who all look the same and have non-rememberable names, the basic storyline is simple enough to follow. Small group of honourable knights against the evil brother od the shogun. So even if you don’t read subtitles too well, it’s all pretty clear.
The camera tells the story pretty much unmistakingly clear, even without walls of text and long mono- and dialogues. Our favourite pervert Miike knows how to show us everything in gory detail.
This movie is part cat and mouse game, some strategic thinking of the counterparts Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) and his old dojo buddy Hanbei Kito (Masachika Ichimura). Both are old samurai, true and honest but serving different masters.
It’s fun to watch their last meeting before the action starts, and following scenes in which they try to outthink and outplay each other.
But it’s in the last chapter of 13 Assassins, when Lord Naritsugu’s (Gorô Inagaki) kinda huge entourage (more like a small army) enters the little bording town in which Shinzaemon and his gang have prepared a deadly trap for them, when Miike really shines as an action director.
It’s a real joy to watch circa 200 stuntmen devastating the village while wasting their enemies. Of course all the fighting culminates in just two one-vs-one fights: First Shinza kills Hanbei in an even duel, then he turns onto the appaling Naritsugu … who – in real Miike manner – kinda enjoys his own fear of dying and finds it deliciously refreshing.
To make it short: In the end only two protagonists are walking away. And they’re not the “leaders” of the opposing groups.
The story of 13 Assassins couldn’t be more straightforward and simple in its dramaturgy and structure if they tried. And that’s good so because the motive of 13 Assassins doesn’t need and cheap drama tricks.
Miike only gives us one flashback; apart from that he tells the story as linear as it happens. It’s the simple but strong plot of good vs evil, of honour vs douchebaggery. A timeless motive for so many good stories.
And as always, as great and competently as the action and the landscapes are filmed and as entertaining as the story might be, underneath all the spectacle lies a deep melancholy. I guess Shinzaemon and Hanbei as older samurai are just a plot vehicle to turn 13 Assassins into an elegy about the fading glory of the samurai class of feudal Japan.
The story plays in 1844, only briefly before the beginning of the meiji era, which rings in the modern westernized Japan and the end of the shogunate. One of our two survivors even thinks about moving to America. Yes, there goes the great oldfashioned Japan with all its feudal warlords and honourable knights.
In so far we can see 13 Assassins as japan’s swansong. And it’s no wonder that the youngest and morally not steadfast of the samurai, and the peasant are the sole survivors of the battle. They are facing an insecure future. But at least they got one.
I refuse to say anything about Japanese actors and Japanese actors and their way of acting. I don’t know their backgrounds and the culture at all. In my eyes they are most of the time mercilessly overacting but that might be part of the Asian culture. Let’s just assume this was a kinda expensive production for Japan so Miikie wouldn’t have hired bad actors for such a great scale movie.
CONCLUSION: Hubby and me watched and enjoyed the heck out of 13 Assassins a couple years back already. But that was before I started blogging and the O@tM column. So it was quite a welcome surprise when hubby downed this movie again. Dunno what it is, the Japanese almost always manage to entertain us formidably, even when the idea behind a story is rather simple and straightforward. Maybe it’s the manic way of filmmaking, the no compromises show don’t tell attitude which makes Asian (particularly Korean and Japanese) cinema so greatly entertaining. They are not afraid to be cheesy and pathos laden af, as long as it’s amusing to watch.
And 13 Assassins is great Japanese cinema!
Here peeps, have a trailer:
Get your own copy hereabouts … in the dark and mouldy dungoens of tha internetz:
This is a long version, with toggable subtitles and decent quality for mere 1.3 GB size.
We even have reviews from that faaaar back …
Wow, Chris was really young.
Mark was younger as well.
And some blahblahblaaaaa…