13 Assassins

Takashi Miike’s elegant samurai adventure 13 Assassins is a loose remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same title, itself a reworking of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Japan’s most prolific and notorious filmmaker, Miike is primarily known as a provider of ultraviolent, transgressive horrors like Audition and Ichi The Killer. But the writer and director can turn his hand to anything, dabbling in Westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django), musical comedy (The Happiness Of The Katakuris), crime drama (Agitator) and avant-garde art-house (Gozu). Now, following in the footsteps of masters like Kurosawa, Gosha and more recently, Takeshi Kitano, Miike turns his hand to the period samurai epic, the much-beloved, much-abused genre known to the Japanese as chanbara.

Set across a handful of small, rural towns in Feudal Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, Miike opens his story by detailing the horrific crimes of Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) as he travels the countryside with a platoon of bodyguards. A psychotic sadist, Naritsugu kills and rapes without conscience, protected from punishment by being the half-brother of the Shogun. A senior government official realizes the situation will become even more disastrous when Naritsugu is tipped for high office. He must be stopped, so a trusted older samurai Shinzaemon (the legendary Koji Yakusho) is secretly hired to assassinate him.

Semi-retired and having given up his “dream of a noble death”, Shinzaemon is re-energised by the prospect of a righteous cause and gathers a crack platoon of eleven more samurai, including his star pupil Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and his nephew Shinroukuro (Takayuki Yamada). Having trailed their target across the country, the newly-formed dirty dozen devise a plan to ambush the nobleman and his retinue as he crosses a bridge into another kingdom.

The sober, considered first half of the film is dedicated to the selection and training of this elite group with the equally painstaking last hour devoted to a breathless, hyperkinetic action sequence that follows the samurai as they pitch a running battle against a vast army twenty times their size. It is a spectacular action sequence, a non-stop succession of sword-fights and stand-offs, operatically staged and choreographed with sparing use of special effects.

From the gripping overture, which focuses on the face of a disgraced samurai as he commits seppuku, to the closing close-ups of the few survivors, Miike is more interested in exploring the character of his samurai than exploiting the blood they spill. 13 Assassins is grounded in history, both real and cinematic, but Miike sees the way of the warrior, and the code that bound them as emblematic of a brutal, dysfunctional society. His noble samurai, sworn to die, inhabit a corrupt world that thrives on violence and death and they know it. In Miike’s mind, there is nothing honourable about the mindless adherence to a code of loyalty, especially if it means protecting evil people who do not deserve it. Brilliantly realised and hugely entertaining, this is swashbuckling cinema of a high order.

The industrious Miike, who has directed more than 70 films since 1990, has already completed his follow-up film. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai screened in competition at this month’s Cannes film festival, in 3D.

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