13 Assassins has to be one of the great samurai films of all time. As directed by Takashi Miike 13 Assassins builds slowly to a stupendous battle sequence that last nearly 40-minutes and pits our baker’s dozen heroes against 200 troops.
Sure this is a Japanese film, and it’s a period actioner set in the middle of the 19th century but aside from that 13 Assassins depicts battle strategy in a manner so complex you would think this is a course offered at West Point. 13 Assassins is a remake of another Japanese film of the same title from 1963.
The story itself is complex starting with a person committing hari-kari. Before long we’ve seen a re-imagining of the limbless and mute femme from Titus Andronicus, another family bound and slain by arrows, and yet another seppuku only this time the suicide isn’t solo but performed in tandem with a servant who at the right moment decapitates his master’s head with the super sharp swiftness of a samurai sword.
The end of the era of the samurai draws near, while meanwhile a cruel, despicable younger brother of the ruling shogun uses his position for decadence and torture. Another noble man plots his assassination and recruits a samurai. The samurai, even while building his team, knows that the era of the samurai is over. The film’s countless thematic power points emphasize blind loyalty to a master (shogun) juxtaposed to the more important cause of taking out the shogun.
What Miike brings to the mix is a concise eye for observing the violence unfolding. While the action contains unabashed violence Miike always seems to cut away from the actual moment of impact, instead concentrating on the face of the victim. This is true even when one samurai gets a sword through his cheek (and neck). We first see him in a close-up that only shows half his face, when a cut reveals his full profile with the impaled weapon. The last 40-minutes lets the audience see every sequence of action on the streets of an abandoned rural town where the samurai have set their trap. There’re flaming boars, exploding houses and barricades that are triggered by snag lines. Only the shogun they’re trying to kill tries to outsmart them by disguising the size of his army. It’s simply one of the most excruciating and exact portrayals of hand-to-hand combat ever filmed.
13 Assassins opens this weekend at the River Oaks Three as a midnight movie (May 27-29).
— Michael Bergeron