As the age of the samurai gradually fades, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) revels in his own childish cruelty. He uses his status as the Shogun's younger brother as a license to rape and murder indiscriminately. After a man who has been personally disgraced by Naritsugu’s antics commits seppuku, it becomes apparent that the young lord’s foolishness can no longer be tolerated, as his further ascendance in the political arena would surely bring about untold suffering. An elder samurai by the name of Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) is hired to bring Lord Naritsugu’s reign of terror to an end.
In order to accomplish this seemingly impossible task, Shinzaemon assembles eleven samurai who are willing to lay down their lives for the greater good. Their plan is to ambush Nartisugu during his trek home from Edo. This simple goal will prove difficult, as Naritsugu’s defenses are seemingly limitless. Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), an old and tenacious rival of Shinzaemon, commands the battalion charged with protecting Naritsugu. Shinzaemon and his band of samurai are against insurmountable odds, but their station in life demands that see this hopeless task through to the end. If they fail, Naritsugu’s depravity will become the law of the land.
13 Assassins is the latest entry into director Takashi Miike’s bizarre and varied filmography. It’s a remake of the black and white 1963 jidaigeki/chambara film of the same name. It’s also based on real life events. Though Miike is widely known as a merchant of gore in the west, 13 Assassins will perhaps serve as more accessible introduction into his brand of film making. Despite what Ichi the Killer and Audition would have people think, Miike is not a mere provocateur or extremist.
Visually, 13 Assassins is a plunge into despair. A dark cloud seems to hang over the film, both figuratively and literally. The skies are perpetually overcast, and the landscape looks damp and saturated. The compositions are artful but unattractive. That can be taken as a cue that Takeshi Miike is not interested in lionizing the samurai, but exploring an often ignored part of their existence.
|The battlefield runs red with the blood of samurai.|
The film's second half is an all out melee that culminates in a one on one sword duel. During the course of the battle, an entire village is decimated. Miike renders the idea of a lone fighter facing down scores of combatants reasonably plausible. As the antagonists hack and slash their way through hordes of baddies, it is obvious that victory is not promised, and even if it’s attained, the price will be costly. The action is shot in a way that appears random and nonsensical on the surface, yet everything makes sense. Once swords are drawn, all pretenses of form and grace are thrown to the winds. Samurai miss sword strikes and stumble over each other in a way that feels authentic.
The most intriguing theme at play in 13 Assassins is the dark side of duty. The loyalty of the samurai has been romantically depicted in countless films and novels. Here, it is mostly shown as a burden for those who choose to serve. Even when one's master is clearly evil, a retainer is still expected to lay down his life without hesitance. In the case of Naritsugu, who seems to see his men as cannon fodder to be sacrificed at his whim, serving ones master can hardly be seen as honorable in any regard.
My only problem with the film is that during the final battle it was often hard to tell the good guys apart from one another. Once the massacre is fully underway, everyone is soaked in blood and wearing tattered clothing. Only certain characters remain distinct from the others, mostly due to attributes that were defined early and obviously in the film. Perhaps this is Miike’s way of saying that any semblance of individuality gets lost in the chaos of war.
13 Assassins is at once thrilling and saddening. Takashi Miike has constructed an ultra violent meditation on the nature of duty. He seems to understand that war is only glorious to those who’ve never actually fought in one. Though it is necessary to hunt down and destroy evil men, there is no honor in dying an animal’s death. More often than not, a soldier’s fate is to lie writhing in the mud while clutching a mortal wound. Though 13 Assassins tells an amazing story, it depicts a world in which only the hopelessly naive would wish to participate.