Movie Review: 13 Assassins

13 Assassins
Directed by Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, and Mikijiro Hira
Release Date: April 29, 2011

The lethal dose of violence in 13 Assassins is heightened to such a degree of ferociousness, and yet never does it come off as an overwhelming force that serves as an impediment to our enjoyment. Rather, it plays out to resemble a macabre, lyrical meditation that we gawk at, despite the many severed limbs and decapitated bodies. Instead of being confined to the suffering grounds of 19th century feudal Japan, where bodies writhe in perpetual anguish in the dirt due to swords piercing into human flesh, 13 Assassins identifies with human elements like integrity, devotion, self-sacrifice, and loyalty that all samurais universally adhere to. This is not to say that the film bypasses all things representing violence. There is a battle scene that lasts the film’s final 50 minutes. It is astoundingly coherent and enthusiastic in showing its infatuation with bloody violence, all while maintaining an artistically composed countenance.

Deeply embedded in director Takashi Miike‘s latest film is an unvanquishable delight that proves to be unavoidable. This embedded delight is violence and it slowly gathers throughout the film, finally exposing itself fully with the culmination of a revelatory battle that ranks amongst the best cinema has ever produced. But instead of having an unalterable dependence on violence Miike subdues it in a sense, finding balance in his film by manifesting in the characters of the film a consciousness that is pulsating and hauntingly troubled. This offers to the film a sense of harmony, an unanticipated blending of tranquility and havoc that is akin to the paramount samurai films made by legendary director Akira Kurosawa. By the end of 13 Assassins we stand back and appreciate this balanced structure as we realize we have witnessed completeness, experiencing the meditation of battle and then the actual battle itself. All comes into fruition. It’s almost as if Miike is directing in a samurai mindset; initial scenes of meditation and preparation are then followed by unrelenting scenes of action. It is tenacious filmmaking at its most refined.

The root of all violence stems from Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a ruthless Lord that has no worries in subjecting a Japanese village to endure his vicious tyranny. He cuts off the limbs of people, pierces them with arrows and slices some in half. The current Shogun of Japan (leader of the Shogunate which is the Japanese government), has individuals that are becoming wary of Naritsugu’s sadistic characteristics. These people express concern because Naritsugu is one of the next people to replace the current Shogun because he is the brother of him. If Naritsugu doesn’t quit his evil tendencies Japan could lose its peaceful order.

Sir Doi (Masachika Ichimura) is high in position to the Shogun and calls upon the aged samurai master Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho). He informs Shinzaemon of the travesties occurring within the grounds that are controlled by Naritsugu. Disgusted at what he is made aware of Shinzaemon graciously accepts what Sir Doi wants of him: to kill Naritsugu and ensure Japan of continual peace. Soon Shinzaemon goes on a search to find the greatest warriors known to him, which are samurais. There are only a few still active and he enlists and trains them to rid Japan of the evil Naritsugu. Meanwhile on Naritsugu’s grounds, he gets word of the plot being constructed against him and prepares for war. He enlists his greatest asset, an aged samurai by the name of Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), who recruits soldiers quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Hanbei’s band of soldiers eclipses the 200 mark, while Shinzaemon gathers 13.

Miike is an ambitious filmmaker that usually receives some harsh criticism for his speedy process of making films. He has directed well over fifty titles, mostly slighted toward the violent, in only a 20-year span. Most respected of his works is the horror film Audition. But that film doesn’t have the epic feeling 13 Assassins has, which is based on a novel by Ryu Murakami and scripted for the screen by Daisuke Tengan. Miike’s direction in the latter film is a wonderful evocation of 19th century feudal Japan, capturing the throngs of intrepid soldiers traversing the unwelcoming mountains and the many miles of the lonely fields.

But the film finds romance in dwelling in what the life of a samurai is like: the travails one needs to endure as a samurai as well as the glorious feeling of dedicating themselves to a higher meaning. What an invigorating feeling it is to see men fighting with honor. The battles the samurais engage in consist of many men willing to impel themselves unhesitatingly on a sharp sword. Loyalty and dedication this heroic has been MIA in the Hollywood action vehicle. With 13 Assassins we behold men who rarely detach from that thing they hold most dearly, which is serving their lord and master in hopes of attaining a more righteous cause. No matter who is in the right or who is in the wrong, what matters is that these characters have a consciousness that is immune to manipulation and contamination, fighting for what they believe in whether it be in the vein of malevolence or benevolence.

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****

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