A pack of samurai hole up in a town, each individually different in demeanor, personality, age, and skill, but bonded together by sworn duty to battle oncoming marauders who will descend on the town intending to kill. No, this is not Akira Kurosawa’s venerable Seven Samurai (1954), but prolific director Takashi Miike’s latest, a remake of 13 Assassins (1963), an obscure film in the West, but a well loved all-star ensemble piece in its native Japan. The original 13 Assassins is very much of its time, an anti-imperialistic cautionary tale about the danger of misplacing one’s loyalty in the hands of evil. In many ways, Miike’s remake is an update on that theme, with a new spin being the addition of the adage “if you want peace, prepare for war.”
Lord Naritsugu (J-pop idol Goro Inagaki playing against image), the younger half-brother of the Shogun, has been causing uneasy ripples throughout feudal, yet peaceful Japan. Naritsugu’s on-screen improprieties include killing a family and raping at least two women, killing the husband of one while cruelly dismembering the other, a tragic reveal that is classic Miike shock. There is never a clear reason behind Naritsugu’s actions, but the audience gets a sense that megalomania, boredom, and maybe just plain insanity could be contributing factors. When a vassal commits harakiri in protest of Naritsugu’s cover-up, the Shogun realizes that it’s time for Naritsugu to be dealt with. Shimada (Koji Yakusho) is the leader of the titular thirteen assassins, a mixed bag of ronin, samurai, and other hangers on who are given the task by the Shogun’s advisory to assassinate Naritsugu and restore peace to the land.
Far from being just a stab (pun intended) at a grindhouse samurai film, Miike handles 13 Assassins much like film of old. The first three quarters of the film, in fact, are spent setting up the scenario and characters, as well as the logistics of the inevitable final battle. These sections of the film might get a little slow (judging by the older gentleman a few seats down from me whose bellowing yawns punctuated each scene) for these sometimes exposition-heavy moments. The pay-off, though is the non-stop final battle which is the showcase of the film. These final 40 minutes are some of the best that have come out of Japan in recent years, and certainly for the samurai genre. Battles are dirty, rollicking affairs and the film seems to want to remind us that being a samurai, much like being a modern day police officer or fire fighter, is not a romantic job when, in fact, it is quite the opposite.
However, despite the violence and action, the film does have some very human moments. Considering the structure of the story, one might assume Naritsugu and Shimada to be the film’s primary rivals. In fact, it’s the relationship between Shimada and Naritsugu’s vassal Hanbei which is the core conflict of the film. Once allies, the two found themselves separated by misfortunes of fate and opportunity. Through that, Hanbei finds himself fighting a battle that he neither started nor wanted. His displeasure toward Naritsugu is only equal to the loyalty toward his duty to protect the Lord because that’s what the code of the samurai is: to protect and serve at any cause. Much like in Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 “anti-samurai film” Hara Kiri (1962) (which, ironically enough, has also been remade by Miike), 13 Assassins questions the concept of samurai honor. How can something be called honor which so quickly turns friends into enemies who, like two freight trains barreling toward each other, are bound by fate to collide?
Since the J-Horror boom of the early to mid 2000’s, many thought Miike was maybe washed up like all of the other films and filmmakers of that era. Luckily, Miike has not only been able to stay around because he can make shock-oriented films as befit those which defined the earlier parts of his career, but it’s because he is one of the most prolific directors today. And, as the case goes with prolific artists, some of his projects work and some don’t. 13 Assassins definitely does and currently stands as one the director’s best.
13 Assassins was initially screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21st – May 5th. 13 Assassins still provided courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society. Thanks also to 8Asians.com who were able to provide me with a second screening opportunity.