13 Assassins: Movie Review
Hubby introduced me to Akira Kurosawa some 10 years ago, and I’ve been a huge fan of the great director since then. Being a big fan of the great Akira Kurosawa, I became real curious about this new period film that many critics were likening to Kurosawa’s most prolific and famous work – Ran. I searched the web for information about the film and finally at the end of the day my curiosity got the best of me and so I went and watched the film – online.
The film was 13 Assassins (十三人の刺客 Jūsannin no Shikaku) directed by Takashi Miike. And true to form the film was an epic. The film was actually a remake of the Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white film with the same title. Now what makes this film different is the style by which the two directors treated the film. I know very little about Miike, the truth is this the first film I have seen of his making. Miike is best known for his notoriety for depicting shocking scenes of extreme violence and sexual perversions. That was why, people were pleasantly surprised and not just a little curious about this new film. Miike apparently took a more subtle and suppressed directing style for this film which was said to be his tribute to the great Akira Kurosawa.
The film is supposed to be based on actual historical incident that took place in feudal Japan, however there are disputes among critics on which incident it was based on. Some say that the film was based on the assassination of Ii Naosuke the Chief Minister during the Bakumatsu period called the Sakuradamon incident which took place at the gates of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1860. However, the assassination of Chief Minister Ii Naosuke by ronin samurai of Mito Domain involved not 13 but 17 assassins. There is also an opinion that the film was an account of an actual incident that took place on the period stated on the film – 1844. But so far I fail to find any historical record on the web about this incident but that does not mean there isn’t any. There are numerous incidents and great historical figures in Japan that outsiders know nothing about so there might be some truth to this opinion as well.
The plot of the film revolves around the 13 assassins assigned to assassinate Lord Naritsugu, the ruthless and disturbingly psychotic half-brother of the shogun. Because of his status as the younger brother of the shogun, albeit only a half-brother, he was considered above the law and so no one can touch him. Fearing more violence to come if Lord Naritsugu ascend into power as the next in line to the shogun and after another government official publicly committed seppuku in protest for the wrong done to him, Doi Sama (in the film he was referred to as Sir Doi) senior adviser to the shogun was tasked to quietly take care of the problem. The shogun was disturbed by the situation but he cannot raise a finger against his own brother so Lord Doi was summoned to put things right. In turn he secretly hired an old trusted samurai, Shinzaemon, to carry on the task.
Shinzaemon (played by the great Koji Yakusho) needed a purpose, he feared that he would die quietly as a retired samurai yet here was a chance for him to die an honorable death, he was excited by the notion but he needed a strong purpose to do the task. He was sent to meet with another samurai whose daughter-in-law was raped by Naritsugu during his visit to their town; his son was murdered by Naritsugu as well. Shinza was also confronted by the sight of a limbless woman whose family protested against the shogun’s half-brother. Her entire family was killed and she taken, both her arms and legs as well as her tongue had been cut off and she became Naritsugu’s play thing until he tired of her and he cast her out. She was found by Lord Doi’s people and hid her. Just as you’re starting to forget who the director was, this scene brings you back abruptly reminding you that this is after all a Miike film. This was probably one of, if not the most disturbing scene in the entire film.
The sight awakened a renewed sense of duty within Shinza and he started to gather old and trusted friends, colleagues and their students for the mission. They were able to gather 12 in all, including his own nephew, Shinrokuro. On their way they met a forest-dwelling would be bandit named Kiga, who joined them completing the team of 13 assassins. The team planned to attacked Naritsugu along his journey to Edo but before they were able to leave Shinza was visited by his old sparring partner, Hanbei who was Lord Naritsugu’s senior samurai. Here we see two opposing principle clash, Hanbei believing in his duty to serve his master no matter how bad he may turn out to be, because this was the samurai’s duty – to give his life in the service of his master, no questions asked, no judgment of right or wrong. And Shinzaemon filled with righteous anger over what was done to his fellow samurai and the duty to correct what was wrong. In the end, Hanbei left with a promise to fight Shinza if he tries to go against his master.
Shinza assigned various tasked to his men: two were sent to buy and prepare things they would need for the battle and buy out the cooperation of the town they intend to trap Naritsugu and his entourage; two were sent to talk to the samurai who’s son and daughter-in-law was murdered by Naritsugu to ask him to block the passage of the entourage through his town forcing the group to take a route that would lead them straight to the trap. The samurai effectively did as he was asked and he committed seppuku once his task was done. Two were tasked to study explosives before they leave while the others continue to train while they wait for the right opportunity to act.
Once they were ready Shinza took his group to his chosen battle ground, taking to the forest to avoid detection by Hanbei and his men. And once the battle began there was no stopping it. What followed was a 40-minute long battle properly embellished with enough explosions, cleverly set up trapped, sword fights and enough blood and cut off limbs to satisfy a Miike-fan and yet the film kept the story and the glory of the samurai battle in tack. It was a testament to Miike’s talent and you can almost see the wheels turning at full-throttle inside Miike’s brain through out this scene. It was fantastic to say the least; no dull moment and with a touch of comedy beautifully inserted here and there. The heroes of the film, having long accepted death as inevitable fought to the very end; tired, wounded and bloodied but fighting to their last breath.
Naritsugu having lived in luxury all his life was enthralled by all the fighting, he found the samurais loyalty entertaining and glorious that he wanted to bring about a new age of war once he ascend into power. In the end, there were only three loyal samurai left to defend him, Hanbei faced off with Shizaemon and was killed. Shinza honored him by cutting off his head. His anger towards Naritsugu increased even more when the man dishonored his senior samurai by kicking his severed head as if the man meant nothing to him and in truth, he didn’t mean anything to this psychopathic aristocrat. He attacked Shinza piercing him on the side but Shinza was also able to dealt him a fatal blow. Naritsugu crawled in the mud, feeling pain for the first time and realizing he was after all just a mortal. He dies in fear and pain in the mud with Shinza chopping off his head as a coup de grace. Fatally wounded, Shinzaemon died soon afterwards leaving only his nephew, Shinrokuro and the bandit Kiga as the only survivors of the battle.
Judging from the information given by many critics this would considered very suppressed compared with the other works of Miike, where such action scenes would have been done to the extreme in his other film here the battle scene was filled with the weight of honor and conviction. All in all it was a tremendously beautiful film, memorable and definitely worthy of a Kurosawa comparison.
The 13 Assassins
* Shinzaemon Shimada – The leader of the group. A war weary, former decorated Shogun’s Samurai who is hired to carry out the mission.
* Kuranaga – Second in command to Shinzaemon. Another veteran samurai, who volunteers his best students to join the group.
* Hirayama – A fierce ronin, training under Shinzaemon. A samurai of unmatched skill and prowess. His character parallels Kyūzō (of the Seven Samurai) and Britt (of The Magnificent Seven)
* Shinroukuro – Nephew to Shinzaemon. A samurai who has strayed from the ways, a gambler and a womanizer. He joins the mission to redeem himself.
* Sahara – An elder ronin, battle scarred and hardened. He favors the spear to the sword.
* Horii – A skilled samurai from Kuranaga’s dojo, he and Higuchi are skilled in the use of explosives.
* Higuchi – Horii’s demolition partner, a tough and skilled samurai.
* Mitsuhashi – Another samurai from Kuranaga’s dojo, he is instructed to buy out the Mayor of the town, and start preparations for fortifying the town.
* Ogura – A young samurai, untested in battle but with unwavering devotion and skills to match.
* Otake – Plump-faced samurai with a jovial demeanor who provides occasional comic relief.
* Ishizuka – A skilled and courageous assassin.
* Hioki – An assassin from Kuranaga’s dojo, highly skilled.
* Koyata Kiga – A hunter who was found trapped in the woods for pursuing his boss’s wife. Aids the assassins in location the town of Ochiai, and also aids in combating the enemy samurai, using his sling and sticks instead of a sword. Claims to be of direct Samurai lineage. It is suggested he is immortal, as he survives a short sword thrown through his neck.