Film: 13 Assassins
UK Release date: 5th September 2011
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuke Iseya, Goro Inagaki,
Running time: 126 mins
Genre: Martial Arts/Action adventure
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Prolific. Just one way of describing Japanese director Takashi Miike, one of the hardest working filmmakers in the industry today. As well as the trademark gangster movies that made his name, he’s been known to dabble in the world of superheroes, Spaghetti Westerns, musical zom-coms and even kids movies - not bad for a film director capable of knocking out up to three movies a year. So you wont be surprised to hear that the director himself describes 13 Assassins as a ‘family’ movie, urging you to take your children and grandchildren along for the ride.
Takashi turns his attention to swordplay epics with 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 Kodo Eiichi film of the same name. The film reunites Miike with screenwriter Tengan Daisuke for the third time after Audition and Imprint, and the result is no less striking or effective. Not that the opening fifteen minutes suggests anything approaching audience friendly fare, in fact, in order to establish chief bad guy Naritsugu as the man they need to kill, it’s Imprint and Audition that Miike’s horrific opening resembles most. In the space of a few striking scenes he successfully introduces Naritsugu as the nasty piece of work we all want him to be.
Working with a star-studded cast led by Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance), Yamada Takayuki (Crows Zero), Iseya Yusuke (Sukiyaki Western Django) and Ichimura Masachika, Miike has perhaps delivered his most accomplished work yet. Leaving behind the wayward tendencies he’s often associated with, Miike has created not only his most grown up work, but arguably his most effective too. There’s been a lot of talk about the rousing 45-minute finale - earning itself four grand prizes at the Japan Academy Awards - but there’s a whole lot more to 13 Assassins than that.
Naritsugu (Inagaki Goro) is a bad man. In a time of peace, the shogun's sadistic brother goes on a killing spree, fuelled by boredom, greed and desire. Riled by his lord's cruelty, Narigtsugu's head samurai Shinzaemon (Yakusho Koji) assembles a band of warriors to assassinate the lord on his journey home. Despite being vastly outnumbered by Naritsugu's men, 13 determined assassins set out to restore peace and order in the only way they know how. It’s a straightforward premise, and the first hour is used to introduce the main contenders and set up an electrifying grand slam finish. It’s a drip-feed of pleasure, slow-burning yet intoxicating, a measured approach that resembles Takashi’s greatest work, Audition.
Miike chooses not to rush, a move that really pays off, allowing him plenty of time to establish the numerous characters we’ll be rooting for over the course of the film. As with any ensemble piece, there are a handful of characters that truly stand out. Kiga Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) is a hunter they meet on their travels, who claims to be of samurai lineage. He acts as their guide when they get lost in the mountains - gracing the film with effortless charm and charisma - before taking on the guise of thirteenth assassin and running away with the movie. A fact made all the more apparent by a perplexing - yet welcome - final scene that’s very much open to interpretation. Yakusho Koji brings subtle grace to the role of Shinzaemon, and the final battle benefits greatly as a result. Inagaki Goro makes for an imposing presence as the films big bad, and Masachika Ichimura impresses as the conflicted samurai Hanbei.
For all their good work however, nothing can compare to the astonishing action series that follows. A mesmerising battle sequence closes the film, 45 minutes of unadulterated mayhem that rivals any action scene of the last twenty years. Swords clash; arrows fly and cattle burn, culminating in a muddy one on one battle between chief hero and villain. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of watching 13 underdog assassins take on 200 guards, with Naritsugu looking on in wide-eyed wonder as he revels in the harsh brutality of it all. Miike adds another string to his bow, delivering a tour de force of action, suspense, thrills and grace, providing another reminder of his unmistakable and undeniable talent.
The harrowing opening makes way for a measured build up that leads to one of the greatest battle sequences of all time, held together by quality lead turns and a director who knows no fear. For a director who has already blessed us with the likes of Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris and Audition, 13 Assassins is arguably his greatest achievement yet.