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13 Assassins

Dir: Takashi Miike

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Magnet Releasing

126 Minutes

A remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins takes place in 1884 Japan. A time of peace has settled over the nation and samurai, men of swords and battle, are now defunct. Some have retired to a life of fishing while others find solace in gambling and sake. However, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), the adopted younger brother of the Shogun, threatens to end Japan’s serenity. See, Lord Naritsugu is the type of man who enjoys tying up the families of those who oppose him and shooting them with arrows at close range. He is also posed politically to control the future of Japan, which he wishes to plunge back into war and bloodshed.

Rather than stand idly by, a group of concerned officials coax samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) out of retirement to complete a clandestine mission to assassinate this horrible man. This is just the thing the aging Shinzaemon wants, the opportunity to die for a cause. He also knows that this mission will pit him against Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), his one-time classmate and rival who is in charge of protecting Lord Naritsugu.

The first hour of the film follows Shinzaemon as he recruits the 12 other assassins to join him against Lord Naritsugu’s army of hundreds. Amongst his charges are his drunken nephew, a wandering rōnin, a boy barely out of his teens, an old warrior who is good with a spear but little else and a woodsman with striking similarities to Toshirô Mifune’s rogue from Seven Samurai. Miike gives us little time to meet and differentiate between the 13 killers, something that prevents us from building an emotional connection with the characters (let alone tell some of them apart at times). Each man knows the assignment is a suicide mission, but the mission becomes about preserving a code that has become more or less defunct.

The film culminates in an intense 45 minute battle scene that pits the 13 heroes against the nefarious Lord Naritsugu, Hanbei and a legion of 200 troops. Shinzaemon turn an entire village into a deathtrap, one rigged with explosions and dropping gates. To reference Seven Samurai again, this sequence rivals the ending of Kurosawa’s classic in intensity, an exciting battle that is gripping from start to finish. Unfortunately, Miike does add a few crappy looking CGI touches (see the burning cows for example) that takes away from the overall effect of the battle.

If you’re looking for nuance, avoid 13 Assassins. Miike clearly draws a line in the dirt between his good and evil characters and neither side ever vacillates from their prescribed alignment. His movie refuses to go meta, instead straight-forwardly telling the story of a time period and a people about to blink out. I never once thought I would use the words “Miike” and “reverential” in the same sentence but here we go: Takashi Miike has created a reverential and vital film in a genre that many may have thought as moribund and passé as its subject.

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