Samurai films tend to lean toward either overly talkative and boring or hyper-stylized to the point that credibility comes into question. Striking that middle ground, however, can lead to greatness, or rather — great honor. Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” might not match the great Akira Kurosawa films, but boy does it come close, and it does so with themes and blades of equal sharpness.
If swords-and-sandals flick “300” had been less concerned about abs and Gerard Butler screaming war hyperbole, it would have looked and felt like this film. Anyone who hails Zack Snyder’s 2006 film as a masterpiece should pull up a seat with this film for two-plus hours and see how it’s really done.
Both the aforementioned film to which comparison is inescapable and “13 Assassins” tell a story about how the number of men indicated in their titles fought against an army numerous times the size. In this film, the reasons for fighting a battle most certain to result in death are less glossy and brash, as well as guided by some consideration for historical relevance.
The story takes place at nearly the end of feudal era Japan, when samurai have become nothing but show thanks to a lengthy time of peace. Yet one lord seems to undermine this peace with acts of cold-blooded violence: the shogun’s half brother, Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). It is expected, however, that when he returns from Edo, he will have a place on the shogun’s council and have political influence to go with with warmongering ways. After a respected samurai commits harakiri in protest, the elder of the shogun council charges a samurai named Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) with putting together a squad of samurai to kill Naritsugu before there’s widespread unrest.
The beginning of the film shows us Naritsugu’s cold and horrifying ways with enough brutal imagery to make anyone want to pick up a sword against this guy. The story then continues with the assembling of the 12 assassins (the 13th comes later) and their strategy for accomplishing the task. Yet on the other side is Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), the samurai sworn to obey and protect Naritsugu who must develop counter-strategy to foil Shinzaemon, an old classmate of his from the dojo.
The game of strategy boils toward a 45-minute climactic battle in which the 13 assassins use everything from trickery to explosives to straight-up sword hackery against an army of 200 men from Naritsugu’s clan. The delivery of these sequences rivals any modern action film, and that includes battle cries, little humorous lines tossed in for fun and especially creativity. One samurai takes out 30-plus guys in a narrow corridor that he prepped ahead of time with several swords carefully stationed throughout.
But most impressively, “13 Assassins” never loses sight of what its whole conflict is about. The plot doesn’t exist merely as a formula guaranteed to produce an unforgettable culminating battle. Throughout the entire film, characters are questioning the values passed down to them for hundreds of years of honor and duty. Having essentially stood their whole lives as symbols of a fading age, they take on this quest in search of finally fulfilling that purpose of total commitment and servitude, yet this battle will teach them what it truly means.
Essentially, this is not the same movie if set in another time or another place, which sets it apart as a truly great action film. As replicable as a story of a small band of skilled warriors taking on the impossible is (it possesses a great number of similarities to what’s considered the best of its kind, Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” for one), writers Kaneo Ikegami and Daisuke Tengan give “13 Assassins” its own thumbprint with the context.
Miike then delivers the full impact of all the tones from pure syrupy action to dark, shocking drama. He knows exactly how to take a high-tension scene to a whole other level by creating a full spectrum of what we see versus what is kept from us, especially in terms of violence. As soon as he wants to export those talents to Hollywood, someone better answer. We could use more action films like “13 Assassins.”
Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Kaneo Ikegami, Daisuke Tengan
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Masachika Ichimura, Gorô Inagaki