|A scene from 13 Assassins.|
By Don Simpson
13 Assassins, Takashi Miike's remake of the 1963 Eiichi Kudo film, takes place in Japan during mid-19th century. The Shogunate has known peace for many years and the Samurai have grown soft and lazy in their inactivity. Something has got to change.
The sadistically inclined Lord Naritsugu Matsudaira (Gorô Inagaki) is on the fast track to power in the Shogunate. His penchant for killing and raping innocent civilians for sheer entertainment value has forced the hand of the noble advisor to the Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), to plan Lord Naritsugu’s assassination. Doi promptly recruits one of the last true samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), to establish a team for this very risky mission.
The first act of 13 Assassins focuses on Shinzaemon gathering his team. He scours the land for the few remaining competent and trustworthy samurai with a few less competent, but very dedicated and trustworthy ones, nonetheless, thrown in for good measure. Eventually Shinzaemon finds twelve samurai who are willing to risk their life in order to participate in Lord Naritsugu’s demise. Later, one non-samurai, Koyata (Yûsuke Iseya), joins the fold along their journey, bringing the total to 13.
Soon Shinzaemon finds himself face-to-face with Naritsugu's lead samurai, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), Shinzaemon’s old rival from training school, now his nemesis, and the "chess" match begins. Shinzaemon’s small group of samurai prepare to battle Hanbei’s samurai army of hundreds. Facing impossible odds, Shinzaemon is forced to go all in with a high risk gamble. The thirteen assassins choose a small town to fortify with the hope that strategic preparation will somehow even out the odds.
As the third act commences, so does the drawn-sword-out slaughter fest. Surprisingly, the blood and violence never becomes gratuitous; if anything, Miike restrains himself in an effort to make a profound statement about the senselessness of war. As Lord Naritsugu revels in the bloody mayhem, his army blindly follows him. Miike skillfully highlights the moral dilemma of the film’s samurai -- they must weigh obedience against justice. The battle is between the blindly obedient and the morally just. The morally just are backed into a corner; with the future of Japan at stake, they are forced to kill their foes in defense of their country.
Since we are talking about a group of samurai hired to be heroes, it is only natural 13 Assassins remind anyone who has seen Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai of that epic film in which samurai are hired to protect a village from bandits.
The Koyata character offers a hefty dash of Kurosawa-esque comic relief and besides the narrative trope of recruiting heroes into a team for a mission, Miike also co-opts Kurosawa’s anti-war stance. 13 Assassins is an unexpectedly mature and profound film for the incredibly prolific Miike and, truth be told, I never thought I would compare Kurosawa with Miike. They have both traditionally been polar opposites for me: Kurosawa the formal master and Miike the guilty pleasure. Suddenly, with 13 Assassins, the two worlds have collided. 13 Assassins is dramatically more violent than anything Kurosawa ever created yet 13 Assassins could very well be a remake of Seven Samurai.