Nothing gives me pause when I approach watching a movie than the two words Takashi and Miike. Genius, bizarre, weird, unpredictable and frustrating are just a few words that could be used to describe the work of the Japanese director who seems to have the unique ability to throw together a movie in a matter of days, say like the completely irreverent action flick ‘Full Metal Yakuza’, then turn around the next moment and craft something like ‘Odishon’ which some fans of the horror genre would call the best movie ever made. And then shoot you if you disagree. People are crazy like that, you know? You might prefer full frontal Miike, such as ‘Ichi the Killer’ or ‘Visitor Q’, but I would say that the director’s best work comes when he plays it straight with a Miike twist, like ‘Odishon’ or the underrated ‘Like a Dragon’. Or like this movie right here ‘13 Assassins’ which is best movie I’ve seen so far this year, with 2011 being half over. True, 2011 has been a little disappointing up to this point, but that’s neither here nor there now is it?
Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) is not a very nice person. In fact you will be hard pressed to find anybody who is as singularly destructively evil as Naritsugu. The interesting thing about Naritsugu’s level of soul corruption is that he rapes, kills, and murders with the same emotional attachment that me or you might have when taking out the garbage. It brings him no apparent joy because it is just the way that he is. The bastard son of a noted Shogun, Naritsugu has maneuvered his way into becoming a high ranking Shogun officer, this after his half brother took his life to send a message in opposition to his sibling, and Shogun advisor Sir Doi (Mikijiru Hira) that he cannot allow the ascension of Naritsugu to happen. How committing Hara-kiri sends some kind of message is beyond me, but then I’m not a Shogun warrior so what do I know?
Sir Doi, as a high ranking Shogun advisor, cannot do anything about the problem of Lord Naritsugu, which is why he has summoned Samurai Shinazemon (Koji Yakusho). Shinzaemon is well aware of Naritsugu’s evil ways, but after his meeting with Doi, he was given visual proof and it was not pretty. Shinzaemon gladly accepts the challenge. Lord Naritsugu must be eliminated.
Easier said than done. First Shinzaemon needs a team and as such he acquires some trusted members such as his right hand man Kuranaga (Hiroki Matsukada), his former pupil and current lethal ronin Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and his drunken, aimless nephew Shinrouku (Takayuki Yamada) among others. They will number twelve. Naritsugu’s party of Samurai warriors accompanying him back to his home to accept his position numbers seventy. These twelve has to finish this mission before he reaches his home or all is lost, with this mission made more complicated by Naritusugu’s master of the guard Hanbei (Masachiki Ichimura) who is Shinzaemon’s equal both intellectually and skill-wise, and while he is well-aware of Shinzaemon’s plan and despite the fact that he knows his master is a sick bastard, he will never betray his oath to the samurai.
On the journey to the battle a thirteenth assassin will join the crew in the bandit Koyata (Yusuke Iseya) as the thirteen lie in wait. But Hanbei has a little something extra in store for the would be assassins. Just know that this movie is about two hours long and the story part of this movie ends at around the hour and fifteen minute mark. What are we going to do for the next forty-five minutes? Well, put on your poncho and your galoshes to shield you from the blood spray and get your popcorn ready because they are about to put on a show.
And we will have you know that it is this forty-five minute bloodletting of a samurai battle royale that tops off a film that had a near pitch perfect buildup to this final assault. ‘13 Assassins’ doesn’t possess the level of depth or the lyrical subtlety of Yoji Yamada’s insanely brilliant Samurai trilogy but with all due respect to Takashi Miike’s sky-high skill level, the word ‘subtlety’ wouldn’t be one of the words we use to describe his work, and we won’t be using it here. No sir, what we have here with ‘13 Assassins’ is a raw-dog action movie with a little political intrigue thrown in, performed by a cast that’s a virtual who’s who of outstanding Japanese actors. Think ‘The Dirty Dozen’ meets ‘The Magnificent Seven’. Or I guess ‘Seven Samurai’ if you want to keep it authentic, but this is more John Sturges than Kurosawa.
Despite the fact that ‘13 Assassins’ is about as standard a Miike film as you’re going to see, fans of the director’s work, of which I include myself, will still recognize almost immediately that this is a Takashi Miike film. There are certain elements and certain touches of the bizarre and the strange which will pop up here and there to let you know that Miike is behind the camera, but they are masterfully woven into the simple storyline and do not detract from the overall tone of the film.
But it all comes down to the finale. One would think forty five minutes of constant samurai massacre would be overkill, but the way this played out I was sad to see it end. We still have the Samurai tenets of pride, sacrifice, honor and duty which encapsulate these battles, but when combined with the skill of a director who knows how to handle an epic battle sequence, it is something to behold.
He’s a different kind of individual, this we have to say about one Takashi Miike, but he is also a driven and amazing filmmaker when he chooses to be. Cherish ‘13 Assassins’ for its deceptively simple story, its stark visuals, and its epic battles, but also cherish the film for the privilege of seeing a Master at the top of his game.