13 Assassins is a difficult film to talk about. Not because it has a complicated plot (it doesn’t), not because it’s filled with fascinating, deep subtext (it’s not) and not because of director Takashi Miike’s trademark nastiness (little to be found). 13 Assassins is difficult to talk about because it’s ridiculously simple, a straightforward but hugely ambitious action movie that wants one thing and one thing only: to be one of the most badass samurai movies you will ever see.
And it succeeds with flying colors.
The year is 1844 and Japan is at peace, though it may not be for much longer. We meet the samurai lord Naritsugu Matsudaira, who’s the kind of guy who casually shoots arrows into entire families bound and gagged on his floor and cuts the arms and legs off women before turning them into sex slaves. He’s a nasty piece of work, a genuinely evil bastard…and he’s also next in line to become Shogun.
Aging samurai Shinzemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) realizes that he can’t let that happen and decides to put a team together, a small group of samurai that will intercept the evil lord while he’s en route and kill him good and dead. The first hour of the film is deliberately paced, following Shimada has he recruits his men and plans what looks like a suicide mission: he and his fellow samurai will corner their target and his 70 bodyguards in a small village and take them all down.
The second hour of the film is what happens when they get there and realize he has 200 men with him. Think Black Hawk Down with samurai and you may have some idea of what this looks like.
Although a remake of a 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo, everyone is going to be making the Akira Kurosawa comparisons and rightly so. From the methodical pacing to the confidently shot action to the stoic yet charismatic characters, 13 Assassins feels like Kurosawa down to its bones. Hell, even the plot feels like a simple inversion of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, with the titular heroes on the offensive instead of the defensive.
In true Miike fashion, the film is outrageously violent, filled with slicings and dicings and beheadings and stabbings, but it’s all restrained compared to his normal work, with the real nasty stuff happening early on and only as a way to sell the villain as a total sadist that we want to see get dead as soon as humanly possible. The overall style and structure feels deliberately old-fashioned, recalling the work of classic directors of the genre, and the performances are big in the Toshiro-Mifune-as-Sanjuro sense: while most of our thirteen heroes are thinly drawn and completely lacking in subtlety, they make up for it in complete and total archetypal badassery.
I have no idea what possessed Miike to make this film, considering that even much of his best work feels rushed and looks a little sloppy. Not the case here. Every frame of 13 Assassins feels carefully composed, elegant even. This is a gorgeous film. If Miike would put this much attention to detail, this much patience, into every film he made, he’d be considered one of the great modern directors instead of a eccentric on the fringe, still waiting to achieve something above cult status outside of Japan.
The action is shot cleanly and often from a distance, allowing for us to appreciate the scale of the hour-long final battle. Not quick cuts. No shaky cam. No indecipherable close-ups. The action is among the best I have ever seen and a good thing, too. So many modern action movies have the tendency to think that longer is better, that people will automatically love an action scene if it lasts twenty minutes. More often than not, this results in a bored audience, just waiting for the action to end and for the story to continue. No so here. With the confidence of a master filmmaker, Miike allows for a significant amount of variety and emotion in the final battle, changing up perspective and scope to keep things interesting. I worry that trailers will spoil much of the assassins’ battle plans (which include explosives, arrows and a very creative use of stampeding cattle), but it’s safe to say that the conclusion of 13 Assassins is one of the great action sequences of all time.
And since that action sequence is half of the movie, it’s safe to say that 13 Assassins may be one of the greatest action films in recent years. Some may find the set-up, filled with character introductions and Japanese politics, somewhat slow, but Miike understands that with a slow-burn, the payoff needs to deliver in a big way. Oh, it does.
More than Black Hawk Down, more than the works of Kurosawa, 13 Assassins reminds me of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. That film saw aging cowboys, seeing that their time was over, going out in a suicidal blaze of glory to protect the honor of a friend, taking an incalculable number of Mexican soldiers with them. Here, we have samurai in age of peace, a time when their skills are entirely useless. At its core, this is a film about men who only desire to die an honorable death seizing that opportunity. The concept of cinematic samurai seeking the perfect death is nothing new, but seeing them find that perfect death while taking down a perfectly hateful villain and his army of cronies on a scale of this size is a sight to behold.
I don’t think there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of 13 Assassins. It wears its emotions on its sleeve and does its best to make sure you know who everyone is and what they believe with zero shades of grey. There are the good guys and there are the bad guys and they are going kill each other. This is broad, simple storytelling, but it’s broad, simple storytelling done well, with beauty and grace. It’s a clean action epic with no ulterior motives, the kind of movie they just don’t make these days.
Takashi Miike, I bow before you, one of the true masters of Japanese cinema.