13 Assassins falls into a category of films woefully burdened by an inescapable family resemblance that dogs their existence on one level or another. In the case of the latest offering from Japanese shock filmmaker, Takashi Miike, anyone who’s heard of Kurosawa can trace the film’s lineage back to 1954, the release year of the groundbreaking watershed epic Seven Samurai; for some viewers, the clear-cut kinship between the two pictures could be deemed problematic. And there’s no denying that Miike’s very much nodding at Kurosawa’s masterpiece through his tale of doomed samurai on a suicide mission during the last hurrah of the shogunate system in feudal Japan– he’s even included a character crafted in the image of Toshiro Mifune’s iconic role of Kikuchiyo.
A small part of me rumbles that I should be bothered by this, but Miike’s not trying to upstage Seven Samurai with his own movie. Rather, he’s doing what all filmmakers must do in his position: acknowledging the existence of that seminal, essential work of art. One can’t make a film in the mode of 13 Assassins without echoing that ’54 classic, after all, so really Miike’s homage could be seen as something of an obligation rather than as cribbing from a master. And in truth, the two films feel completely different despite the latter’s obvious ancestral relation to the former. Ultimately, they stand on their own pedestals. Really this can’t be helped, as both men are wholly unlike as filmmakers, though time appears to have tempered Miike’s infamous gonzo streak– no more are the sensibilities of Gozu, Audition, and Ichi the Killer, even though he still retains his penchant for well-orchestrated, splattery violence.
13 Assassins, as the title infers, revolves around a conspiratorial murder plot in which the target is Lord Naritsugu, son of the former shogun and brother to the current– which makes him untouchable by the laws of man. The predicament is unfortunate in light of the man’s penchant for mindless brutality, ranging from wanton family slayings to raping at his leisure, until the lord’s crimes become too much and other members of the shogunate hire veteran, trusted, moral ex-samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) to assemble a unit of skilled warriors purposed toward ushering Naritsugu into the next life.
While the plot that subsequently comes together falls within the bailiwick typical to most men-on-a-mission films as Shinzaemon collects his chosen warriors– a motley crew of samurai ranging in age and experience, which eventually also comes to include a hunter (Yusuke Iseya) who may be more than he seems– and prepares for battle, 13 Assassins is anything but average. In fact, rather than play as an amateur-hour riff on a classic, Miike’s film stands out as a bold, extremely well-made and completely worthy successor to the films of Kurosawa. Miike’s priorities may have shifted in this stage of his filmmaking career, but he’s lost none of his artistic verve or narrative ability, and he brings both to bear to weave a thoroughly satisfying tale about the nature of honor, duty, loyalty, and human conflict, with a pinch of class war to add a little spice to his jidaigeki cocktail.
But that’s not to say that the red-soaked hues of Miike’s more infamous cinema don’t make an appearance in 13 Assassins; thematic concerns put aside, the Japanese auteur is still making a movie about an assassination ploy and measures out his plot accordingly. At the end of a long string of violence– in which men commit seppuku, women are shown in post-dismemberment torment (in one of the movie’s most disturbing moments), and minor skirmishes send random henchmen to their graves– Miike’s picture finally combusts and morphs into an inferno of bloodshed seemingly without a stopping point. 13 Assassins‘ last forty minutes or so are comprised of an all-out melee between the warriors of the title and the rather sizable personal guard of the despicable Naritsugu; it’s an orgy of swordplay so thoroughly satisfying and rewarding, both as a payoff to the preceding narrative’s build-up and as a piece of violent action cinema, that it deserves an immediate a spot alongside the iconic and masterful battle sequences of jidaigeki and chambara films past.
13 Asassins‘ capstone display of violence works, though, not simply because it’s impeccably choreographed with an applause-worthy establishment of cinematic geography, but because Miike has made his combatants known to us throughout the rest of his film. This is a story about the slowly fading samurai caste seizing the opportunity to achieve the honorable deaths each feared they’d be denied in the face of their own impending obsolescence. In a way, 13 Assassins suggests that if the outrage Shinzaemon and his cohorts express is genuine, they’re also looking for any reason to use their swords and spears again. Each samurai is given his own personality– the fierce and peerless ronin, the young and inexperienced student, the grizzled veteran– and Miike distinguishes them as individuals, but they ultimately come together for the same two common goals of protecting the country from the ravages of a Naritsugu-led shogunate and securing glorious deaths for themselves.
The film’s violent crescendo, however, reveals how little glory there truly is to be found in dying face-down in the mud while the world burns around you. 13 Assassins‘ coda strikes a stark contrast to past works of Miike, which often celebrate cool, slick, stylish bloodshed almost shamelessly; here, he seems to be decrying the violence that erupts in his film’s third act and implying that conflict is part of the order of nature itself. But if Miike has relinquished his more infamous proclivities as an artist over the course of the last ten years, he’s lost none of his insight in the process and gained a deal of refinement and polish in the process; substantive and refined, 13 Assassins, for all its familiarity, feels like one of his most significant pictures to date.