Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Film Review: 13 Assassins

Acclaimed director Takeshi Miike, known for his ultra-violent works such as Ichi the Killer, is back with another over-the-top, almost cartoonish effort in 13 Assassins. A samurai epic based on true events, the film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 film of the same name. It's taken a year to get over here to the West, but with the film earning a nomination for Best Film at the Japan Academy Prize, one would be wise to check it out.

The year is 1844 and it is the twilight of Feudal Japan's samurai era. Sadistic Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagako) does as he pleases, raping and pillaging at unfettered will, beyond reproach on account that he is the Shogun's brother. Realising the danger Naritsugu's growing power poses to the future of Japan, a senior government official secretly hires trusted older samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), to assassinate him. Shinzaemon goes forth, building a crack squad of samurai in order to take on Naritsugu and his army, who are intent on defending their lord. To the death.

All Miike's classic hallmarks are present as violence and depravity are taken to the limits of what is permissible on screen. Naritsugu's atrocities are enough to make even the most obdurate bastard wince as he takes to using women and children as archery practice in just one example of the man's salacious appetite for bloodshed. Most of the first half of the film is dedicated to this kind of scene setting, juxtaposing Naritsugu's twisted and maligned understanding of the warrior's code with the stoic and honourable nature of Shinzaemon and his men. However, even though we are given this sense about Shinzaemon's posse, only a handful out of the thirteen samurai recruited are actually given any character. Yes, it's all very impressive how dedicated to duty and honour they all are, but none stand out as distinct in the same way that Naritsugu does as an evil toerag. Indeed, out of all our heroes, only the batshit-crazy peasant they pick up in the woods has any real personality.

The second half of the film, and that is to say, quite literally half of this 125-minute epic, is dedicated to action. Having assembled his team, Shinzaemon picks a deserted town in Naritsugu's path and gets to work converting it into 'the village of death', placing booby-traps left, right and centre so that the odds are evened against Naritsugu's army. The result is something a little bit special and could definitely be counted among one of the most epic battle scenes in recent years.

13 Assassins raises some interesting philosophical points along the way, such as how much value you can attach to loyalty when your boss is a genocidal maniac. Equally, Naritsugu also provides some snippets of wisdom as to the value of war as he wades through the massacre with passing interest, even thanking Shinzaemon for "the most exciting day of my life". Ultimately, 13 Assassins is a highly enjoyable historical romp and is worth it just for the battle scenes alone.