Film Review – 13 Assassins
When I heard Takashi Miike’s film 13 Assassins would be shown at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, I knew I had to go. I didn’t even care what genre of film it was. Normally, Miike is known for his mind-melting horror films, but I had heard this was a little more traditional. I just appreciate Miike’s warped view on putting amazingly beautiful scenes together with horrific content that really pushes the envelope of most white-bread people. With the added excitement of someone passing out in the theater, forcing the venue to stop the film so the paramedics could come, this movie was pretty much what I expected. Good samurai vs. bad samurai and lots of swords. But, extremely well done.
The film is touted to be filmed in the style of Seven Samurai (a brilliant film) by Akira Kurosawa—and it is VERY reminiscent of that earlier film. Lots of history-based background where good battles evil in a slow but constant build-up of tension and action, until the final epic battle decides the fate of an entire nation of people.
Takashi Miike pulled off an amazing story of a bloodthirsty powerful lord who goes from town to town raping women and killing all kinds of people simply for fun. Some of the scenes may frighten some younger viewers (like most of Miike’s films), so be ready for some envelope pushing. The lord not only loves military bloodbaths, but has decided when he becomes the shogun, he will bring back an Age of War, simply to watch people die. He commands his men to die for his pleasure and whim, but there is a small group of samurai who intend to bring him down.
As the small band gains more and more help, they develop a plan to ambush the powerful lord, and set about making all kinds of arrangements, including fortifying an entire village, to bring down the lord and his body guards. Standard handful of good guys vs. a huge volume of brainless soldiers. There are a few training sequences and some minor action in the first half of the movie, but as you’d suspect, there isn’t really a female presence in this film. No romantic undertones. No plot twist involving jealousy or adultery. However, the visual aspect of the film is absolutely beautiful. Beautiful and gritty and raw at the same time. The entire film is shot to show the bleak, dirty, and awful side of hand to hand combat in feudal Japan, and it does a really good job of this.
I won’t ruin the ending, but the final climax of the film is a 45-minute epic battle that doesn’t get old. You don’t want it to end. It doesn’t get ridiculous, but rather shows some pretty intricate and complex plans carried out in a really small space. There is one infuriating bit of awful CGI in the film, but it is used pretty sparingly, otherwise. Some cool explosions and slow motion shots of swordfighting put you right there in the action. Additionally, I was very impressed with the lack of “extra” people in the sword fights posing in the background and not attacking the one person in the middle of the fight. This happens a lot in martial arts films—one man takes on ten bad guys in a circle, and the bad guys attack one at a time while the other one shift from foot to foot taking fake swings at the good guy standing in the middle. The choreography in 13 Assassins is quite impressive, as the good guys are able to take on multiple opponents at the same time with some really impressive swordwork.
It should also be pointed out that samurai in feudal Japan didn’t usually end up being the younger men. It was hardened battle veterans who were 40+, sometimes much older. This is shown very explicitly in this film by the good guys—many of whom would be considered past their prime in modern times—handing out an extreme amount of ass-whoopin’ to many many many younger fighters. I’m actually quite impressed with the athleticism of the actors in this film. Fighting the way these guys did I’m sure took some fancy camera work, but it also took an immense amount of stamina, flexibility, and skill with a sword to be able to pull this film off.
The film is long and epic. It takes some time to get absorbed into the story trying to keep track of all the names and histories and clans, but give it about 20-30 minutes and it will all come together and start rolling. There’s a small bit of humor and a small shout-out to Miike’s horror background, but the rest is epic Japanese Martial Arts Drama. People in the sold-out theater let loose a couple of cheers and even a healthy round of applause during a few scenes, but none of it was unwelcome. It showed the rest of the crowd was as engrossed with this film I was. Definitely worth a watch. I’m predicting this film will become a “classic” or “legendary” Japanese historical film you’ll hear about if you’re into that genre at all. It’s quite amazing.
Final Grade: A