13 Assassins (2010)
(Cert TBC) Running Time: 141 mins
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kaneo Ikegami, based on a screenplay by DaisukeTengan
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yuseke Iseya
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Miike fans will lap this one up, and being a fan myself, I kind of had an idea what to expect, however, if you have never seen a Takashi Miike film then proceed with caution. If you have seen the quite brilliant trailer then I presume you are expecting a great big action film with lots of fight scenes. True, there are lots of fight scenes, however, you will need to have a fair amount of patience to get to the action as what we have here is a film of two opposite halves. The first half, which take up about an hour and a half of the over-long film is all talk, and I mean ALL talk, there is very little of anything else apart from a few scenes of murder by a feared Shogun in waiting. Then, the final forty of fifty minutes is made up of one great big action scene that works for the most part, but the way the film is made up, the big fight at the end needed to be broken up a bit as to not lose the spectacle which, sadly, it does. But then, if the whole build up is to this big fight then I don’t know how else the film could have been presented. Saying that, this is a fine Samurai film, and Miike clearly knows his stuff.
Evading is current run of bizarre films that delight, disturb and amuse in equal measure, this is probably Miike’s most straight forward film for some time, and on reflection while writing about it, it was actually a very powerful and moving film. Oddly enough this is one of those strange moments where the actual task of watching the film was harder than the reflective part. I will be honest, it was not an easy watch, and at times I was thinking ‘get on with it’, but thinking back now, it feels like a near perfect film with the care and attention to detail really well done. Miike likes to take his time with his films, and thinking back, all that chit chat that seemed to go on and on was actually some very powerful and incredibly interesting dialogue about Samurai and their ‘duties’ and their rules.
The story is fairly simple really: heir to the Shogunate is the vicious Lord Naritsugu, and he see’s his position of power as a means to do what he wants. With no wars to fight or big battles to take part in, he instead picks on his own people, mainly peasants, and brutally bullies, murders and rapes them. In protest at his atrocities, a well respected Samurai commits ‘Hara-kiri’, the act of using your Samurai to commit suicide. The authorities are powerless to stop the acts of violence, and so Sir Doi, a former Samurai, calls upon Shinzaemon Shinada to help in a mission to put an end to Lord Naritsugu’s reign. Disgusted at what he is told, Shinada is more than willing to help, and in the dying days of the Samurai, they seek out to put together a team of ‘Assassins’ to go on a mission which they expect not to return from.
All the build up is the Samurai talking about their plans, their past and meeting new members of their team. They end up with thirteen as a couple of non-Samurai simply want to help. All the talk is about the Samurai way of life, and if you have even the smallest interest in the ancient ways, you will find much to enjoy in their conversations about loyalty and destiny and all things in-between. 13 Assassins shows the Samurai as a fearless but incredibly serious bunch. There are a few brief moments where the odd person cracks a smile, but it is mostly deadly serious, and Miike REALLY lets you in to their world, it is fascinating and at times, incredibly scary. The honour involved is so well presented by Miike and this really is great stuff. If you do not mind nearly ninety minutes of conversation that both holds your interest and teaches you something, then you just might enjoy what you see. Problem is, the awesome trailer is mis-leading, and you cannot help but get to a certain point where you start screaming for action. It does come, and this is where Miike shifts things up a gear. The 13 Assassins have devised a plan to ambush Lord Naritsugu and his 200 odd soldiers and hopefully put an end to him once and for all. We head into battle, tensions mount after such a brooding, intense build up and we are about to be really blown away with some truly impressive swordplay.
The action is well choreographed and filmed expertly well. Unlike most of the current action scenes in films, here the camera spends a lot of time far back as to give you a view of the entire thing. We do get close up to the action quite often, but Miike wants you to SEE his fights, and so pans back to give an almost birds eye view quite a lot. No cast member looks out of place, and all get involved and make the whole thing looks incredibly real and authentic. Thankfully the evil Lords soldiers are all wearing hats so it is easy to make out who it who, but at times things do get a bit confusing. A few times I was under the impression a Samurai had killed his own guy, but then I realised I was wrong. The action set pieces, for the most part, are stunning to watch. No CGI, no ropes, just pure and simple realism with people getting stabbed and sliced left, right and centre with some astonishing camera work which makes it look like people really have been killed. It is excellent stuff, and Miike does not miss a trick, but sadly it goes on for too long and the amazement soon fades and as the numbers decrease, you begin to hope it reaches a conclusion soon, and sadly when the conclusion does come, you are too exhausted to really take it in. Miike presents a few too many scenes of heroism with Samurai going for the big finish in order to go out with dignity. It works for the first few times, but there are too many of them.
Still, you won’t find a better Samurai film this year and if you are in the mood for some really heavy going stuff, you will be greatly rewarded with a rather brilliant, honest and dazzling Samurai film, made by a director who just should not be this good so often with the amount of films he makes. Like 13 Assassins or not, there is no denying that Miike is an absolute legend and his passion for making movies alone should be reason enough to see this. Not an easy watch, but an eye opener and a good lesson in a subject that fascinates millions around the world. See it, get educated and get blown away!