Film Review: “13 Assassins” — A Blood-soaked Homage to Swordplay of Yesteryear

“13 Assassins” is an affectionate salute to old-fashioned swordplay films, just as occasionally artful as it needs to be, and ultimately, it’s a highly-satisfying romp through and through. Is there really anything wrong with that?

13 Assassins, directed by Takashi Miike. At Kendall Square Cinema, and other New England cinemas.

By Taylor Adams

13 ASSASSINS -- A clever and ultra-violent homage to classic samurai films.

Confronted with is fearsome mission early in Takashi Miike’s blood-soaked 13 Assassins, venerable samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) responds to his intimation of near-certain death with the simple elegance of his duty-bound warrior code. “I shall accomplish your task,” he says, “with magnificence.”

An ultra-violent homage to Japanese swordplay films of the past, the film accomplishes its affectionate mission with this same magnificence: it also racks up a body count higher than any of its influences without missing a beat. Genre fans will find 13 Assassins a triumph; those disinterested in copious sword-slashing and blood-splashing (or those with weak stomachs) may want to sit this battle out.

The setup is simple: unambiguously evil Lord Naritsugo (Gorô Inagaki) — we are shown several of his graphic and appalling transgressions — is to be appointed a senior adviser to his brother, the Shogun. Obviously, this will end in disaster for the people of Japan, and obviously, a super-skilled team of swordsmen must be assembled to assassinate the royal misanthrope as he travels from the capital of Edo towards the safety of his clan’s home territory.

A troupe of swordsmen is given cursory introductions: There’s Shimada, the fearless leader, joined by his gambling younger cousin Shinrouko (Takayuki Yamada), the exquisitely deadly swordsman Hirayama (Tsuyoshi Ihara), and a comprehensive sampling of other samurai-movie types to fill out the admirable and doomed team of good guys. At Naritsugo’s side is Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), a former classmate (and obvious cinematic foil) of Shimada’s whose conflicting ideas (duty is to one’s master over the greater good, or something) occasionally push the film towards historical/philosophical commentary.

But the meditations never go very far, because all of the talk is clearly just a setup for a climactic battle pitching the honorable few against the nefarious many in a booby-trapped village where the 12 samurai — and one comic relief bandit-type (Yûsuke Iseya) — have chosen to make their stand.

Director Takashi Miike stages an awe-inspiring bloodbath.

The ensuing bloodbath, occupying almost the entire latter hour of the film’s running time, is as awe-inspiring as it is full of carnage and destruction. Each swordfight, brawl, dynamite explosion, or decapitation is followed by another intricate, devilishly clever set piece — including one where Hirayama fends off dozens of hapless swordsmen by continuously grabbing from a forest-like assortment of pre-planted blades. Fans of stylized swordplay absurdity will not be disappointed.

The battle instantly qualifies the film to stand beside other such classic climactic sequences in ‘60s swordplay flicks like Harakiri or The Sword of Doom, and the obvious influence of such films is a welcome nostalgic feeling throughout 13 Assassins (I suggest that those who end up enjoying Miike’s film should seek these older movies out.) In fact, 13 Assassins itself is a remake of a 1963 film of the same name.

Of course, the obvious comparison is to Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai — where a small group similarly stands against a much greater force in a small village.

Iseya’s bandit Koyata is humorously reminiscent of Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune’s faux-samurai in that film, and Yakusho’s Shimada fights with a paradoxically humble swagger that evokes another celebrated Mifune performance in Red Beard. And while these older films proffer deeper thematic preoccupations that 13 Assassins lacks, It would be a crime to dismiss Miike’s film as superficial or thoughtless.

Yes, there is enough death and mayhem in 13 Assassins to rival (and surpass) many a Hollywood action epic, but the director’s clever verve keeps the action interesting and fun because of his Dada-inflected flair.

Director Takeshi Miike -- his films occupy a uniquely strange place somewhere between pop and art-house.

Miike is an extremely prolific director whose work has spanned many genres. While he is most known internationally for graphic gangster and horror genre fare like Ichi the Killer and Audition, he has always inhabited a uniquely strange space somewhere between pop and art-house. For example, he directed both the series of Dead or Alive video game movies and the truly creepy and unclassifiable Gozu.

His penchant for the surreal is rather subdued in this latest effort, but is still occasionally apparent: in characters who ridiculously cheat death, the use of a little too much blood here or there, and in the horrific sight of a writhing, limbless victim of Lord Naritsugo.

Still, by playing things relatively straight, Miike focuses on the one true draw and strength of this straightforward film: skillfully shot, highly entertaining sword battles showcasing virtuosic fight choreography. Little else matters, and the rest of the film and its plot function mostly as a vehicle to bring about this satisfying conclusion.

“But doesn’t the film,” a perceptive viewer may ask, “co-opt itself by glorifying the values of the samurai code while also demonizing that of the shogunate they serve? Isn’t it all just violent sword fetishism anyway?” Sorry, genre fans won’t hear the question over the sound of someone’s intestines slurping onto the ground, an arrow whistling into a chest, or a head being lopped off.

And why should they? I don’t mean to be glib, but 13 Assassins really isn’t about the shifting dynamics of post-feudal Japanese society. Though it shares a key plot element with The Seven Samurai, neither is it an examination of the subtleties of honorable action or the samurai code.

It’s about razor-sharp katanas and (less so) the men who wield them — blood, steel, death, mayhem, and the sheer unbelievable spectacle of witnessing a few warriors defy absurd odds in pursuit of duty and the simple, bittersweet triumph of good over evil.

It’s an affectionate salute to old-fashioned swordplay films, just as occasionally artful as it needs to be, and ultimately, it’s a highly-satisfying romp through and through. Is there really anything wrong with that?

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