Thursday, May 10, 2012

13 Assassins

Directed by Takashi Miike.
2010. Not Rated 141 minutes.
Kôji Yashuko
Gorô Inagaki
Takayuki Yamada
Mikijiro Hira
Masachika Ichimura
Hiroki Matsukata
Ikki Sawamura
Arata Furuta
Tsuyoshi Ihara
Masataka Kubota

There’s been peace for quite some time in 19th century Japan. However, the looming promotion of Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) threatens to bring back “the age of war”. He’s a member of nobility about to ascend into greater power by virtue of the family he belongs to. Unfortunately, he’s also a homicidal psychopath making victims of peasants all across the land. To stop his reign of terror, Sir Doi (Hira) hires Shinzaemon Shimada (Yakusho), a samurai, to assassinate Lord Naritsugu. Since the lord is well guarded at all times, Shimada recruits a number of other samurai to help until their numbers reach 13. Even so, they face long odds as the lord routinely travels with about 70 men defending his person. Our heroes have their work cut out for them and they’re more than willing to die for the cause.

Director Takashi Miike is known for going over the top, often at a relentless pace. He usually offers us a string of delightfully disgusting visuals. 13 Assassins does this, but in much different manner than he normally goes about things. The storytelling is wonderfully patient for first two acts then completely goes for broke during a third act solely consisting of an extended battle scene.

Early on, we meet and learn a bit about our principles. We watch Shimada go through the recruitment process. We also meet Hanbei (Ichimura), a samurai who is head of security for Lord Naritsugu and no less willing to die to do his job. He gets wind of the assassination attempt and fills us in on how great a warrior Shimada is. One of the great samurai codes is firmly established: whether one lives or dies, he must do so honorably and in complete loyalty to those he serves. During this portion of the movie we’re intrigued but little happens in the way of action. Most of what does cements in our minds that Lord Naritsugu is thoroughly and irredeemably evil. The things he does to those powerless to stop him are beyond appalling. To tell you that you will hate him is understating things by quite a bit.

The second act consists of strategizing. The good guys devise a plan to track and trap the lord. The bad guys try to anticipate what’s coming and make countermoves. Back and forth the advantage swings. It’s an interesting chess match that comes oh so close to wearing out its welcome. We can feel the outburst of action coming but Miike holds off as long as can. Just Every time it seems confrontation can no longer be avoided something causes a delay. The assassins themselves can barely take it. Like us, they’re itching for battle. They have a job to do, if only Shimada will let them do it.

As if sensing how close the audience is to restlessness, Miike finally brings us to the tipping point: that moment when a violent showdown is not only inevitable but imminent. Even though the bad guys numbers have almost tripled, our heroes have no choice but to spring into action. Simply put, all hell breaks loose. By hell I mean roughly 45 uninterrupted minutes of what we came for: samurai action. It’s an ambitious decision to put almost all of your action at the end of the film. Here, it pays major dividends. That’s because even though we came for the swordplay, we stay because of the characters, their strict code of ethics, the game of hide and seek the sides play with each other and of course, we really hate Lord Naritsugu. We’re earnestly rooting for our heroes.

13 Assassins has been compared to Seven Samurai. Indeed, it was inspired by the classic and some have even called it a remake. Some of the personalities of the good guys feel as if they were taken directly from Kurosawa’s film and the style is reminiscent of it, as well. Like SS, most of the action is backloaded to the latter portions of the film. Though it’s not quite as patient as SS which stretches to well over three hours, 13 Assassins is a very restrained effort more fit for today’s audiences shaving more than 60 minutes off of the former’s runtime. It’s remarkable that it comes from Miike, a director not known for self-control. Holding back the action and giving us plenty more intriguing things in its place draws us in is an ambitious decision that pays off. When we finally get to the battle, it’s made so much better by the fact that we actually care who wins.

MY SCORE: 9/10

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