The wicked mind of Takashi Miike has brought movie lovers a wide array of twisted films, most notably his 1999 film Audition, which is a personal favorite of mine. Upon hearing that he had signed on to direct a remake of a sixties samurai film was a cause for celebration and was a film I greatly anticipated viewing. I had, unlike many people in the United States, the pleasure of viewing the grand piece of cinema on 35 mm, which only helped to make the already brilliant film that much more amazing. It is a film, in which those familiar with the expansive oeuvre of Miike, will instantly realize the directors maturity. While his earlier films such as Audition and Ichi the Killer are brilliant, it is obvious that the, then young, director relied heavily on violent images for shock and awe. 13 Assassins certainly has its fair share of grotesque and hard to view imagery, however, Miike has clearly learned to moderate the imagery and help it to advance the narrative, as well as cause audiences severe discomfort. With his newest work, Miike is beginning to mirror his contemporary Michael Haneke. As a samurai film, 13 Assassins is true to the tradition, and has all the poetics, action and bad ass characters one would come to expect from the genre. It is expertly shot, mixing stagnant symmetrical camera work, with experimental handheld action angles to create a viewing experience that is truly unique and incredibly engaging. To put it bluntly, several Hollywood directors could use a lesson on making action films via Miike.
13 Assassins, as the title suggests, follows a group of samurai who have been assigned the task of assassinating a corrupt political leader named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) who has become considerably infamous for his psychotic fascination with torturing and often killing the people under his jurisdiction. Given his unquestioned place of power, those working below him struggle to find a way to undermine him one individual Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hiro), particularly loathes Naritsugu for his aggressive and evil actions. This rage leads him to hire an aging samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to take upon the task of killing him. Realizing it is likely his only chance to actually engage in the samurai code, Shinzaemon stoically accepts the job and proceeds to gather a group of samurai's to join in the assassination. In traditional samurai film fashion, the group consists of a varied group of samurais including among others a silent lone wolf, two humor inclined bomb experts, an aging spear master, a rebellious youth who is unsure about the ethics of samurai ways. At one point in their travels, the group even recruit the help of a boar hunter, who despite being a samurai proves to be very adept at beating the crap out of people with sacks of rocks. After some effort and careful planning the group of thirteen warriors, take command of a village and use it as a mousetrap for the soon to arrive Lord Naritsugu. Even after realizing the dangers of entering the town, Lord Naritsugu faces the attack head on seeing it as more a game of chess in which he can throw hundreds of soldiers at with little concern for the value of life. Over an epic battle scene, the group of samurai slowly dwindles leaving only Shinzaemon and the rebellious youth to fight Naritsugu. Realizing it is Shinzaemon's battle the youth steps aside and watches as the aged samurai makes rather quick work of the pretentious Naritsugu. Upon being stabbed Naritsugu whines in distress as he had up until that point only dealt pain. Indifferent to his pain Shinzaemon kills Nartisugu, but passes out from his own wound, only to die momentarily. The people left standing are the rebelious youth, and by some miracle the hunter. The two go their separate ways, as the film closes with a note from Miike telling viewers that the system allowing such rulers to go into power would be abolished only decades later, suggesting the equal, if not greater power of politics to prevent corruption of such dire forms to ever take power again within Japan.
Keeping such a closing commentary in mind, it is clear that Miike's film is considerably political. It adheres to the old notion that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but adds the twist of the truly dangerous problems of such possessors of power being by all definitions insane. The Lord Naritsugu, depicted within 13 Assasins is a historical character, although it is obvious that Miike took poetic license when depicting how truly cruel the person acted. However, it is not unfair to compare the actions of such a person with the atrocities that were occurring in 2010 and are in some tragic cases still occurring within much of the world. One only needs to look up Sudan in the news, or read about the problems happening in The Congo, barring the ridiculous outpouring of "support" from Invisible Children, to see that such acts of violence do occur. We as a privileged Western power have the fortunate ability to completely ignore such happenings, yet their existence is nonetheless there. A film like 13 Assassins reminds viewers of such facts and that like the seppuku committed in the films opening that it is only until someone of high power gets hurt or dies that we remotely begin to care. Miike's film also reminds people that action is necessary, and that sometimes the action requires a small amount of well-reasoned actors, as opposed to a large number of people half-attempting to solve the problem, again an organization like Invisible Children comes to mind. In essence, Miike's film demands action against atrocity, however, he suggests that the action enacted should consider the importance of quality over quantity.
Miike's film is a thing of violent beauty and a must see, thankfully it is available on Watch Instantly, at the moment, and is well worth spending over two hours to watch.